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People of PTK: Robert Blank and Gayle Wyatt

People of PTK: Robert Blank and Gayle Wyatt

So, who’s responsible for Honors Institute, the crown jewel of Phi Theta Kappa’s honors programming? Robert Blank and Gayle Wyatt.

Combined, their experience with Phi Theta Kappa spans half a century. For Wyatt, it was two decades as Associate Director; for Blank, it was nearly 30 years as an advisor, a regional coordinator, a member of the Board of Directors, and the Honors Institute Coordinator.

Wyatt joined the English faculty at Navarro College in Texas in 1960, where he first heard of Phi Theta Kappa through its very active Zeta Omicron Chapter. He would later become an honorary member of that chapter and serve as an academic dean at the school.

It was through the chapter’s advisors — two of Wyatt’s best friends on the faculty — that he met Phi Theta Kappa’s first Executive Director, Dr. Margaret Mosal, In the mid-1960s. Then, when Phi Theta Kappa was seeking an Associate Director, Wyatt found himself moving to Canton, Mississippi, to join the staff.

His primary responsibility was the Honors Program, so he was charged with developing an honors topic, researching it, and preparing it for use by the chapters. With that came planning speakers for the then-National Convention and later Honors Institute.

“(The honors topic) gave the chapters a focus,” Wyatt said. “They were somewhat at loose ends trying to pursue the (then) three goals of Phi Theta Kappa, scholarship, leadership, and service, but they needed suggestions of how they might make these things happen on their campus.

“I think it was a good thing for them. Necessary, even.”

The birth of Honors Institute occurred in the most unlikely of places — on a cross-country train ride Wyatt and Mosal were taking to the then-American Association of Junior Colleges National Convention in San Francisco, California, in 1967.

Mosal was famous for never flying, and so the pair had three days to watch the landscape blur past and discuss the future of the organization. She wanted to do something big for the Society’s 50th anniversary the following year.

Wyatt described to Mosal the format of a school he’d attended in Stratford-upon-Avon in England. She liked the idea, and Honors Institute was born.

The first Honors Institute was held in 1968 at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts. That’s also the year Robert Blank first served as a workshop leader at the National Convention. He had met Mosal and Wyatt the previous year at a regional convention in New York — his second year as advisor to the chapter at the State University of New York in Farmingdale.

Following his presentation at the 1968 National Convention, Blank was asked to become the New England/Middle States Regional Coordinator. Then, at the 1969 National Convention, he was elected to Phi Theta Kappa’s Board of Directors. He held his seat on the board for 16 years and served as chair for six.

Blank’s first Honors Institute was in 1969 at Marymount College in Virginia. Wyatt had written an outline of the program, and Blank began to plan it. This was the springboard into his role as Honors Institute Coordinator.

He was charged with selecting speakers, and among the presenters he landed in that initial year was Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American Congresswoman, elected in 1968. He was also instrumental in setting up the seminar groups, a key piece of Honors Institute.

“Breakout groups, I thought, were very effective,” he said. “I just took what I had experienced in my own academic career and tried it out here.

“You get these diverse opinions, and that’s a great learning experience. That’s part of education.”

Wyatt and Blank would continue to work together for the next 20 years planning Honors Institutes. Today, both have endowed lectures for the event, which has changed very little in its 50 years, aside from attendance: the first Honors Institute welcomed 123 attendees; today in 2017, more than 500 members and advisors are attending.

Blank’s nearly 30 years as an educator and a chapter advisor saw Honors Institute — and Phi Theta Kappa as a whole — endure while the world of higher education and its students evolved.

“(Phi Theta Kappa) enabled the four-year colleges to recognize that here we have built-in talent,” he said. “It played a very important role in giving the two-year college student recognition and showing the four-year college that a two-year student has great potential.

“Phi Theta Kappa gives people an opportunity in the early years of their college career to be recognized as scholars, and that’s important.”

Wyatt too has watched as Phi Theta Kappa reacted to a changing world. When he first joined the Headquarters staff, he was one of three employees. Today, there are more than 65 serving a worldwide membership that’s 3.2 million strong.

“It really borders on the miraculous, when you look at it,” he said. “But I think it answered a need. I think people were hungry for the kinds of things that such an organization had to offer.

“We developed the Phi Theta Kappa Hug. People understood that they really were cared about. I think so often who we are as people is so much more important than what we do.”

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