Dr. Cleo Higgins, longtime educator at Bethune-Cookman, honored at gala
BY DAYTONA TIMES STAFF
For more than 40 years, Dr. Cleo S. Higgins was an esteemed educator in Florida, spending much of those years making a tremendous impact at Bethune-Cookman University.
On May 23, the 91-year-old educator and community leader was honored for her many years of service with roses, a plaque and plenty of accolades at a gala hosted by her sorority, the Beta Iota Sigma Chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. The event, titled Rhomania 2015: The Roaring 20’s,’’ was a fundraiser for a national scholarship to be given in Dr. Higgins’ name.
Along with her sorority sisters, celebrants at the dinner and dance held at B-CU’s Center for Civic Engagement, included a host of former colleagues, including Dr. Mary Alice Smith, Dr. Shirley B. Lee, Dr. Ann Taylor-Green, Dr. James Huger, Betsy Hardeman, Sallie Culver, Cheri Orr and Ed Singleton.
Dr. Higgins was recruited in 1944 to the school by Dr. Mary M. Bethune, founder of Bethune-Cookman, who became a close friend. While there, Dr. Higgins performed various duties during her tenure – from professor of English to dean of faculty and vice president of Academic Affairs.
Along with working for Dr. Bethune, Dr. Higgins served under Presidents Richard Moore, Oswald Bronson and President Trudie Kibbe Reed.
Brought Greek Life to Cookman
While she excelled in the area of academics at then-Bethune-Cookman College, one of Dr. Higgins’ most noted contributions is the design of the then-college seal as requested by President Moore. She also is credited with bringing Greek life to the school with Sigma Gamma Rho being the first of the “Divine Nine” Greek chapters to be established on the campus.
Another contribution was the establishment of the satellite campus of Bethune-Cookman University in Spuds, Fla. The site has graduated over 700 students.
In addition, Dr. Higgins worked for years with the correctional facilities in the state teaching incarcerated young men, who went on to earn their GEDs. Mission worked included prison ministry along with her husband, William H. Higgins, now deceased.
Dr. Higgins, who finished high school in Chicago, received a Bachelor of Arts in English from Le Moyne College in Memphis, Tenn.; a Master of Philosophy and her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Along with Bethune-Cookman, she also taught at St. Johns River Jr. College in Palatka.
Dr. Higgins is a charter member of the Daytona Beach chapter of The Links, Inc and the local Sigma Gamma Rho chapter.
‘A legacy of service’
During remarks on Saturday, Dr. Higgins talked about the “beauty in all of us’’ and noted that she is a firm advocate of “lifelong learning.’’
Carmen Oliver Williamson, president of the local chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho, told the Daytona Times this week: “Dr. Cleo S. Higgins personifies the faith that one must possess to realize a gift and then act upon it.”
“She is the ‘persistent professor’ who willingly helped to develop the reality of Dr. Bethune’s vision by working with her and even after her to cultivate a legacy of service. Dr. Higgins also served as a National Grand Basileus of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc., influencing many young women around the world to recognize their potential for service. For these reasons, Rhomania 2015 was dedicated to our professor, our mentor and our sister.”
The Rhomania theme embraced the founding of the sorority in 1922 by young African-American female educators attending Butler University. “The sorority dressed in Roaring 20s attire and masks, literally rolled out the red carpet,” explained Williamson. “As a sister in her sorority and as an avid learner/teacher, Dr. Cleo S. Higgins embraces the sorority’s motto: “Greater Service. Greater Progress.’’
At the event, Daytona Beach Mayor Derrick Henry spoke of the legacy of Dr. Higgins’ impact on the community and Police Chief Mike Chitwood brought greetings from the city as well.
Duane C. Fernandez Sr. of the Daytona Times contributed to this report.