Grambling, La. – May 15, 2023 – As a renowned athlete and college coach, Bessie Stockard preached persistence and hard work to her charges for them to become successful.
Stockard practices what she preaches, too, as shown by the fact that the 92–year-old walked across the stage to pick up her Ed.D. in Developmental Education Friday morning during Grambling State University’s Spring 2023 Commencement Exercises at the Fredrick C. Hobdy Assembly Center.
Still teaching as a professor of Health Science at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), Stockard has balanced that role along with taking care of siblings in need as she determinedly stuck to her goal of completing her doctorate.
“There were times I had to focus on family and things like that, so I had to be patient and sometimes change my priorities for a while, but I always knew I was going to make it happen,” Stockard said. “I had to stop at times and take care of my family. I had to bury three of them and I had to clean out two houses and sell two houses.”
“Things happened, and I just tried to deal with them the best way I could, and the Lord just blessed me to keep going. I just did what I had to do to make what I wanted to happen become reality. I just kept my head up and kept working.”
Dr. Cheyrl Mansfield Ensley, interim head of the Department of Developmental and Higher Education Studies at GSU, oversaw Stockard’s doctorate work, including her dissertation, which was titled “The Relationship between Freshman Orientation and Academic Achievement at an Eastern Urban University.”
“She’s very meticulous and very persistent,” Ensley said. “She always wanted to do things the right way, so she was actually a joy to work with.”
Ensley admitted she never considered overseeing a 92-year-old working to complete a doctoral degree.
“Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine doing something like this or meeting someone like Dr. Stockard,” Ensley said. “But she was determined and willing and ready to put in the work.”
“She’s still teaching in college, so she knows what it takes to work to earn a doctorate and was willing and ready to do that.”
Finding a way to succeed seems to be a trait Stockard has shown her whole life.
She earned a basketball scholarship to the University of Tuskegee, graduating in 1955.
And while basketball remained a lifelong love of Stockard’s, she had a fondness for multiple sports, including tennis.
Stockard won the Nashville City Parks tennis championship her freshman year of college and played in the American Tennis Association for more than a decade, winning 12 ATA national titles.
She also played in the professional Virginia Slims Circuit from 1971 to 1974 and was its only Black player at the time.
After being hired to coach cheerleaders and majorettes by the then-newly created Federal City College in Washington D.C. in the fall of 1969 Stockard created the Federal City Pantherettes women’s basketball team with no funding, gymnasium, or uniforms.
That didn’t stop Stockard from building a team that reached the 1975 AIAW women’s basketball tournament, when Federal City lost to eventual tournament and national champion Delta State 77–75 in overtime.
Those efforts were noticed by then LSU women’s basketball coach Sue Gunter, who brought Stockard aboard to serve as an assistant coach for the U.S. Women’s Team led by Gunter during the 1976 Summer Olympics.
“Coach Gunter loved the way my teams played defense, and she hired me to coach defense on that Olympics team,” Stockard said. “That was a proud moment and made for some great memories.”
Other great memories Stockard has are becoming a Tuskegee Hall of Famer, a Black Tennis Hall of Famer, a District of Columbia Sports Hall of Famer, and a UDC Athletics Hall of Famer.
She also served a couple of stints as volleyball coach at UDC, which changed its name from Federal City College in 1977.
“The president needed a coach but didn’t want to hire anybody – they had overspent their budget,” Stockard said. “So, the athletic director told the president, ‘Well, we have Bessie Stockard and she can coach anything or anyone.’ That’s how I became a volleyball coach.”
In the end, Stockard said it’s the drive she looked for in the student-athletes she recruited to play for her that fueled her mission to continue working to complete her doctorate degree.
“To receive this degree at a very prestigious HBCU means a lot to me,” Stockard said. “I knew I had to finish what I started. When I recruited players. I looked for girls who had that mental mindset of wanting to work hard and doing everything it takes to succeed. I wanted girls who wanted to earn a college degree and who are willing to do the hard work to make that happen.”
“And if that’s the kind of student-athlete I’m looking for, then that’s the kind of student I need to be too, regardless of my age. I just stayed focused on the goal and am proud that I was able to make it happen and walk across the stage here at Grambling [State]. It means a whole lot to me.”