Though Rebecca “Becca” Maddox’s two-decade career at Georgia Highlands College ended last month, her family’s history with the school will keep her involved for the rest of her life.
The 61-year-old director of nursing hung up her stethoscope and called it a career June 30 after deciding "several years ago" that this would be the year she would retire.
“One of the projects the nursing faculty has been working on for the past five years has been to convert the nursing program from a medical-model nursing curriculum to a concept-based nursing curriculum,” she said. “My goal was to get the new curriculum fully implemented and then retire. Last year, the old curriculum was fully taught out, and this academic year, the new curriculum was fully implemented. The graduating class of 2020 is the first class to graduate from the new concept-based curriculum.”
Originally, Maddox had planned to retire last year, but because the new curriculum wasn’t implemented until fall semester 2018, she said she was “not going to leave in the middle of the conversion so I postponed retirement for a year.”
And never in million years did the 38-year nursing veteran ever think the last year of her career would turn out like it did.
“In fact, it was a challenging and unusual year all the way around, not just related to coronavirus,” she said. “The faculty jokingly blame the year on my plan to retire.”
Ending her 20-year teaching career at GHC during a global pandemic was “definitely unusual,” with the college moving to a completely online environment in mid-March, said Maddox, who became the director of nursing in 2010.
“After that, I only saw my co-workers online via Zoom,” she said. “We still spoke, texted and emailed, but the nursing department is a close group of individuals. Not being able to get together in person to support each other was difficult.”
Being separated from her students also made her swan song difficult, especially not being able to celebrate their graduation and pinning ceremony, which is “even more meaningful for the graduates than commencement,” in person.
“That was tough,” she said. “Missing those events, missing getting to physically pin my last class of graduates, is more disappointing than anything. I always look forward to awarding the nursing pins. They represent academic work well done and the graduates’ entry into the profession of nursing.”
The Rome native and resident said she is “so proud of each of our 2020 graduates” for completing his or her academic career during a most challenging situation.
“This was not how they intended to finish their last year either, but everyone worked together to get the job done,” she said.
Due to the virus, Maddox’s co-workers weren’t able to give her the traditional retirement party where they could “reminisce and tell stories” about her time at the college, but they found a creative and unforgettable way to share their memories of her.
During a Zoom going-away party, they had food and gifts delivered to her front door, including a scrapbook of items from throughout the years and a quilt made from squares decorated by current and former faculty members in whatever way they wanted to “commemorate their time in the program and us working together,” she said.
Some of the squares were embroidered; some hand-painted with fabric paint; and some were photo transfers, covering all aspects of her life.
“Between the current and former faculty members, there were more squares than could be put in a single quilt,” she said. “Both a quilt and a wall hanging were made. So many memories. So many great times. It was the most special gift they could have given me. Not only does it represent my teaching life, it represents my nursing life and my personal life. All my worlds have been sewn together.”
Maddox said she will “truly miss the classroom” now that she no longer has to report for work every day.
“I will miss the interactions with the students,” she said. “I will miss my co-workers, but I can still see them. I will miss developing those relationships with students to help them reach their goals in life.”
During her career, Maddox said she has received "cards, emails and tokens of appreciation from graduates" who wanted to express their gratitude.
"I have treasured each of those," she said. "However, what I treasure the most and what I remember the most are the smiles of joy and happiness of the graduates, the whoops and shouts from excited and proud family members and friends as the graduates crossed the stage. To have been a part of that has been the greatest gift."
Maddox said her father, Judge James Maddox, was a “big proponent of higher education” and felt a college degree was “extremely important” so he helped her “navigate the educational system.”
“I wanted to do the same for students,” she said. “It was very important to me for students to understand the big picture of what they were trying to accomplish and to see the steps they needed to take to be successful.”
Her original career plan, she said, was to become a doctor, not a nurse, so she enrolled at the Georgia Institute of Technology as a chemical engineer and pre-med major.
But when she didn’t get into medical school and figured out she didn’t want to be a chemical engineer, her father “mentioned there were other areas of health care that I could consider,” she said.
“I knew I wanted to take care of a smaller number of people at a time and take care of their families as well,” she said. “As we looked at different options, I learned about nursing. The more I learned about nursing, the more I knew that is what I wanted to be.”
With a plan in hand, Maddox began her new career path by earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the Medical College of Georgia in 1982.
She worked at Talmadge Memorial Hospital in Augusta after graduating but moved back to Rome to take a position at Redmond Regional Medical Center, where she was working when she became a part-time clinical instructor for Floyd Junior College.
