Fifty years in the classroom … that’s quite an accomplishment.
“Is it?” asks Dr. Conrad Gubera, professor of sociology. “I guess I’m undervaluing it, or taking it for granted. You get up, do what you’re supposed to do and then go home every day. The days blend into weeks, the weeks into months, months into semesters, semesters into years and years into decades. To me, you just do it.
“An accomplishment … well, I can say that I still get the same thrill I did when I first started teaching.”
Gubera, a professor of sociology, is marking his 50th year of teaching at Missouri Southern, having come to the new campus in 1967 as it was getting off the ground. Engage him in conversation about his time at Southern, and it’s easy to get caught up in the sweep of history – both on campus and nationally.
Below are excerpts from a recent conversation with Dr. Gubera.
A graduate of Pierce City High School, he studied at Joplin Junior College before completing his bachelor’s degree in 1962. It was while teaching at Mount Vernon High School that he was first approached by Dr. Leon Billingsly about a teaching position at Joplin Junior College, which was on the verge of transitioning into a four-year program on a new campus.
“I first met Dr. Billingsly during a pickup basketball game in Mount Vernon. He took his shoes off, loosened his tie and took off his coat. I decked him the first time, and I could tell he didn’t like it. He was very competitive. I didn’t see the light of day from there on out.”
Gubera taught history and sociology from 1963-65 at Joplin High School and then took Billingsly up on his offer to help launch the sociology program at Missouri Southern.
“The ‘60s were such an exciting time, when we were beginning to ask some real questions. Sociology was the No. 1 course on college campuses in the mid-‘60s. We looked at other college catalogs to see the courses they offered in sociology. We wanted to offer courses that could transfer to our sister schools in the state and build our accreditation on that.”
“As president, Dr. Billingsly could make a decision and was really good at handling people. He was able to get things done with the Missouri Legislature … he had an informal relationship with them that I’ve never seen another college president have.”
“There was a consciousness among students in the 1960s that we don’t quite have today. We first came onto this campus right before (the Tet Offensive) in 1968. At the heart of 1967 was the draft. They didn’t have a lottery yet, so there were students trying to do anything they could to keep out of the draft.”
“Everybody remembered where they were when they heard about Kennedy’s assassination. We were still fresh in the memory of that, then there were the two assassinations in ’68 (Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.), and certainly that awful Democratic National Convention in 1968.”
“The war was still driving everything. Students on campus did a bit of demonstrating. We held a public forum here to debate the war, with two of the youngest professors on campus (including myself) and two of the oldest.”
“In 1975, there were rumors that the college would be closed and be made into a state prison. That was right before the state system took over and we began to rise from the ashes, so to speak.”
Following the death of Dr. Billingsly in 1978, Dr. Donald C. Darnton became Missouri Southern’s president. After his three-year tenure, the campus would look closer to home when it came time to select a new president – Dr. Julio León, a faculty member from the School of Business who later served as its dean.
“(León) was fun, he was inventive and creative and he was listening. We’d grown up with him, and he ran a damn good ship. Everyone wanted him to succeed and he did a great job. He and I didn’t agree on some things, but he always supported me.”
By the end of the 1980s, many on campus had started looking outward to gain an international perspective, says Gubera.
“I got my first international grant to go to Jordan and Egypt. We started a summer in Oxford program that lasted for about a dozen years. In 1991, I visited the Palestinian territories, Jerusalem, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.”
“In 1990, the Social Sciences Department had a colloquial on the fall of the Berlin Wall. In ’91, there was another on the death of the Soviet Union, and in ’93 it was about the peace accords between Israel and Palestine. Dr. León watched those very carefully and the coverage that they received.
“The state of Missouri had announced that each college should have a specialized mission, and Dr. León announced that ours would be global. He thought it was a really good match for our campus and would give us distinction. The International Piano Competition … looking back, that was a marvelous thing. It was outstanding for this campus to have that kind of recognition.”
While students in the 1960s were deeply affected by Kennedy’s assassination, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, rocked the world view of a new generation.
“9/11 was almost like ‘Star Wars.’ The massiveness of it was incomprehensible. How can you imagine those buildings falling? If you stood beside them and looked up as I did any number of times, you think, ‘They have to be one of the wonders of the world.’ And then they collapse in a day? When students talk about it, it’s like they’re talking about a giant disaster film.”
In December 2016, Gubera was invited to give the commencement address for Missouri Southern’s 67th graduating class. In his speech, he touched on his years of teaching, memorable faculty members, his pride in having all four of his children attend MSSU and his hopes for them in the future.
Looking back, Gubera says he’s pleased with how the university has developed over the years.
“In our first 10 years, we played it pretty fast and loose as we piecemealed the program together. Our students are far better than they were then, and our classes are far better now.
“We have some of the very best students I’ve seen in my entire life at Missouri Southern today. I just got out of my Sociology of Death and Dying class. I got one sentence on the board and the students were already elaborating on that and taking it to new levels.”
And then comes the inevitable question … What next?
“I’m beginning to think about retirement. I set my goal to retire with the first 50-year class here, in 2019. I think that would be a good time to exit.”