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Claire Stiles looks back with gratitude on 37 years of teaching at Eckerd College

By Tom Scherberger
Published July 31, 2014
Categories: Academics

Jimmy Carter was president the year Claire Stiles joined Eckerd College. Gas cost 62 cents a gallon, and colleges were still grappling with the demands of Title IX.

The federal law ending sex discrimination in higher education is a big reason why Stiles joined Eckerd. It was 1977 and Stiles was hired to be Eckerd’s first coordinator of women’s athletics and coach of the women’s volleyball and basketball teams.

She is retiring from Eckerd after 37 years. She hadn’t planned to stay so long.

“I can’t believe it myself,’’ Stiles says. “I’ve had so many opportunities and experiences. It’s been a blessing.”

Dr. Stiles, a Professor Emerita of Human Development, plans to continue teaching a few classes during the coming academic year before settling into retirement full time.

She joined Eckerd as an assistant professor of physical education. But her coaching duties  involved far more than you might expect. “I was laundering the kids’ uniforms, taping their ankles, driving the bus,’’ she recalls. “I did everything.”

With few high schools offering girls sports, “it was hard recruiting students,” Stiles recalls. “Some girls didn’t know how to dribble the ball. Some had never played basketball.” After a year, she switched to teaching in the new concentration of leisure and recreation.

In 1982, Stiles began working on her Ph.D. in counseling and mental health at the University of Florida. She eventually shifted to counseling students and teaching in Eckerd’s newly developed major of Human Development, a branch of psychology focused on the changes humans go through from birth to death. The major was created by founding faculty member J. Thomas West, who invited her to join his team.

She later served four years as chair of the Creative Arts Collegium and served in leadership positions on numerous faculty committees, including the Faculty Coordinating Committee.

As coordinator of Quest for Meaning, Stiles oversaw the revision of the entire curriculum for the capstone course that is a requirement for all Eckerd seniors.

In the late 1990s, Stiles began teaching an ethics course in her major and has developed a special interest in moral development and professional and applied ethics. She has been a master trainer with the Institute for Global Ethics.

After 9/11, Stiles decided it was time to learn more about the world and began traveling extensively and working with International Education, including a stint as coordinator of Eckerd’s London Study Centre in 2004 and as coordinator of the China Study Center in 2009. Her travels took her throughout Europe, China and Northern Africa.

Like virtually all Eckerd professors, Stiles also taught Western Heritage (nowThe Human Experience)  the interdisciplinary two-course sequence that is the cornerstone of the College’s General Education program and is a requirement for all first-year students. She found the courses challenging and rewarding because they prompt professors to learn things outside their usual area of expertise and to work closely with colleagues from other disciplines.

“The nice thing about teaching at Eckerd is you’re never static,” Stiles says. “There are always chances to grow and become more than you are—just like the students. I got my best liberal arts education at Eckerd College.”

Dr. Stiles doesn’t plan to stop learning. “I’m an enthusiastic learner,” she says. “I love to learn new things. I love to grow. It takes a lot of energy to teach at Eckerd because you are constantly being asked to try new things.”

She looks forward to spending more time with her spouse, Ruth Pettis, a 1978 Eckerd graduate. They enjoy organic gardening at their St. Petersburg home, and Stiles wants to get involved in environmental issues.

“I have a million things I might do,” she says. “I want to try a few things out and see how it feels.”

While she looks forward to the new challenges, she admits to feeling a little nostalgic about her time at the college but mostly she feels grateful for her time at Eckerd. “If there’s one word to say it’s gratitude that I ended up here,” Stiles says. “I would not be the person I am today if I had not taught at Eckerd College. And I’m grateful for all the remarkable students and colleagues whose lives I touched and who had such an impact on my development.  I can only hope that along the way I had a positive  influence on their lives as well.”