As many Seniors pack up and prepare to leave Graceland this week, two beloved Graceland professors are doing the same. After spending years as both students and professors at Graceland, Dr. Robert Mesle and Dr. Barbara Hiles Mesle prepare to retire from teaching. Barbara and Bob share a Graceland love story. Bob says, “She was the first girl I asked out at Graceland.” They met in Barbara Higdon’s Honors English class, and got married after their sophomore year.
Barbara says, “We had the house system, fabulous faculty, and good friends. All of the things that are still what’s best about Graceland.” However, the Graceland that Bob and Barbara attended as students was different from the one students know now. For example, women (but not men) had curfews, called “hours.” Barbara says, “Women had to be in at ten-o-clock on weeknights and midnight on weekends. If you were late, you got ‘late minutes’- something I received once for doing my laundry in the basement of Walker Hall a few minutes late. It was very strange.” Bob even describes how a friend tried to move the hands of the clock back to make hours last a bit longer! Furthermore, Barbara recalls how Barbara Higdon was the first female faculty member to wear pants! Bob and Barbara saw several other beginnings- the first official student dance in 1969, and the building of the Closson gym during their sophomore year. To Bob’s delight, the varsity volleyball team was just getting started as well. The Vietnam war was in full swing, and one classmate from Chicago was the first person Barbara ever knew to be in an interracial dating couple. The pair didn’t know anyone at the college who was gay, and 82% of the Graceland population was affiliated with the RLDS church, what we now call Community of Christ.
After graduation, the couple left Lamoni for Chicago to complete their Master’s at the University of Chicago. Bob was a full-time student while Barbara taught at a high school. After Bob finished his PhD at Northwestern, the two lived in Independence, MO where Bob worked for the church. In 1980, they moved back to Lamoni, describing the community as the reason they wanted to return.
Back on campus, Bob and Barbara would be the driving force for many changes. With the help of Barbara Higdon, Bob began the Graceland Honors Program. However, one change Bob is proud of most is initiating the legislation to bring about gay rights on campus. Bob says, “We worked really hard to persuade people that we needed sexual orientation in our nondiscrimination policy. It took us a few years. This was hard for a lot of people.” Barbara says, “We’ve both spent a lot of time and energy. A big reason for leading this change was my brother, Jeff, a gay man who later died of AIDS. He is a really inspiring person, and we are really proud to have made this impact on campus.” At about the same time, Andrei Dzhunkovsty, a Russian Honors student, started the first Gay-Straight Alliance club, which Bob proudly sponsored. Bob and Barbara’s efforts made a lasting impact. Just this year, the Social Equality Alliance held a “Coming Out” party. Barbara says, “When I was at [the Coming Out party], it was so exciting for me to see that it was such a happy and joyous event.
Bob and Barbara are confident they are leaving Graceland in good hands. Barbara says, “We feel really excited about the young colleagues. They have a strong community, what we had when we were younger professors here. We’re very excited that the same thing that held us to Graceland is re-emerging. It’s contagious. We all have fun together.” Another aspect of Graceland they appreciate is the number of international students. “We have both been blessed and thrilled by all of the international students,” Barbara says. “One day, I went out in the hallway in Briggs and no one was speaking English. I got the biggest smile! Who would believe that could be possible in Lamoni?”
The biggest job the Mesles face during retirement is being grandparents. They want to continue learning and travelling. Bob says, “I plan to be more like Barbara- more compassionate and people-oriented. I’ll also play a lot of volleyball!” Although their life story sounds picture-perfect, Barbara says, “I don’t have a perfect life. I’ve been very blessed, but I don’t think anyone has a perfect life. We work very hard to create the life we have. You do have to take care of Love. Always. Everyday. But we are still crazy in love with each other.”
The Mesles leave this advice for graduating seniors: “Be aware of how little you know. The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. On the day you graduate, if you do not have a profound sense of your own ignorance, you have to give your diploma back.”
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