Before They Were Educators: Peg Connolly

(Editor’s Note: The following is the seventh part of a series of articles looking at the lives of WCU faculty and staff before they were educators.)

Before becoming The Director and Associate Professor of Recreational Therapy B.S. Degree Program, Peg Connolly graduated from the former St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Florissant in 1968, only a few months before both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated.

Growing up in what Connolly described as being, “a very tumultuous time in our civic history,” on the same day as her high school commencement ceremony, Bobby Kennedy was buried. The joy and excitement of graduation was put on hold.

“As young people we had a lot of things on our mind that day beyond our mere graduation from high school,” she said.

Instead of having a school girl crush on the members of her favorite band, The Beatles, while in high school Connolly was more intrigued and fascinated with the innovative political leaders and activist such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby and Junior Kennedy.

While in high school, Connolly’s favorite television show was NBC comedy, Rowan and Martin’s “Laugh In”. The show was a series of rapid-fire impromptu gags full of sexual innuendos or politically themed sketches. During her grade school years, Connolly favored the ever popular, “Leave it to Beaver” program. The comedy “Leave it to Beaver” served as a defining program for youth in the late 50s and early 60s; it provided viewers with incomprehensible mischief fueled by the innocent curiosity of a young boy.

Connolly proudly represented the Falcons of St. Thomas Aquinas by lettering in both the Orchestra (violin) and the Pep Club. The inspiration she gained from King and the Kennedy’s led her to serve on the Student Council. She also shared her musical ambition and talent by playing in a folk group called the “Plumb Tree Five” 

Connolly purchased her first car, a 1968 Chevy II, the summer after her high school graduation.

“I didn’t think I’d go to college and during my first job after high school, I bought my first car. Six months later, I asked my parents to take the car and I headed to Southeast Missouri State University for a Bachelor of Arts degree with a double major in psychology and sociology and later the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for masters and doctoral degrees” said Connolly.

Instead of using spring break as an excuse to let loose and forget about school, Connolly and her classmates spent one spring break travelling to the French Quarter in New Orleans.

“It was an eye opener for a group of 17 year olds from the northern suburbs of St. Louis,” remembered Connolly.

Connolly’s teaching career and journey to Western has uniquely evolved over time. When starting college, Connolly began a career in secondary education, but because of a high number of enrollments in that field of study, made a move to psychology and sociology. Her first job was in 1973 in recreational therapy at Wilford Hall Medical Center as a professional staff member with the American Red Cross. She was cross-trained in disaster services and in April of 1975, she was recruited to Guam as a disaster worker to work with the Vietnam Refugees after the Fall of Saigon.

Connolly explained, “They told me I’d only be needed about two weeks, so I had all my shots administered and hopped a plane for a 24 hour trip to Guam. It was a wonderful experience and I was in charge of education and recreation services for refugees. Two weeks turned into four months as the expected 10,000 refugees turned into over 150,000.

“It was probably one of the most memorable experiences of my early career.”

She returned to graduate school in 1976 and taught as a graduate assistant during her graduate studies. After receiving her Ph.D., she taught for about three years before, according to Connolly, she became “the Executive Director of a national credentialing organization for recreational therapy until teaching called me once again and I joined the faculty at WCU in 2005.”

Whenever Connolly isn’t using her life experiences to teach Catamounts, she enjoys gardening, home renovations and “building stuff.” She also tries to get home to her family in St. Louis to visit and catch up whenever she can.