Institutional Memory Dr. Conrad Gubera Reflects on 50 Years at Missouri Southern

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.

The ‘60s
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 ‘70s
“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.”

The ‘80s
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.”

The ‘90s
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.”

The 2000s
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.”

Featured Spring 2017

Alumni Gather for Joplin Junior College Reunion

More than 150 former students and guests gathered for the first-ever Joplin Junior College reunion, held March 31.

The reunion kicked off with visitors becoming reacquainted with what is now Memorial Education Center at 310 W. Eighth St., before a historical presentation by Brad Belk, director of the Joplin Museum Complex.

JJC reunion Spring 2017

Initially housed in 1937 at that location (then Joplin High School), the junior college found a new home at Fourth Street and Byers Avenue in 1938. It would later move back to its original building. The college remained at that location until transitioning into a four-year school in 1967 at the former Mission Hills estate (now Missouri Southern State University).

Reunion activities resumed at the Scottish Rite Cathedral, with a social hour, dinner and special program.

“The Joplin Junior College reunion was a terrific opportunity to gather our alumni from our first graduating class of 1939 to the late 1960s,” said Lee Elliff Pound, Director of Alumni and Constituent Relations. “Everyone had a great time reminiscing and we had a wonderful response to this event. We look forward to having more reunions for this special group of alumni.”

Featured Spring 2017

First Yours to Lose Cohort Accepted

Twenty-six incoming freshmen from across the midwest have been accepted into the Yours to Lose – Advanced Medical School Acceptance Program, which will launch its first class at the start of the Fall 2017 semester.

An exclusive partnership with the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences, the program allows a cohort of Missouri Southern students to be admitted to KCU’s new Joplin medical school at the same time they are accepted to MSSU. As pre-med students, they will obtain their bachelor’s degree in biology during an accelerated, three-year course of study before seamlessly transitioning into their first year of medical school. The program will not require them to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).

“This program adds a fantastic dimension to what Missouri Southern offers to these future physicians,” said Dr. Richard Schooler, Dean of the School of Health Sciences at MSSU. “We feel that this program, along with other tracks, makes Missouri Southern the place to come for pre-med education.”

Prospective members of the cohort visited campus this spring for interviews and to learn more about Missouri Southern.

“The intent of this program was to do something special to attract high-performing students who wanted to go into medicine to Missouri Southern,” said Schooler. “What’s unique about this program is it’s designed around that student … who, from Day 1, know they’re going on to medical school.”

Scholarships for students in the Yours to Lose program received a boost in December, thanks to a generous donation from the Joplin Tomorrow corporation.

Formed following the devastating tornado of May 22, 2011, the non-profit was developed with the backing of Sen. John C. Danforth to accept donations and provide low-interest loans to businesses recovering from the disaster. Approximately $1.6 million was raised from donors across the country, and 24 loans were approved by the Joplin Tomorrow Board of Directors for businesses to rebuild and expand.

With their work complete, the board voted to transfer its remaining $700,000 in assets to be used for scholarships for future medical students.

Featured School of Health Sciences Spring 2017

Snake, Rattle & Roll Meet Dr. David Penning – A National Expert on Scaly Species

The massive snake is estimated to have been dozens of feet long, and able to exert between 200 and 400 pounds of constriction pressure per square inch.

Be happy you weren’t around to take a stroll during the early Cenozoic Era. If it were to have gotten ahold of you … “You’re not going to make it,” says Dr. David Penning. “If you take what exists today and estimate what the Titanoboa could do, it would be the equivalent of an Abrams tank sitting on your chest.”

Penning, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology and Environmental Health, recently lent his expertise in the snake world to “Secrets of the Dead: Graveyard of the Giant Beasts,” which aired on PBS in November. Penning and other researchers focused on reconstructing the Titanoboa cerrejonensis and how it would have behaved.

“It’s an extinct snake from about 65 million years ago,” says Penning. “The question was, ‘How does that animal work?’ There’s nothing that size today … not even close. But we do have a range, which can help us predict what Titanoboa might have been able to do.”

Jaw pieces and other fossils helped researchers reconstruct the predator’s appearance, while Penning studied constriction pressure and high-speed striking behavior.

