When Emma Willerton crosses the stage during this December’s commencement ceremony, she’ll be receiving a trio of degrees for marketing, management and human resources.

Three is an impressive number to be sure, but there’s another that is equally important. Willerton will become the fourth generation in her family to earn a degree from Missouri Southern.

Her mother, Rikki Smith, graduated from then Missouri Southern State College in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in English.

Her grandmother, Elaine (Johnston) Smith, got her bachelor’s of science in education in 1980.

And her great-grandfather, Calvin W. Smith, got his associate’s degree from Joplin Junior College in 1940.

“It wasn’t a planned legacy kind of thing … it just happened,” says Willerton of the multi-generation family of Lions.

From JJC to Missouri Southern

Calvin Smith’s focus of study was on education, and would go on from JJC to obtain his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He taught mathematics at the junior-high level in Joplin, and later served as a vice-principal within the school district. After retiring, he taught in Kansas schools as well. He died in 2010.

“He was my husband’s father,” says Elaine Smith. “He was a very smart man, and knowledgeable in just about anything and everything.”

Rikki Smith remembers him as dedicated to staying on top of teaching methods within the classroom.

“When computers were first going into the high-school level, he was teaching himself how to use them so he could stay on top of that technology,” she says.

Elaine Smith began her collegiate journey in 1968, just a year after the opening of the new Missouri Southern College campus on the grounds of the former Mission Hills estate.

“There were only three buildings on the Oval at the time,” she says. “When I first started, I was a (physical education) major, so I spent a lot of time in Young Gymnasium.”

After becoming engaged and later having two children, Elaine left Missouri Southern for several years. When she returned, it was with a new focus on education. She received her bachelor of science degree in 1980 and taught middle school for a number of years in Joplin and Neosho.

“I worked a lot with at-risk students and also worked with the state’s Division of Youth Services, for students who were coming out of the juvenile court system,” she says.

Mother and daughter

Rikki Smith says one of her earliest childhood memories was watching her mother graduate from Missouri Southern.

“I remember being in the stands at (Fred G. Hughes) football stadium, sitting with my little sister and my dad, yelling for her as she walked across the stage.”

Rikki would follow in her mother’s footsteps, graduating in 1996 with a bachelor of arts degree in English and a minor in German.

“I had three professors who really taught me how to write – Dr. Dale Simpson, Dr. Henry Harder and Dr. Henry (Bud) Morgan,” she says.

Today, she works as an account manager for business development for Freeman Health System.

“I still use the things they taught me in my work today,” she says.

Before working for Freeman, Rikki was working for the service learning program at Missouri Southern in 2011. Following the May 22 tornado, she brought her young daughter Emma with her to work due to a lack of childcare options in Joplin.

“I would come use the computers and email my friends to see if they were OK,” says Emma, who also volunteered at the Red Cross shelter on campus to help sort toiletries and other donations.

When it came time to decide where she was going to go to college, Emma says Missouri Southern made the most sense.

“I could triple major here rather than just being a general business major at another school,” she says.

Emma, who has served as the public relations chair for the Omicron Delta Kappa honor society and worked in the University Relations & Marketing office as a student, says she has enjoyed her time as a fourth-generation Lion.

“I really like the atmosphere here … across the departments, you can always find a friendly face,” she says. “I can’t sing the praises higher for the people I’ve been taught by and worked with.”

When she graduates in December, her mother and grandmother will be there to cheer her on.

“For it to go from my grandfather to my daughter, it’s such a good tie to this place,” says Rikki. “It’s special.”

Elaine agrees, saying it’s unique to have yet another generation graduate from Missouri Southern. Emma playfully teases her grandmother for her matter-of-fact take.

“Grandma will cry when I graduate,” Emma says. “She cries at everything.”