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On eve of retirement, longtime psychology professor has 'last lecture' disrupted by COVID-19

Retiring psychology professor Bruce Henderson is with daughters Heidi Buchanan (left), a professor and research and instruction librarian at Hunter Library, and Holly Pinter, an associate professor of elementary and middle grades education who also teaches at the Catamount School.

For Western Carolina University psychology professor Bruce Henderson, who is retiring at the end of the 2020 spring semester after 42 years as a faculty member, a funny thing happened on the way to delivering his last lecture.

That’s not “funny ha-ha,” but “funny strange.”

Originally scheduled for Friday, May 1, Henderson’s career-capping lecture for his “History of Psychology” class was derailed – like so many other things in life these days – by the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced the university to move its classes online or via some other form of alternative delivery method.

Henderson, who joined the WCU faculty in 1978 as an assistant professor, opted against doing a virtual version of his planned presentation.

“I had considered doing a virtual last lecture, beyond the voice-over PowerPoints I am doing in lieu of class. It was going to include a little speech with my usual coverage of the history of psychology in Cullowhee,” he said. “But, the more I thought about it, the more out-of-context and anticlimactic it seemed,” he said.

“After conversing with my chief academic adviser, Heidi, I decided not to do it. I am not going anywhere, so I thought I would do something in the department next year.” (That chief academic adviser to whom Henderson is referring is his daughter, Heidi Buchanan, professor and research and instruction librarian at Hunter Library. Another daughter, Holly Pinter, is an associate professor of elementary and middle grades education who also teaches at the Catamount School, making WCU a true faculty family affair for the Henderson clan.)

So, the onset of social-distancing and curve-flattening means that Henderson technically delivered his final lecture – at least the final one in-person and before retirement – during his “History of Psychology” class Wednesday, March 4. That was just a couple of days before WCU’s regularly scheduled spring break, which was extended by another week as university officials scrambled to figure out what to do in the face of growing concerns about the spread of COVID-19, before moving away from face-to-face classes for the remainder of the semester.

In addition to putting the kibosh on Henderson’s ceremonial ultimate lecture, university efforts to decrease exposure to the novel coronavirus also forced postponement of plans for a reception scheduled for the theater and lobby of A.K. Hinds University Center on May 1. But his colleagues in the College of Education and Allied Professions were not about to let him ride off into the sunset without acknowledging his impact on WCU and his field.

Bruce Henderson

“Dr. Henderson has been an integral part of our college for more than four decades. His contributions to developmental psychology, the teaching of undergraduate and graduate students, and regional partnerships are immeasurable,” said Kim Winter, dean of the College of Education and Allied Professions, home base for WCU’s psychology programs. “Bruce continues to serve us all, not only as a passionate advocate for students, but also for the purpose and mission of the regional comprehensive university. He has become, quite simply, an indispensable part of our college and this university. Bruce truly embodies the ‘Western Way,’ and I find it challenging to imagine work life without him.”

Alvin Malesky, head of the Department of Psychology, characterizes Henderson as “an outstanding university and community citizen.”

“His service to the department, college, university and University of North Carolina System are noteworthy, including his service on the UNC Tomorrow Commission with (then-president) Erskine Bowles and his published book on regional comprehensive universities. Very few faculty members have come close to achieving his level of positive impact on WCU,” Malesky said. “I have been very fortunate to have Dr. Henderson as a mentor for the past 16 years and will tremendously miss his leadership and conscientious guidance.”

Faculty colleague, Hal Herzog, psychology professor emeritus, has worked alongside Henderson for nearly three-quarters of his years at WCU. “Bruce hired me 30 years ago,” Herzog said. “We team-taught together, I ran all my research ideas by him, and he generously read drafts of my papers. A terrific colleague, a great psychologist and a wonderful teacher, it’s hard to imagine the psychology department without him.”

Another faculty colleague, professor David McCord, said Henderson has had a defining impact on the identity of the Department of Psychology. “Although he is a developmental psychologist by virtue of his doctoral training, his intellectual grasp of the entire field is broad and deep. He is a rigorous scholar who sets high standards for himself and others,” McCord said. “His contributions to the university are numerous and very significant. He has become a scholar of higher education, with very highly developed perspectives on the unique and essential societal role of the state comprehensive university. His retirement marks the end of an era; he is irreplaceable.”

A Fellow of the American Psychological Association, Henderson earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology from Bucknell University and his doctorate in child psychology from the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development. He is a past recipient of WCU’s Botner Superior Teaching Award and the University of North Carolina Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching, and is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association. His main area of research has been in the area of child development, and most of his publications have focused on the development of children’s curiosity, memory development or ways to improve teaching.

Henderson is author of the book “Teaching at the People’s University,” which examines the impact of regional state comprehensive universities – a classification of institutions of higher education that includes WCU and that provide college educations to a large percentage of Americans.

He participated in the American Psychological Association’s St. Mary’s Conference on Undergraduate Education and Alverno College’s Critical Thinking Network. The Spencer Foundation and the Foundation for Child Development are among the sources that have supported his research. He has worked on a variety of research and training projects with the University of Houston, Northern Kentucky University, the Yale University Child Study Center, the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching and UNC-Chapel Hill.

Despite the long list of activities, awards and honors during his career, Henderson said that there is only one laurel upon which he will rest during retirement. “The record I am most proud of was bestowed by the Hunter Library circulation staff last August. It was for the all-time most reserve book checkouts in one course in one semester,” he said.

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