“That is where I realized how much I loved to teach,” she said.
Maddox earned her master’s degree in nursing from Emory University in 1991 and started teaching full time, but after two years, she accepted a position as supervisor of ICU at Floyd Medical Center.
“I was lured back to the hospital full time based on the pay,” she said. “I enjoyed teaching as much as I expected to, but at that time in my life, the pay for teaching was not sufficient for my needs. My life changed enough by 1998 that I could return to teaching. Once I returned to teaching, I never left again.”
At Georgia Highlands – formerly known as Floyd Junior College – full-time faculty members teach in both the classroom and clinical setting, “the perfect blend of teaching and taking care of patients,” Maddox said.
“Some of my favorite years of teaching were when I had first-semester students in clinical in the fall and students about to graduate in the spring,” she said. “It was awesome to see how much they had grown over the two years in the program and to know what excellent nurses they were going to be. Seeing the students succeed and reach their goals is the most rewarding aspect of teaching.”
But Maddox — who never married or had children of her own but lays claim to the 1,200-plus "kids" she taught during her career — has ties that go deeper than being an employee. Her family roots go back to the very beginning of the college.
"The college has been a part of my life almost all of my life," she said. "I can remember playing on the grounds of the college. I remember when Dr. [David] McCorkle was named as the first president. I remember Dean Wesley Walraven and many of the original faculty members of the college."
The professor said she was 8 when her father read an article about the University System of Georgia's Board of Regents wanting to start a junior college in northwest Georgia, and he "felt strongly" that the new institution should be built in Rome.
After a meeting with the board, the formation of a founding committee and a $3.2 million bond referendum to help pay for it, buildings on the Floyd campus began coming out of the ground in 1970 when she was 10.
It was natural that Maddox would attend the college her father helped establish so she took some classes there while still in high school — long before dual enrollment — and earned an associate degree in science after deciding to leave Georgia Tech to go to nursing school.
When she returned to teach in 1998, the nursing program had moved from the main campus to the Heritage Hall building in downtown Rome, a structure to which Maddox also has a connection.
"That building was built in 1939," she said. "There were three homes that were torn down to make room for the building. The home on the corner lot was my great-grandfather’s home and the home my grandfather had grown up in. The end of the building where the nursing program is currently located is where my family home stood. I kept a photo of that home in my office."
Maddox's father died in 2009, a year before she was promoted to director.
"He was very proud that I was teaching at Georgia Highlands," she said. "He did not get to see me become the director of nursing. I know that would have made him even more proud."
But what the college did in memory of her dad made her an even prouder daughter than she already was.
"After he passed away, the college decided that a building should be named in his honor as founder of the college," she said. "Dr. [Randy] Pierce, the president of the college at that time, decided that related to the tie to the college and the tie to the building, Heritage Hall should be renamed James D. Maddox Heritage Hall. I was then directing a nursing program in a building that stood on family property and was named after my father. Georgia Highlands College is truly my home away from home."
Her family connection isn't the only thing that makes GHC so special to Maddox, who was based in Rome but also "taught a few classes when the college was located on Gilmer Street in Cartersville [and] taught occasionally when we taught nursing on the North Metro campus in Acworth."
"Its history is part of it, but it is the faculty and the staff that make GHC special," she said, noting employees "get to know each other like family." "No matter which teaching site — Rome, Cartersville, Dallas, Douglasville or Marietta — the faculty and staff are student-focused. They want what is best for the students. They want to help them succeed. They want students to be the best they can be and reach for their dreams."
Smaller class sizes enable the instructors to get to know their students better and allow them to give "additional attention that some of them need," she added.
The new retiree might not be ruled by a clock or schedules anymore, but she has no plans to become a lady of leisure.
"I may be retired from teaching, but I am not gone," she said. "GHC is still my family. I plan to still be a part of GHC, just in a different way. There are volunteer opportunities throughout the year in which I plan to participate. I just plan to do other things in between."
Maddox also has a few other plans for her retirement.
"I am looking forward to spending more time with family and friends," she said. "I will be starting a home renovation project soon. That will keep me busy for a while. For fun, I enjoy geocaching. That has led me to travel to interesting and different locations around the United States and overseas. I am looking forward to more traveling once coronavirus is under control. Before I became the director of the nursing program, I was involved in our community theater and with some of the independent filmmaking in the area. I am looking forward to being able to do some of those things again as well."