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BYU’s Susan Easton Black revels in teaching

SHARE BYU’s Susan Easton Black revels in teaching

PROVO, Utah —Susan Easton Black, BYU's prolific teacher, author and lecturer of LDS Church history, has a history of her own that sounds like something borrowed from Oprah.Before coming to BYU, the former debutante was divorced and financially marooned in an unheated mountain cabin with three small children for several years. That seems like another lifetime ago. Here she is now, a self-made woman, the first female professor to crack BYU's religion department, queen of the BYU classroom and champion of LDS history, not to mention the pingpong table.What students and other faculty members all want to know is this: How does she teach three classes twice a week — nearly six hours in all — on the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — and never look at a note?Observers marvel. She just opens her mouth and she's off and talking and doesn't come up for air for almost an hour. She doesn't use PowerPoint and rarely even the blackboard. It's just Susan Easton Black and her brain."Students paid a lot for tuition," she says. "I don't want to share my time with technology, and I'm not going to tell you stuff you can learn in the textbook. I'm going to cover the details, and you better leave class with an arthritic grip because you're taking notes."This tiny grandmother, whose energy, enthusiasm and booming laugh belie her 64 years, rattles off histories and dates and facts and narratives as if she wrote the book on the subject — which she has. The only time she pauses is to ask, "Are you still with me?"She teaches 700 students in her classes. Many of them audit the class, which means they get no credit or grade; they come simply to hear Black's orations. There aren't enough seats for them all, so they sit on the floor and in the aisles. Even other professors attend the class (including a biology teacher this semester). It's not unusual that students leave class with six to eight pages of notes."Her classes are just packed," says fellow BYU religion professor Mary Jane Woodger. "Students throng to her. Sitting at her feet is like being there. And she walks into class without a note. I sure can't do that."At the end of each semester, students are asked to rate teachers. Black averages a score in the 7.7 to 7.9 range, with 8 being perfect. In 2000, she was presented BYU's highest honor — the Karl G. Maeser Distinguished Faculty Lecturer award — making her the first female winner ever.Ask another BYU religion professor, Randy Bott, about Black, and this is what he says: "Wow. She's probably the best teacher on the BYU campus. She's a natural draw. She makes it come to life. She has you crying one minute and laughing the next."Woodger calls Black "almost a legend in her own time."Black's oratory skills and knowledge of her subject have transcended the classroom. She is bombarded with requests for speaking engagements, giving some 200 of them a year. She has lectured in all 50 states, and has served as a guide for church cruises and tours in the Mediterranean, Jerusalem, Alaska, Caribbean and Baltics.The real question is when does this woman sleep? She has written or co-written more than 60 books and compiled statistical data that filled another 79 volumes. She found herself doing so much research in Nauvoo, Ill. — one of the early church's home bases — that she bought a house there."I am immersed in my subject — isn't it obvious? — and I love those students," says Black.

Black grew up in a wealthy LDS family in Long Beach, Calif., where life revolved round the disparate worlds of church and high society. Her father, Karl Ward, a Chicago law school graduate, was a bishop and high councilor as well as a successful businessman with interests in furniture stores and real estate. Her mother, Dolly, was involved in philanthropy while managing the home with help from a cook and two maids.Black led the debutante's life. She was instructed in the art of etiquette right down to a curtsy. She learned how to set a proper table. She learned manners, dancing, makeup and other social graces. She attended the debutante ball, an event in which young women are introduced to eligible bachelors and their families of a select upper class.An outgoing, popular student who was active in clubs and student government, Black balked at the notion of haves and have-nots, as she puts it. She rebelled in subtle ways. She refused to curtsy at the ball, as was the practice, and she took a job in a bakery so she would fit in with other kids her age."It was the maddest my mother ever got," Black recalls. "She was appalled that I would take a job."She matriculated to BYU, where she was voted Freshman of the Year, dabbled in modeling, participated in student government and took a degree in political science.Her brothers were given part of the family business when they came of age; Black was given a sewing machine and told to marry well. She met and married a future lawyer and fellow Californian at BYU who was "tall, dark and handsome and lived on top of the hill in Whittier."The marriage fell apart after six years, she says. She had two children and was pregnant with a third child when the couple split. She was ill-prepared for this turn of events."I had thought I was going to have my mother's life," she says.Unable to afford housing, she moved her three sons into her family's cabin set at 7,000 feet in the mountains and lived there three years."It had no central heating," she recalls. "We had to rely on the fireplace for heat. There was a lot of snow there in the winter."Refusing her father's offer to buy her a dress shop, she sought modeling work in Hollywood. She wrote scripts for fashion shows instead. "If you can write about polka dots and plaids in the same sentence, you can write about anything," she says.After telling her friend Janice Steimeier that she couldn't afford school and a baby sitter, Steimeier volunteered to do the baby-sitting. Black took a master's degree in counseling from San Bernardino State and won a scholarship to BYU, where she earned a doctorate in educational psychology with a minor in church history. Years later, when she was awarded the Maeser award, she invited Steimeier to the stage. "When you educate a mother, you educate a family," said Black, noting that her three sons, Brian, John and Todd, all earned doctorates, two in law and one in engineering.Black began teaching at BYU in 1978 while working on her doctoral dissertation — family finance in the college of family living and a church history class on the side. Unbeknownst to her, Dallin H. Oaks, BYU's president at the time, noticed there wasn't a woman on the faculty of the school's religion department and decided to do something about it. In 1980, he made Black the first female faculty member in the 107-year history of the department.No one was more surprised than Black — "I didn't fit the type," she says. She was divorced and dating in her early 30s, with young children at home. For 20 years, she remained the only woman in the religion department. She struggled to fit in in a male-dominated department that was overseen by a church that strongly discourages male-female social connections outside of marriage and counsels against even the appearance of wrongdoing.She was careful to avoid sitting by the same man during department meetings. When faculty members drove to meetings, she drove separately. Other faculty members could work one-on-one over lunch; she couldn't. She had to walk a fine line somewhere between a friendly working relationship and one that might appear too friendly. Her marital status only exacerbated the precariousness of her situation."It was awkward," she says.Black at least has some company now. Four of BYU's 73 religion teachers are women. "Without a doubt," Woodger notes, "Susan blazed the trail for those of us who followed. She was the right woman at the right time. I would not be here without her."

