Susan Easton Black — professor, historian and mentor

Published: Monday, March 14 2011 5:00 a.m. MDT

PROVO, Utah — The bell rings just as a petite blonde bustles into the classroom in heels and a Chanel-like outfit. After an opening hymn and a prayer, Susan Easton Black steps up to the microphone and begins teaching.

Any students without pen and paper out are already two steps behind as she starts teaching with no notes. The hour goes by, and the only time she has stopped is to ask, "Are you still with me?"

Once an aspiring model, Black, who was the first woman religion professor at BYU, continues to inspire friends, family and students to learn, grow and endure.

Black teaches packed religion classes to students, and even other professors. She specializes in teaching LDS Church history because of her love for and deep study of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Her ability to teach without using notes astonishes many.

"I’m not quite sure how it happened; it is just that I can read something and remember it," Black said. "When you really like something, you can just remember it, and it changes your life."

Liz Lemon Swindle, local artist and friend of Black, thinks Black has a steel-trap mind that could rival a computer.

Swindle admires Black for her ability work hard, her enthusiasm, and her way of facing trials head-on and then to letting them roll off her back as she faces the next one.

It is her passion for life and her subject that make students stay up late on registration days so they can hit the "Add" button on Black's classes.

It is not easy to earn high scores on student ratings or on ratemyprofessor.com, but Black has done just that. Black’s love for learning that has earned her high student ratings began when she was growing up in Long Beach, Calif.

When Black was young, it was her grandma’s job to get her to sleep. Grandma Ward told stories but refused to tell fictional "happily-ever-after" stories. The stories Susan heard did not begin with a princess far off in a castle but with a boy prophet from the United States

"I enjoyed reading the scriptures back then, especially the New Testament during my childhood," Black said. "My other favorites were Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, the Book of Mormon and later fashion magazines."

After she earned her undergrad and dabbled in modeling, Black’s father encouraged her to continue her education and go where she could discuss ideas instead of things.

She returned to BYU and was teaching family social sciences when then-BYU President Dallin H. Oaks asked her to join the religion faculty.

“Her classes are always fun, enlightening, insightful and full of the Spirit,” said Dana Glenn, a senior from Tracy, Calif., studying English. “I’d say her classes were the best classes I took at BYU.”

Black has not only made an impact on students at BYU but also on her family.

"She's my little sister, and she has taught me so much about church history," said Bob Ward, one of Susan’s four brothers. "I even take her latest book to church to help me teach my gospel doctrine class.”

He said enthusiasm for her studies and work ethic has enabled her to do amazing things.

Black’s son-in-law Richard Evans has been taught by her, fed by her and even bested by her in ping-pong.

She has so many strengths that he thinks her one weakness is she cannot dunk a basketball.

As an award-winning professor and writer, Black enjoys spending time with her husband, Harvey, playing the odd ping-pong game, and the occasional indulgence of her favorite food, chocolate. (Although if you asked her after New Year's Day, she would tell you her favorite food is an orange because of a recent New Year’s resolution.)

Black has been teaching at BYU for 32 years. The thought has crossed her mind to retire, but each time one of the apostles has called her to say her work is not done. Apparently this is not the time for her to just "head to the beach."

"I’ll keep teaching until students don’t sign up for my classes, when I can’t relate to them, or I view them as an irritation in my life," Black said.

e-mail: mharker@desnews.com


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