In retirement, Phelps to answer new old question

Doug Phelps, a 1981 and 1989 (MAT) Hastings College graduate and an associate professor of Teacher Education, is retiring after 17 years at the College. At HC, he taught science methods courses and Physical Geography and Instructional Tools for Teachers. Before coming to Hastings College, he worked as a science instructor at Central Community College in Grand Island, Nebraska, and was a high school science teacher at Lexington (Nebraska) Senior High School. This piece is written by his daughter, Ann Phelps ’07.

A photo of Doug and Diane Phelps and their grandchildren.
Doug Phelps (center), a 1981 and 1989 (MAT) Hastings College graduate and an associate professor of Teacher Education, is retiring after 17 years at the College. He is pictured here with his wife, Diane, and grandchildren.
By Ann Phelps ‘07


“But how does the water get up there?” William asks from his car seat as we drive past the water tower that looms large over our neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi. It dominates the landscape of his three-year-old world, and every day he has more questions about it, none of which I can answer, with my degrees in theology and art and music.

“I’m not sure…,” I reply. “I’m not sure…but you know who we should ask? Grandad.”

For my entire life, I have depended on my dad’s seemingly endless knowledge to answer questions small and large, concrete and abstract.

My child’s curiosity about water towers evokes a memory of my sophomore year of high school, lounging on the living room floor with three friends while my dad explained how the water from the Ogallala Aquifer had made its way into our glasses.

We’d gotten off track from our original purpose: we would gather each Thursday night so my dad could help us better understand the concepts from our biology textbook that just weren’t sticking. He would take out the old white clip board with the image of a basketball court on it that he’d once used to coach my sisters’ and my basketball teams, and he’d draw detailed diagrams that somehow made lipid cell membranes interesting to a group of future arts and humanities majors.

I pretty much won the great cosmic lottery when I was born into the world with Doug Phelps ‘81/’89 (MAT) for a dad. Or to use one of his many aphorisms from my childhood: “Life isn’t fair…aren’t you lucky?”

From my earliest memories, he was there, inviting us into the things that gave his life meaning and embracing the things that leant meaning to ours.

Something of a track phenom (this is news to exactly no one in central Nebraska), he somehow obtained a high jump pit for our backyard and spent countless summer evenings with us, observing our form, teaching us to get out of our heads and forget the bar and just trust we’d land on the other side, ultimately allowing things to devolve into a competition over who could stand up in the hammock the longest.

When it became clear that none of his children would have quite his athletic talent (one of us lacked the gift of height, another broke her nose high jumping somehow, and I nearly wound up with a concussion from too much hammock-standing, the only sport that ever captured my enthusiasm), he embraced his life of middle school band concerts, halftime dance routines and more high school musicals than he probably cares to remember.

He has always had the gift of helping people become the best version of themselves; he’s always been the coach, the mentor, the teacher.

With my child’s question still ringing in the back of my mind, my repetitive response, “I’m not sure…I’m not sure,” evokes another memory.

It is Christmas Eve and I am little, maybe four or five-years-old, and my dad is trying to get me to go to sleep after having returned from a church service that captivated my young imagination with a sea of candles, stories of babies and animals, and songs I actually knew. Everyone else in the house is asleep, and I’ve just asked the kind of question that no parent wants to get at bed time: “So, is the baby God, or is the father God?”

This is a question I continue to ask in new ways, decades and degrees in theology later, but I have never gotten a more satisfactory answer than the one my dad offered that night: “I’m not sure…I’m not sure.” It is perhaps the most faithful mantra I’ve ever heard. He didn’t shut me down and tell me to go to sleep. He didn’t tell me a “Truth” that would have been a lie.

He taught me from the very beginning that it is ok to be uncertain. His whole life has been a testament to the idea that doubt is not the opposite of faith—certainty is.

In fact, uncertainty—that moment when your feet leave the ground and you hover in mid-air, trusting you’ll land well and if you’ve worked hard, you might even fly higher than you’ve ever flown before—that fleeting moment of uncertainty is where we come alive. That is where joy, fear and hope intermingle. That is the place of faith.

My dad has always been the person to whom his children, grandchildren and students can bring curiosity and questions and know that that they’ll be engaged honestly, even if not answered.

Upon my graduation from high school (turns out we all passed biology class!), it seemed perfectly natural to enroll at Hastings College, where only a few years prior my dad had begun working in the Education Department, teaching people to teach.

While I never got to take one of his classes, I continued to learn immeasurable amounts from him, as I watched him in his vocation. I’ve seen him spend countless hours analyzing accreditation standards with Kass Rempp, discerning how to help students transcend their limitations with Jim Loch and exploring new educational terrain with Lisa Smith as they would bring a busload of students to hang out with me in Jackson each J-Term, somehow bringing a spirit of wisdom and curiosity to each task while simultaneously finding reasons to laugh so hard he cries.

I’ve heard stories from students who recognized the extra hours he spent with them, despite the fact that they admittedly lacked any discernible motivation, to help them become passionate teachers and coaches in their own careers.

And perhaps the greatest testament I see to his work as a teacher is the way we, his three daughters, have found ways to continue learning from him and working by his side.

Whether it is a J-Term multicultural education collaboration that we dreamed up over one of our many late-night talks, or Jess (Phelps Ablott ‘04) and her family’s countless hours with him on the farm, or Katie’s (Phelps Reynolds ‘02) emerging vocation as a world-class science teacher herself, all of us are the clear products of the best teacher, father and coach anyone has ever known.

Lately, we’ve all been coming to him with a new question, neither theological nor scientific: “What are you going to do when you retire?”

Something tells me it will involve a lot of grandkids’ basketball games, time on the farm, track meets, diagrams of water towers, longer visits to the Deep South and probably even more middle school band concerts, poor guy.

But when we ask, I am entirely unsurprised by his hopeful answer, full of life and faith: “I’m not sure…I’m not sure.”

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