Southern Illinois University Edwardsville alumna, professor emerita and former SIU Board of Trustees member Shirley Portwood, PhD, always enjoyed engaging and helping students.
“I loved working with the students at SIUE,” said Portwood. “It was a real treat.”
Portwood, an accomplished and prolific writer, researcher and storyteller, is being honored with the university’s Distinguished Service Award at SIUE’s Spring 2020 Commencement on Saturday, May 9. The award acknowledges her dedication and service to the University, and the countless students who the longtime educator positively impacted.
Portwood earned her bachelor’s and master’s in history from SIUE in 1970 and ‘73, respectively. She earned a doctorate in history from Washington University in St. Louis. Her teaching career began as an instructor in history in fall 1972 at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park.
Portwood’s SIUE career began in 1980 as an adjunct history instructor. SIUE promoted her to a tenure track position in 1981.
“I had great history teachers at SIUE, who made history interesting, and inspired me to do my best and never stop learning. I wanted to do the same for students.
“I encouraged students to come in and talk to me, even if they were not having problems or did not have any specific questions. Sometimes, we would sit and have tea or coffee. I realized that if students could make a connection with just one person, it could make a difference with them staying in school. I wanted to be there to champion them.”
Portwood’s dedication to education and SIUE involved a host of commitments that included work on various committees, advisory boards, search committees and panels.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn appointed Portwood to the SIU Board of Trustees in 2013, where she served until 2019.
“The person who asked me to sit on the SIU Board of Trustees had attended several meetings of the Illinois Historic Preservation Committee, on which I was serving,” explained Portwood. “He said he was impressed with my willingness to speak truth to power. He also said I was no ‘shrinking violet.’”
Indeed, Portwood would describe herself in those terms and more. Portwood recalls in 1959 when she was 13, she and her best friend Helen Stuckey led two other African American girls in an attempt to buck the segregated system in the small town of Village Ridge.
“We would go to a drug store that had a soda fountain, and the white kids would order something and sit at a table or booth,” reminisced Portwood. “When the black kids ordered something, we were expected to take it outside.
“One day we went to the drugstore, ordered something, sat in one of the booths and ate it. The owner stared at us but did not say anything. He did call our principal and told her. She was upset and said what we did was extremely dangerous and could have gotten us hurt. I told my father many years later. He was proud of us.”
Portwood has accomplished much in life of which to be proud. Some of her accolades and awards include:
· 2019 SIUE Alumni Hall of Fame, Graduate School
· National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship from Harvard University
· Sojourner Truth Award from the Chicago Public Library
· Friends of Morris Library Delta Award from SIUC
· Women of Distinction Award from the Young Women’s Christian Association
· Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award from SIUE
· Teaching Excellence Award from SIUE
“As an educator over the years, I’ve learned the importance of giving positive feedback and encouragement and networking to get things done,” she said.
Portwood retired from SIUE as a full professor in 2007. Upon retirement, the emerita professor continued to teach every spring until 2010.