Harvey Black wasn't exactly what Susan was looking for in a prospective husband. She was looking for tall, dark and handsome — "someone like my first husband, only nice," she says. Black, a professor of clinical psychology at BYU, pulled up to her house for their first date in a Dodge Dart with a bike rack. He was bald, gray, a grandfather and 19 years her senior.Susan had been single for 14 years and felt like a fish out of water on the singles scene. If her three children didn't frighten potential suitors, there was that other thing. "Want the biggest turnoff ever? Tell 'em you're a religion teacher," she says. She heard Harvey speak at a church singles function."Susan made the mistake of coming up and saying she liked my talk, and I wouldn't leave her alone after that," recalls Harvey, whose first wife had died a year earlier after a long struggle with cancer.Harvey and Susan hit it off. They shared their love of books, genealogy, research and writing. "And he adored me," she says. "It's never changed. ... He's a rock. He's provided the most joy in my whole life."Harvey, now 83, and Susan have been married 23 years. He's quiet and scholarly; she's noisy and scholarly. They share a home just a couple of blocks from the BYU campus. He works in his office in the front of the house, she works in her combination office/library in the back of the house. Like his wife, Harvey has authored several books."He is the consummate scholar," says his wife.When she isn't teaching, Susan is writing. Shortly after she was hired by the religion department, she accepted an assignment to document church members during Joseph Smith's lifetime, mostly because no one else volunteered for such a dull task. After poring over records in Nauvoo, she produced 50 volumes of names and data, some 48,000 pages in all. She produced another 29 volumes of similarly esoteric data (including passenger lists from Copenhagen to America).Then she began actually writing books, and she's never stopped. She has authored 23 books (with several more in the works), 30 encyclopedia articles, 46 journal articles, forwards for three books, four study manuals, presented 81 major papers at various conferences, contributed chapters for 39 books, edited 11 books, and served as a consultant for various films and radio/TV programs. Her books include biographies on Emma Smith, Joseph Smith, Jesus Christ and Brigham Young, as well as coffee-table books on Temple Square, the Salt Lake Olympics, Nauvoo, Jesus Christ and several collaborative books with painter Liz Lemon Swindle on Jesus Christ. She also is participating in a series of TV programs on Joseph Smith, with Black walking viewers through the streets of Kirtland, Palmyra, Vermont, Nauvoo and other church history sites."It's like the walls of my classroom came down," she says. "The visual stuff will resonate with some, while for others it might be the database stuff or the biographies or the TV shows."For Black, the writing process is exhaustive. She reads everything she can find on a subject, circling items that provide new insights, then her secretary types the circled items. "If I haven't learned anything new from the last three to five books I read, then I'm ready to write," she says. She spreads the typed notes on a large table in her home office and begins cutting them up with scissors and placing each item under various subheads, as if she is assembling a puzzle. After taping them together, she gives the papers to her secretary to type the information in chronological order."I write the book all the way through," she says. "It's bad, but at least I know where I'm going. Then I polish it a zillion times." She gives the manuscript to an editor and an expert in that field. "If they come back and say it's excellent, I never use them again," she says.Black sleeps only a few hours a night, sometimes popping out of bed in the middle of the night to jot book ideas on paper. "If there's one virtue she doesn't have, it's patience," says her husband."If I'm not in class, I'm doing something related to writing," she says. "I can't imagine a day without writing. It's a hobby. There's an old saying — you don't know what you think till you've written about it."It's not all work and no play. She's always looking for another sucker to play in ping pong, a game she took up as a kid. She baits students, family members and neighbors into evening games at her home. "If you think you can beat me, give me a call," she tells them. She won the Nu Skin Senior Games a couple of years ago."My sons are pretty much the ones I can't beat," she says.Notwithstanding, her vocation is her real hobby. She revels in teaching in all its many forms — books, classrooms, church houses, firesides, tours, magazines, films.Says Black, "The hardest time for me is summer when I'm not in school and I'm wondering, where are those students."

E-mail: drob@desnews.com