Growing up in small town America is never easy. Rural Oklahoma life in the 20th century usually consisted of driving tractors, milking cows, baling and hauling hay, farming and scraping to get by most of the time. Theron and Jan Godwin, as most parents, wanted a better life for their children. To them, education was the solution.
“College was not an option,” said Wendell Godwin, who will assume the role of East Central University president on July 1. “All my early life, my parents would say, ‘You’re going to school.’ We were all very poor, but we didn’t know there was really a difference since all of my friends and I were in the same situation.”
Godwin grew up in Pauls Valley, attending high school and graduating in 1980.
He was the youngest of four boys in his family. His eldest brother, Jim, 20 years older, with Tracy and Dennis 17 and 11 years older, respectively.
“My parents were born in 1920 and 1924. They had high school diplomas, but it was essentially an eighth-grade education,” he said. “They went to a one-room schoolhouse in the 1930s. Life in a rural small town was just different.”
Godwin said his parents – especially his mom – really pushed for education.
“It was like church. If the doors were open, we were there whether it was Sunday morning, Sunday night or Wednesday night,” he said. “Just like church, attending school was not questioned.
“A higher education was so important to my parents because everyone they knew who had a better life, also had an education,” he said. “As I got older, I realized mom was referring to the more affluent people including doctors, lawyers and bankers.”
College Becomes Reality
All four brothers attended college; two also served in the Vietnam War.
“My oldest two brothers, Jim and Tracy, graduated from college. Tracy earned his degree at ECU,” he said. While his nearest brother, Dennis, also attended ECU, he was killed instantly
the summer before his senior year in a head-on collision with a drunk driver. Godwin was only 10 years old.
After graduating from Pauls Valley High School, he was offered a Presidential Leadership Grant at ECU.
“At the time, it was almost a full ride and was the deciding factor that brought me here,” he said. “That and my brother Tracy and his wife Vicki lived in Ada.
“I loved college,” he continued, “the best four years of my life.”
Godwin admits he had a hard transition as a first-generation student. When he first arrived at ECU, he thought he was really prepared since he was at the top of his class in high school.
“I suddenly realized I wasn’t prepared in the least,” he said. “High school and college were very different. I struggled that first semester with having to be independent and hold myself accountable.”
But he got involved as a student. He ran for student senate, where he was eventually elected president, and participated in the exchange student program his sophomore year. He studied at Westfield State College in Massachusetts, a university north of Springfield, west of Boston.
“That really opened my eyes to the world,” Godwin said. “As a country boy from Garvin County traveling to the big city, it really struck me how different the New England area was.”
Godwin toured Boston, New York City, Vermont, and New Hampshire.
“After seeing the bigger cities and seeing what was possible, I came back to ECU and decided I wanted to be a business major,” Godwin said.
Godwin returned to ECU with goals: he wanted to graduate in four years, graduate debt free, and have a job lined up before graduating college.
“Some of my friends were taking five or six years to complete their education. I couldn’t afford to be in school more than four since I had to pay my own way,” Godwin said.
As he approached graduation in 1984, some of his peers that graduated in 1983 hadn’t found jobs yet as the early 1980s was in a recession. Businesses were laying people off, “Ma Bell” was breaking up, and the business climate wasn’t very lucrative.
A Walk on the Corporate Side
Spring break of his senior year at ECU, Godwin was offered a job in north Texas.
Godwin moved to Denton, Texas, after graduation, then Dallas. He started in sales and worked his way up to sales management and was offered a promotion and relocation to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
“I’m single, I’m going to live in Fort Lauderdale – 20 miles from Miami – how can you turn it down?” Godwin said. After two years, he was promoted again and worked his way up the corporate ladder in Dallas. But after 12 years, the company reorganized, and Godwin found himself at another business. He worked his way up again, moving around to California, Houston, Tulsa, and Dallas, traveling nearly every day, and racking up his airline and hotel points, enjoying exciting vacations with his family.
“I’m blessed to have had a long career of 26 years with only two companies,” Godwin said. “I learned a lot, but it’s not conducive to family life.” He now had a wife and three sons of his own, who were growing up as he was having to miss their ball games and school activities.
“What matters most started to change,” he said. “Focus on my family became more important to me than making money, stock options, and all the perks of the corporate climate.”
Godwin’s last position in the corporate world was as executive vice president, a director level position, overseeing sales in 18 states in the central United States…and a reorganization of the company was on the horizon.
“In every reorganization, you get more responsibility and as it changes, the job gets more demanding,” Godwin said. “So, I stepped aside and reorganized my own job out.” He accepted a severance package that allowed him to not work for almost a year.
