Phil Petray, or just Petray, as he tells his students to call him, always wanted to be a teacher. He said that of all of his cousins — his father has three brothers — he was the only boy, and he wanted to be in charge whenever his family was around.
“I got used to telling people what to do,” he said.
After taking some accounting classes, Petray realized teaching was where he definitely wanted to be.
He went on to pursue his dream of becoming a teacher at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1967 and began teaching right out of college.
“I was a junior high teacher at Osceola, Ark.,” Petray said. “I taught eighth-grade social studies: U.S. history and geography.”
Although he liked the people of Osceola, he wanted to be closer to home. So after just one year, when Petray asked to leave Osceola, his principal had a plan in mind.
“He called Bill Hefner in Beebe,” Petray said. “He said, ‘Do you need a social studies teacher? Well, I’ve got a good one.’”
Petray subsequently took a teaching position at Beebe High School, where he taught for two years.
“I got the biggest kick out of [teaching high school],” he said. “I knew about my student’s families and backgrounds. I really got into it.”
When he was teaching at Beebe High School, Petray really found a passion for teaching others about things he cared about.
“If a teacher comes into a classroom and shows [his class] what he enjoys doing — that makes a difference,” Petray said.
Petray, now 68, was asked to become a teacher across the street at Arkansas State University-Beebe after just two years of teaching at Beebe High School, but before he could become a professor, he had to complete a master’s degree.
He finished a Master of Arts in Teaching degree at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway in 1970 and took a professor position at ASU-Beebe that fall semester.
He took the job he would have for the next 43 years — a job as an assistant professor of social sciences.
In 43 years with the same university, Petray said, other than the student population and the addition of buildings, little has changed. At the end of the spring 2014 semester, he will have completed his 44th year with ASU-Beebe.
“The students are the same,” he said.
Though the students’ faces have changed, their personalities and attitudes are somewhat similar to each class before them, Petray said.
“I’ve been a part of unbelievable growth,” he said.
When Petray was a first-year professor at ASU-Beebe, there were 435 students enrolled at the school.
“There are 10 times that now,” he said. “Now there’s around 4,400 students here.”
He has assisted with the ASU-Beebe Self-Study every time it’s been done. The study is done to evaluate the university’s effectiveness in achieving its mission and goals, according to the school’s website.
“They had a study every five years at first, and now it’s every 10 years,” Petray said. “I’ve been a part of every one of them.”
The class-period length has stayed the same, and Petray said he has seen students interact with each other and form lifelong relationships.
“I like seeing [my students] bloom,” he said.
With almost 44 years in the classroom at ASU-Beebe, Petray said he’s somewhat of a celebrity at the university.
“I’ve had some grandparents, parents and children in the classroom,” he said. “It’s cool.”
His “celebrity” status at the university has given him a chance to interact with students on a more personal level. He said students will come up to him and start talking to him.
“I like meeting people I don’t know,” Petray said.
The longtime history teacher gives students advice if they ask for it.
“One day a guy came up to me and said, ‘Petray, I’m thinking about getting married,’” Petray said. “I told him, ‘It’s all right to get married, but it’s not if you think it’s time to get married, and she was just there.’”
Petray’s background in teaching history has given him a chance to give back in a way. In addition to teaching full time, Petray said, he is “really into politics.”
“I’ve worked on campaigns, and office holders will call me and ask for advice,” he said.
In addition to helping others with campaigns, he played his own role in city politics.
“I was mayor of Beebe for eight years,” Petray said. “I was mayor from 1987 to Dec. 31, 1994.”
While he was mayor, he still kept teaching at the university that’s become so close to his heart.
He has found out many things about himself and how to treat others throughout his years of teaching.
“People need a chance,” he said. “You should give people a chance and shouldn’t be so quick to judge.”
Petray said others need to just spend time with someone and get to know them before forming an opinion about others.
Most of his life has been spent at the front of a classroom, and this has changed his opinion of people in general.
“Everybody knows so many things that you don’t know,” Petray said.
He isn’t afraid to strike up a conversation with anyone, he said.
“I’m not standoffish at all,” Petray said. “I’ll go sit with a table of students in the student center at lunch.”
His friendly personality allows him to get to know his students and where their strengths are. A self-proclaimed “ham at heart,” Petray uses humor to keep his students paying attention in class.
“I wish school was more fun,” Petray said. “I’ll get up there and tell silly jokes.”
When he teaches his classes, he knows what kind of questions his students are going to ask him.
“I’ll give them crazy answers to make sure they’re paying attention,” Petray said.
Right now, Petray doesn’t see retirement anywhere in his future.
“I don’t know what retired people do,” he said. “I’m not sure it would be a positive thing for me. I like working — I really do.”
Staff writer Lisa Burnett can be reached at (501) 244-4307 or email@example.com.