It’s not the first time the instructor – who joined the faculty at Missouri Southern in the fall of 2016 – has been tabbed to share his knowledge of snakes and other members of the reptile world. His interest in the subject stretches all the way back to his youth, growing up in Lawson, Mo.

“Honestly, when I was younger, I was a little scared of (snakes),” he says. “But I was intrigued by them. They don’t have arms, they don’t have legs, but they’re everywhere and they’re dominant predators. As a kid, I was really confused by that. “How do they crawl? How are they going faster than me? And how can I not catch them?”

That curiosity and interest in unraveling those mysteries continued through his undergraduate and master’s degree studies at the University of Central Missouri, and later during his doctoral research at the University of Louisiana.

Originally, his graduate studies were headed in a different direction. The pace, however, proved to be a bit slower than he would have liked.

“The initial plan for my master’s degree was to look at the way tortoises grow, and how they grow differently in captivity,” says Penning. “It turns out that doing a project on a slow-growing species in a time limited to two years is probably not the best way to do it.”

Still, he has four tortoises that he keeps as pets. He admits they’re not for everyone.

“They generally don’t make good pets for people who aren’t ‘allin,’” he says of the species, which can live upwards of 200 years.

“It’d be like a dog that is really high maintenance and will always be there. “They’ll go in my will, so hopefully my kids – when I have them – will really like tortoises.”

Snakes and other limbless reptiles remain his primary focus, as well as a subject of intense fascination.

“As far as movement, snakes externally look very simple,” says Penning. “They’re a tube with a head and a tail. But internally, they all have roughly 15,000 to 20,000 muscles. The complexity is absolutely crazy. They have about 200 to 250 vertebrae and two ribs on each. It’s the muscles pulling back and forth that allows them to move. They can use their belly scales as little shovels, allowing them to move, or they can push against things or sidewind.

“Engineers would love it if we could identify which muscles are active when they’re moving. They can’t model snake movement very well because they don’t know what parts are pulling where in the real thing.”

His studies have also focused on snake strikes and the misconceptions surrounding them.

“For about a century, all popular literature and a lot of scientific literature continued to say that rattlesnakes and vipers are the fast ones,” says Penning. “Myself, my Ph.D. advisor and an undergraduate student were studying common black rat snakes … just common, harmless snakes … and filming them striking.

“We compared them with cottonmouths and diamondback rattlesnakes. Harmless snakes strike just as fast. In hindsight, it’s a thing that’s obvious, but no one had tested it. They all have to eat. They all have to defend themselves. It makes sense.”

In addition to his research appearing in peer-reviewed and popular publications, he has been featured on “Prehistoric Megabeasts: Croc vs. Snake,” which debuted last fall on the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 and the Discovery Channel’s “Daily Planet” program. The Discovery Channel visited Penning again in March to film a segment regarding his dissertation studies of how snakes eat other snakes that may be competitors for the same prey.

Also in March, Penning and Brad Moon, an associate professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, published “How the Kingsnake Earned its Crown: Snake-Eating Snakes are Stronger than the Snakes They Eat” in The Journal of Experimental Biology. They measured constriction performance by 182 snakes from six species to determine why kingsnakes are able to generate higher constriction pressures.

While there are no boas or pythons to be found, Penning says the Southwest Missouri region has its share of snakes.

“There are black rat snakes, king snakes and bull snakes here,” he says. “There are a lot of native snakes that can constrict. I haven’t seen any yet, but there are a few different viper species around.”

Penning currently teaches biology courses for majors and nonmajors and eventually hopes to add herpetology and several other courses to the schedule.

“I already have three or four undergrads talking about doing research – venturing into turtles, bite force and all sorts of good stuff,” he says.

Recent Presentations

David Penning Snakes and turtle Spring 2017

Dr. David Penning gave two presentations at the eighth World Congress of Herpetology held in August 2016 in Hangzhou, China.

The presentations were “Hail to the King: Morphology and Performance of an Intraguild Predator and their Prey” and “The Scaling of Bite Force and Constriction Performance in Kingsnakes: Proximate Determinants and Correlated Performance.”

He also presented during the 29th meeting of the Missouri Herpetological Association in September 2016 at Bull Shoals Field Station near Kirbyville, Mo., and at the 43rd meeting of the Kansas Herpetological Society in November 2016 at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo.

Featured Spring 2017