Raising minds

. September 18, 2012.

Dr. Katherine Rowe Fell, who took over as President of the University of Findlay in July of 2010, is no stranger to places far more remote than our little corner of Ohio, but her strong belief in the power of education has brought her to the top of her profession.

Fell grew up in tiny Stamps, Arkansas (population 2,131). (It’s also the home of the poet Maya Angelou, and the setting for her acclaimed memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It’s poetic that Fell, who began her career in higher education as a professor of English would hail from a town with a literary pedigree.) Fell’s high school graduating class had only 51 students, but her time there cemented her love of learning.

Making the difference

“Teachers make all the difference,” Fell says. “The school system was not at all affluent. The building was about to fall down, but the teachers were wonderful.” And she learned to appreciate diversity, too, as she came of age during Arkansas’ time on the national stage in the civil rights era. “During my junior year, the schools were fully integrated,” she says. “The students had far less trouble with it than the parents.” But it was already clear that she would go on to bigger things.

“It was just expected,” she remembers. “I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, but my parents encouraged me to become educated— it seemed like the natural thing to do.” She earned a bachelor’s degree in English — and met her future husband, Roger Fell — at Southern Arkansas University, just down the road from her hometown. She earned her Master’s at Louisiana Tech, and her doctorate in English at Texas A&M. “I went to a lot of football games and spent a lot of time in the library,” she laughs.

Fell spent 25 years at Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana, first as a professor of English, then as an administrator. During that time, she and Roger raised their family — five boys and a girl. It was a happy, loving environment. But every family is marked by tragedy at some point, and the Fells’ came in 2005, when their son, Sgt. Robin Vincent Fell, was killed in Iraq. “We’ve pulled together and prayed and cared for each other,” Fell says, “and gotten through these years without him.”

With the children grown and going on to their own successes, and Roger Fell semi-retired, the couple made the move to Ohio and the University
of Findlay. And Dr. Fell couldn’t be happier.

Finding a home

“We are growing to think of Findlay as home,” Fell says. “We’re very happy to be here. The people are warm and friendly; it’s close to large cities; there’s a strong corporate presence, and the University is thriving.” She’s worked hard to be a good steward of the work already begun by her predecessors, and to forge a strong connection with the community.

Are the challenges of leading a modern university something like those of raising a large family? “In many ways we think of the University as a family,” Fell muses. “But our focus is on educating students and bringing the very best practices to that. The work is what binds us together.” But in some ways the connection is more literal. The Fells have enjoyed entertaining guests from all over the world, but they’re still happy to welcome students into their home. “We’re used to having lots of hungry young people around our table,” she says, smiling. “We like it.”