Change of Pace
“I became ‘Mr. Mom,’” he said. “I went to all the PTA events, coached sports and little league.”
Five months into that break from the corporate world, Godwin received a call that would change his life.
That call was from Dr. Gerald Williamson in February 2010, with an opportunity at ECU. “He knew I was looking for a career that I did not travel as much and have more time at home with my family,” Godwin said.
The opportunity was dean of ECU’s School of Business.
“I thought they were pranking me when they first called since I didn’t have any academic experience or a PhD,” Godwin said.
“But President John Hargrave and Dr. [Duane] Anderson sat at this table,” Godwin tapped the conference table in the empty presidential office, “and offered me the job as dean.
“I have loved every minute of it,” he continued. “You really get to make a difference in students’ lives. I love teaching the freshmen classes because I remember the day I was a new freshman at college. I remember the butterflies and looking around the room thinking, ‘I don’t know if I’m good enough.’
“You have to believe in yourself and we have to enforce that by telling students: ‘Yes. You are good enough,’ ‘You deserve to be here,’ and ‘Don’t look around and think you are not good enough.’”
Recently, fellow alumnus and Devon Energy Chief Accounting Officer Jeremy Humphers spoke to one of the classes Godwin teaches.
Humphers told the students “What you do in these four years of college will impact the quality of your life for the next 40 years.”
“That is very true as I have lived that,” Godwin said. “My time at ECU and the education I received has helped me through the years. In every location and each promotion, I was competing with graduates from the larger schools. I never felt I was at a disadvantage because I came from a smaller university or a smaller town. I always thought I had an advantage because of the quality of education at ECU, the small campus, and personal relationships, not the big lecture halls.
“Those things made ECU special to me and I want that experience for students attending ECU.”
Godwin also encourages his students to graduate debt free.
“It’s like having a car payment, but someone else is driving the car,” he said. “We reinforce with freshmen in financial literacy. It takes hard work, sometimes working two or three jobs just to continue. I tell students, ‘Hang in there. We’ll be here, and we’ll get you enrolled.’”
The 12 years since being named dean has gone by quickly, but with each year, Godwin finds success in his students’ successes. The students compete on the national level, travel to Africa to make a difference, intern by shadowing the CEO of a major company for a summer and explore current business climates and alumni’s successes. Godwin wants that for each ECU student.
Looking to the future
“High school friends are more surprised than anyone,” said Godwin, referring to the fact he earned the opportunity to even interview and be considered as president of a university.
“Being selected as president of ECU means a lot to me,” Godwin said. “This is my community, my town, my university. Two of my sons have graduated from ECU so I have a family of tigers at home.”
Through the hiring process, he knew he would either land the job as president or remain dean of the School of Business until retirement.
“I want this to be an amazing place to work,” he said. “Here, we have people that come to us for a short period of their life and they can boomerang out and have an amazing next 40 years.”
Godwin believes the teaching methods are what sets ECU apart from other universities. “I believe if education is in the same textbooks we all use, then the comparison comes down to the size of the class, the personal relationship with the professor, and the quality of the instructor,” he said. “I think ECU is easily the best at that across the state. Here, we have applied learning, not just textbooks and notes.
“These students and parents have a choice of where to go to school and I want them to pick here,” Godwin said. “My parents were right. Education can be life changing and it can make your life a lot better.”
His first job out of college was a testament to that.
“It was spring break when I received the job offer. Back then, before email, they sent my offer letter overnight to my home address. I was home for break and I had my mom open and read the letter. When she saw the amount, she was tearful and proud,” Godwin said.
“What you don’t understand is this is more than we make combined,” his mom, Jan, told him at the time.
“My first job out of college paid more than what my parents earned, combined,” Godwin emphasized.
“Education will pave a way,” Jan had told her sons while they were growing up. “Education will open doors and windows that we can’t.”
“And there I was, 22 years old, and that offer validated everything I’d heard all my life,” he said. “Looking back, it’s humbling to see what your parents have done for you and the sacrifices they made.”
“I have lived all over the United States, and I have travelled all over the world, having walked on the Great Wall of China, visited the Tokyo Tower, Auschwitz, Africa, Brazil and all the European travel. I’m from Pauls Valley, Oklahoma. Things like this aren’t supposed to happen to people from Pauls Valley, especially from my side of town.
“Everything I’ve accomplished in my career has been rooted in what I learned while at ECU. It’s the education, the relationships, and the people,” Godwin continued.
“I think that’s why ECU is special. What we do here is life changing.”