Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

April 8, 2013

Scholarship honors late ACTC professor

Sowards organized college’s theater program, founded a fraternity

Staff report
The Independent

ASHLAND — Two former Ashland Community and Technical College students, one a successful dentist and the other a top college administrator, have established a scholarship fund in memory of one of their best-remembered professors.

ACTC Director of Advancement Frank Salisbury and Dr. Bruce Shaffer are establishing the memorial scholarship in the name of John Sowards, who taught speech and communications to a generation of students, organized the college’s theater program and founded a student fraternity.

ACTC named J.B. Sowards Theatre after him.

Salisbury, Shaffer and a handful of other former students have seeded the scholarship fund with about $1,000 and hope other former students or lovers of community theater will chip in.

Salisbury called Sowards one of the most popular and revered professors at what then was Ashland Community College.

Sowards, who had retired as a full-time professor, continued to teach public speaking classes part time when he died suddenly in 1995.  His passing was mourned by the countless students he had taught during the past five decades.

 The popular educator and role model, known by his many friends and colleagues as “J.B.,” began his college teaching career when he came to Ashland Junior College in 1956 teaching speech and communications courses.  

Sowards spent nearly 40 years in the classroom working with students, many of whom feared public speaking more than any other thing in their future. He worked with students individually to assist them in being successful in their public speaking.

“He had a way to bring out the best in people,” Salisbury said. “I remember a fellow student in my speech class who had a significant speech impediment. J.B. worked with him to overcome his difficulties.  After he performed his final exam speech, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room as the class shared the joy of the student who was so successful in this personal triumph. That was Sowards. He worked continuously to help students and was able to see the best in people.”    

According to Salisbury, Sowards ventured into college theater soon after arriving at Ashland Junior College because of his love of theater and his desire to involve students in activities that would enhance their confidence and maximize their abilities. His initial production in 1956 was “The Whole Town’s Talking.” More than 20 theatrical productions followed until the early 1980s.

Looking at the cast list for the productions is like looking at a “Who’s Who” of Ashland for the better part of four decades. The diverse list shows how many benefited from his influence.

In the mid-1960s he established the Alpha Phi Iota fraternity at ACC and allowed his residence to be used as a gathering center for the fraternity. He did this to give his male students a sense of belonging and of college life that was missing by some students who attended community colleges. It continued to serve students through the 1970s.

“My brother, Barry, and I forged relationships with brother Alphas that have resulted in lifelong friendships for both of us,” said Bruce Shaffer who, along with dental partner and brother Dr. Barry Shaffer also had Sowards in the classroom and performed Shakespeare on stage.

“It was a wonderful experience at ACC that I will always remember,” said Bruce Shaffer.

Bruce Shaffer and Salisbury have established the Scholarship Fund at the Foundation serving ACTC Students. The fund will serve students in need of financial aid.

“J.B. would want to help the students who need help to attend college and improve their future,” said Salisbury. “He had compassion for those in need. He helped so many students to become successful.”

To support the fund and honor Sowards, send a check payable to the ACTC Foundation, 1400 College Drive Ashland, KY  41101 or call  Salisbury at (606) 326-2092.

The foundation is a 501-C-3 nonprofit foundation and gifts to it are eligible for donations for tax purposes.