English professor retires after 33 years with SJR State
At the top of Professor Doug Ledbetter’s list of what he cherishes most about his 33-year teaching career at St. Johns River State College is witnessing the impact his former students are making in the community. In fact, when discussing this subject, he chokes up. “What pleases me most is to see the positive influence of my former students,” he said. “In Clay County, I can’t go anywhere without being reminded of that.”
Ledbetter, who was hired as the first full-time English instructor on the Orange Park campus, also cherishes having taught several generations within families. "I have had high school classmates who have had children and grandchildren I’ve taught,” he said. Ledbetter’s wife, daughter and son-in-law have also been students of his at some point in time, as well as SJR State faculty and staff, and local business and community leaders.
One of Ledbetter’s students recently approached him after class to mention his multi-generational teaching to members of her family, including her grandmother, Pat Coffman, who took both composition and speech classes with Ledbetter in the late ‘80s. Today, Coffman is the director of the Clay County Library in Fleming Island. About having Ledbetter as a professor, Coffman said, “Doug Ledbetter is literally a recruitment poster for student success. He always encouraged each student to expect the very best of themselves and to settle for nothing less in his class or in life. As individuals and as a community, we owe him sincere appreciation for caring and making a difference.”
Like Coffman, SJR State alumnus Lori Wagner, vice president of VyStar Credit Union in Eagle Harbor, was one of Ledbetter’s students in the ‘80s and agrees that Ledbetter has had a significant impact on his students. “Professor Ledbetter truly inspired all his students to be the best they can be. His legacy will live on in each of his students, because he taught us the importance of higher education,” said Wagner. “And he used to wear suits every day. A lot has changed since then,” she added.
Considering Ledbetter planned to major in math and minor in philosophy when he was a 16-year-old college student, how did he come to be such a prolific and well-loved English teacher? “It happened because math couldn’t keep my attention,” he said. As a result, Ledbetter discovered that “literature and assorted humanities courses” were of greater interest to him, so an English major he became.
Ledbetter’s teaching journey began after serving aboard a Naval ship and being sent to the Naval ROTC unit at his alma mater, Jacksonville University, where he had earned his bachelor’s degree in English. There, he taught Naval Science for three years and obtained a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) in English. “After six years of military service, I pursued a master’s degree in English at the University of Notre Dame and found jobs back in Florida at Webber College and then in the state system at Valencia Community College in Orlando,” Ledbetter explained. “Through word of mouth, I was contacted and recruited by St. Johns.”
As a military officer, Ledbetter followed in the footsteps of his father Wayne, a retired military officer who taught in Clay County for 17 years and also served on the school board. “I’ve taught students whom my dad taught in middle school and many who had my wife Angie as a high school teacher in medical skills,” Ledbetter noted.
Ledbetter not only has sentimental multi-generational ties to students throughout the community but also to the original classrooms on SJR State’s Orange Park campus. “I’m the last one who has real ties to those buildings,” he stated. “When I took the job here, I never envisioned I’d be here for 33 years, nor did I ever imagine I’d be almost 65 years old and still at the College,” he said with a laugh. “To think I have been an instructor at the College more than half of the life of the College and more than half of my own life is an interesting thought.” Ledbetter also reflected on his time as the longest serving SJR State faculty member who regularly traveled to Gainesville to evaluate the essay portion of the CLAST, the state-required College Level Academic Skills Test. Additionally, he served as the College’s faculty liaison to the Clay County School Board, was the sponsor of the Orange Park chapter of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, and he coordinated a teaching program at Camp Blanding for prospective National Guard and Army officers, teaching classes there as well.
“It has been an honor to be associated with St. Johns for 33 years,” Ledbetter stated. “I am most proud of the success and contributions of my students who have accomplished so much over the years and will do so in the future,” he reiterated. “I have seen them perform artistically on national television and offer medical care to my family and myself. They enrich this community greatly.”
While Ledbetter is proud of the contributions of former students, there’s one student in particular, a quadriplegic, whose mention makes him very reflective. “The most memorable student I’ve ever had was a young man, John Clark, who came to the College in a wheelchair after a diving accident in which he broke his neck,” Ledbetter explained. Clark wrote a paper in Ledbetter's class about his accident and the value that tragic experience added to his life. “It’s a paper that I read to my students, and it’s a wonderful piece of writing,” Ledbetter stated. “When I have students who give me excuses, I think of him…”
In a letter from Clark, which is one of Ledbetter's most-prized possessions and hangs in his office, Clark thanked Ledbetter for subjects they discussed in class and for believing in him. "I told him in Comp I that I thought he had a future as a writer," said Ledbetter. Clark went on to write professionally.
When Clark lost a battle with cancer, Ledbetter served as one of his pallbearers and made a promise to Clark’s parents that day. “I promised them that as long as I was teaching -- this is the last semester I did it -- that I would be reading papers written by John in class, and I would be talking about him and using his positive example for others. I’m so pleased that I was able to do that.”
SJR State English Professor Melody Hargraves, who has worked with Ledbetter since 1989, said, “Doug is a true Renaissance man. Over the years, he has been a helpful mentor to new faculty, an excellent teacher to his students, a sounding board for those needing advice, a patient ear for colleagues and students who need to talk, but most importantly, he has been a friend. We will all truly miss him.”
One last lesson Ledbetter leaves for his students before heading off to enjoy his retirement filled with grandparenting, golfing, motorcycling and writing: “Challenge limits and boundaries, sometimes self-imposed, and learn the difference between getting a degree and receiving an education! Too often, short-term goals cause students to miss out on the long-term growth potential of knowledge and curiosity that can make them not just better people, but different people than they ever could have imagined before entering school. The pleasure of hearing students share and confirm that years after they have graduated is an incredible gift I have been given.”
SJR State Professor Doug Ledbetter holds a photo displaying the portables that once served as classrooms the year the College moved from its temporary location on Gano Road to its now permanent address on College Drive. Ledbetter retires from the College after 33 years of service. He was the College’s first full-time English instructor on the Orange Park campus.