Because of one teacher in high school, Don Harlan wanted to become an educator. The 70 year old is retiring from his position as vice chancellor at Arkansas State University-Searcy in June of this year after being in the field of education for 47 years.
ASU-Searcy is a technical campus of Arkansas State University-Beebe.
Harlan grew up on a cotton and dairy farm in Red Hill, a small community in White County.
“I learned a lot about work and work ethic from my dad,” Harlan said. “He returned from World War II and moved back to the area in which he was born and raised. He wanted to farm and be his own boss.”
Throughout high school, Harlan said his agriculture teacher influenced him to want to become a teacher.
“He made me want to become an ag teacher. That was the reason for making the education decisions that I did,” he said.
After graduating from high school in Mount Vernon, Harlan married his high school sweetheart, Mary.
“We got married right after high school. We were both 18,” he said.
She graduated a year before him, and was pursuing a degree in home economics at the University of Central Arkansas when they married.
“I was offered a $500 agriculture scholarship to attend Arkansas Tech University,” he said. “My wife transferred from UCA to Tech her sophomore year.”
They spent two years at Tech before attempting to move to Fayetteville for Harlan to attend the University of Arkansas.
“We wanted to go to U of A because that’s where I needed to go to become an ag teacher. Then we found out since she had one year at UCA and two years at Tech, she was going to lose 30 hours if she transferred,” Harlan said.
If his wife went back to UCA to graduate, she wouldn’t lose those hours.
“I dropped out and worked for a year and moved to Conway so she could finish her degree at UCA,” he said.
While living in Conway, Harlan worked as a welder, making buses for the American Transportation Corp.
When his wife graduated, the Harlans moved to Fayetteville.
“I did my student teaching at Rogers public schools,” Harlan said. “After my student teaching, I got offered a teaching position as the second ag teacher for the district.”
He started teaching at Rogers in 1967, and his wife took a job as the school dietitian and was promised a job as a home economics teacher at the first opening.
“We both almost had achieved the goals we’d set for ourselves, which was to become an ag teacher and a home ec teacher in a good school system in Arkansas,” he said. “She got [a home economics teaching job] a year and a half after we’d been in Rogers.”
While he was teaching at Rogers, Harlan said he kept hearing about vocational technology schools in Arkansas, and he was curious about them.
“At that time, there were about seven vo-tech schools in Arkansas, and a couple of them I had been able to visit because we had high school students who I felt like a good education option for them would be to go to a vo-tech school and learn a skill,” Harlan said.
Harlan made arrangements to go to the vo-tech school at Morrilton to learn more about what the school did.
“I wanted to be able to connect with some students from high schools that definitely weren’t going to college, but might want to go on to a vo-tech school,” he said.
After his visit, Harlan had an unexpected visitor in his classroom.
“The director of the [Morrilton vo-tech school] came walking through the ag shop at Rogers and wanted to visit with me,” he said.
Harlan was unsure why the director came to speak with him.
“He told me there was a vacancy as an assistant director of the school and he wanted to know if I might be interested in moving,” he said. “I had a great job, but I didn’t want to turn down an opportunity.”
Harlan went to visit the school that weekend and learned the ins and outs of how it worked.
“He showed me around the school and offered me a job. I decided to take the job as assistant director of Petit Jean Vo-Tech School at Morrilton,” he said.
He spent five years as assistant director at the Morrilton school, and was then offered a job at the State Department of Vocational Education in Little Rock. He and his wife moved to Conway, and he commuted to Little Rock each day.
“It was hard for me to leave Morrilton, but we decided it was in our best interest to move from there to Conway,” he said. “My wife took a job with the Conway School District and was later offered a job at UCA.”
The thought of retirement kept coming to Harlan’s mind while he was working at the State Department of Vocational Education, he said.
“The director [of Foothills Technical Institute] asked me if I had ever thought about coming to the school,” Harlan said.
At the time, Harlan’s son was looking for a place to practice medicine and he originally thought he would be moving to Searcy, where Foothills Technical Institute was located.
When Harlan was asked about taking the job at Foothills, he knew he would enjoy it because it involved interacting with students daily.
“I applied for the job here in December 2000, and in January 2001, I came here and became president of Foothills Technical Institute.”
He served as president until the school merged with Arkansas State University-Beebe in 2003. He’s been vice chancellor of ASU-Searcy since 2003.
He took the job intending to only work for about five years. Thirteen years later, he’s decided to retire.
“In the 13 years I’ve been here, there’s been a lot of progress and change in the school itself, which hopefully has provided the students greater opportunities.”
While working in education, Harlan said he’s enjoyed seeing students succeed.
“I like being able to recognize that maybe I had some small part in making that happen. I like seeing students come here that are doubtful and don’t think they have the capacity to learn, and they discover that they can do anything they want to do if they work hard enough at it and apply themselves,” he said.
He said he’s going to miss the students, faculty and staff at ASU-Searcy when he retires, but is looking forward to spending time with his wife.