By Dr. Reagan Ramsower
This eulogy was given at the funeral of Dr. Helen Ligon, former professor of information systems in the Hankamer School of Business.
Helen Hailey Ligon was a Lady in the truest sense of the word. Grace, compassion, style, intellect, and enthusiasm just jumped forth from her remarkable and unique spirit.
Helen was my adopted grandmother. She “discovered” me as a student with potential. She taught me programming, and I often had the program written before the end of class. She encouraged me to become a lab instructor, working on the IBM 1620, Baylor’s first computer, and she didn’t seem to notice that my hair was on my shoulders, I had a mustache, and wore raggedy cutoffs, a tank-top, and sandals. Always preferring to see the positive in everyone, she made me feel as though I could do anything. I could make a mistake, but in Helen’s eyes, I was never wrong. She is responsible for my career and life’s work in information systems.
The most frequent phrase I heard from Helen every time I entered her office was something like, “Isn’t it so exciting.” To Helen every new technology, every new tool, every new discover was “just so exciting.” She had this truly remarkable ability to dwell only on the potential of today and the possibilities of the future. I always imagined that Helen’s middle name was really “Hope.” The past was just the past and not worth dwelling on. I think this unique quality was the source of her wonderful indomitable outlook on life. Helen didn’t have a “Susie Sunshine” personality; she was just one of the world’s greatest optimists. Her optimism was contagious. No matter how you felt each morning coming into work, Helen was happy and excited about the possibilities of that day. If you felt blue or down, she would turn your attitude around. She didn’t even have to say anything because you knew how she was feeling just by looking, for every part of her exuded Hope. You walked in her office, got a jelly bean, looked her in the eye, and suddenly you saw the true potential of the day and the exciting possibilities— the hope— of tomorrow.
Helen was an ardent defender of her chosen academic discipline and could often be heard explaining in detail why information systems was different from computer science and why a young man and woman would be wise to pursue an education and career in information systems. Helen was the Grace Hopper of the IS discipline. By that, I mean she was the First Lady of Information Systems. Helen never received release time to research in IS. Instead she grew the IS discipline by teaching. And boy, how she taught.
Helen was a great teacher, a master teacher— one of those teachers who taught thousands of students and remembered each one’s name. Helen wasn’t so interested that you learned facts. She wanted you to learn something that would help you in your career and on the job. Helen was one of those teachers that was so excited about her field that it excited even the most cynical of students.
But despite teaching fulltime in a fashion that required hours of preparation, grading, and mentoring, Helen obtained a Ph.D. degree, driving to Bryan day after day. Listening to notes in the car— those she had recorded from class notes taken in shorthand. Helen typed the shorthand notes and recorded them on cassettes. She copied her notes for fellow students and helped more than one person pass their doctoral work.
When it came time to choose a research topic, Helen shunned the typical areas being researched. Almost the entire IS field was researching why many implementations of information systems were failing and not delivering the hoped for outcomes. Researching failed implementations was the hot and fertile topic in the mid 70’s. But what topic did Helen choose? She wrote her dissertation and later published a renowned book called Successful Management Information Systems. Helen, the eternal optimist, believed we could learn how to avoid the pitfalls and problems attendant to implementing computer system by focusing on the successes, not the failures. She was decades ahead of business researchers on this idea, which only in the last few years has produced such popular titles as Built to Last and Good to Great.
To me, it seemed that some of Helen’s happiest years must have been when her grandsons were at Baylor. She melted and they melted into each other whenever together. How she loved them. It was wonderful to watch.
Helen loved to drive. She drove her Cadillac every day, back and forth to Lott, listening to recorded notes of the lecture that she would be giving to students that day. Thinking about each of the students in her class and how she could enrich their lives with the touch of her words and spirit. G.W., or Fred, or Chester often followed (or rather chased) her home because they worried about her after a late night dinner banquet or student club meeting or sporting event. Truth was, she drove better than all of them right up to that last trip to the hospital.
Helen loved Baylor. Baylor first and last. An unswerving fan she loved Baylor sports, especially basketball. Winning or losing didn’t matter to her. Unlike many college sports fans these days, Helen knew that the young men and women playing the sports were just kids— worried about their lives, careers, and romances— trying to do their best. When they lost, she thought of how she could help them get over their disappointment. Helen never saw the negative, never focused on who was to blame or how awful it was that they lost. She always focused on the possibility of doing better the next game. We could all learn some about being a sports fan from Helen
Helen was a Yellow Dog Democrat. Coming from West Texas, this term was new to me so I asked Helen and she told me she would vote for a yellow dog before voting for a Republican. Helen and I often had quiet conversations in her office about politics since I was a closet Democrat. (You have to be a closet Democrat in the business school.) She knew how this disappointed her family and friends, but Helen just could not vote for a Republican.
Helen loved Lott and Central Texas. About ten years ago, Helen and I were at an international Information Systems conference in Seattle Washington. The entertainment event took us out on a large ship cruising the waters of Puget Sound. The sun was setting and Helen and I were standing on the open air platform on the top deck looking back at Mount Rainier which was reflecting the setting sun over the clear, calm, sparkling waters of the Sound. It was one of the most beautiful scenes I had ever experienced. I expressed my feelings to Helen and wondered aloud what it would be like to live in such a place. She agreed it was pretty but stated emphatically, she would much rather live in Lott.
Helen loved dessert. When she was at the table, you didn’t eat a meal without dessert. She insisted on buying, saying “You always needed a little something sweet before getting up from the table.”
I think we tried to retire Helen at least two or three times, but it just didn’t take. Retirement was simply a concept that Helen didn’t understand. She only wanted to teach, and whether she taught as a retired professor or not was a concern for administrators, not her. From what I understand, when son Grady was also asked to retire, he replied, “How can I retire? My mother isn’t even retired.”
I was so fortunate to see Helen one last time. Even though she was in ICU, Diane got permission for Glenda and I to visit with her, reminding us that hearing is the last thing to go. As Glenda and I approached her bedside, I announced who we were and began to tell her how much we loved her and how sorry we were that she had fallen. There wasn’t much response from this great lady now battered beyond recognition and on life support equipment. But then I began to tell her that the kids were coming back to campus tomorrow and school would be starting Monday. As soon as I said these words she began to move her left arm and hand. I quickly placed my hand on hers and told her not to worry, that we would make sure her class was taken care of and that everything would be fine until she could return to class. She quieted and seemed comforted.
God accomplished in his infinite wisdom what man could not— he retired Helen. Our loss is a blessing in disguise for none of us had to take what Helen loved away from her. We didn’t have to stop her from driving, take her out of Lott, or most important to her— take her out of the classroom.
Helen’s class has just recently started again, and others here at Baylor are teaching her students. However, in Heaven, Helen has started classes both as teacher and student. Former teachers, former students, and former classmates will gather around teaching and learning from each other. If it was possible for any despair to exist in Heaven, Helen would be the Saint to drive it out.
Helen’s life challenges all of us to the words of Jesus when he said, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is heaven.”
Helen challenges us to be jelly beans and a ray of sunshine to the world—to let Hope reign eternal.