Family’s History Part of U of A Legacy

February 1, 2024  |  by Heidi Wells, Global Campus

Gray Church poses on the steps of Old Main during commencement weekend last spring.
Gray Church poses on the steps of Old Main during commencement weekend last spring.

Gray Church wrote a personal essay to mark the University of Arkansas’ celebration of its sesquicentennial in 2021. She didn’t reach all the way back to 1871 when the university was founded, of course, instead tracing her family’s history at the U of A, to her childhood when she believed she would be a Razorback someday.

“We loved the Hogs, hated the Longhorns, and never thought our lives in Arkansas would end,” she wrote of herself at 11.

Her dad, who had competed on the Razorback track and field team, sang the Arkansas fight song incessantly, and her grandfather took her to football games.

Then the family left Arkansas.

Because of her father’s military service, the family moved about every two years, Church wrote in her essay. They still called the Hogs but, except for summer vacations and funerals, Arkansas was a part of the past.

Her parents inspired a love of learning in her as well as a love of the U of A, where they met and became engaged in the 1950s. Warren Carpenter, who passed away in 2003, attended the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences next, embarking on a career that combined medicine with the military. He served in the Marine Corps and the Air Force, including time as the Department of Defense’s Chief Medical Officer for military space shuttle missions. He flew 297 combat hours and earned six service awards for marksmanship. Ann Gray Carpenter earned a degree in chemistry and taught school.

“Every place we went when Warren was in the Air Force, I would go in and apply for a job, and I was never turned down once in all those towns we lived in,” Carpenter says. “I was able to get teaching jobs pretty quickly because I had a degree from the University of Arkansas.”


Fifty Years Pass

About five decades after her family left Arkansas, Church retired from a 28-year career in information technology. She began teaching IT courses part time and online for a small college in San Diego. Her mother had passed along a love of teaching to her.

“I had always loved teaching and I would have liked to have been a teacher,” she says. “It was wonderful to be able to fulfill that passion for instructing. My mother instilled in me this love of learning and sharing my knowledge with others. It always chokes me up. I just really admire her so much and my dad, too.”

Church also had always wanted to get a doctoral degree. She started looking at colleges in the Southern California area where she and her husband lived. It occurred to her she would have to drive more than an hour each way to classes, and she didn’t want to do that two to three times a week. She switched her focus to online doctoral programs. While creating a spreadsheet with information about tuition, required in-person appearances and other details about online doctoral programs, she stumbled onto the adult and lifelong learning program at the University of Arkansas. It requires six on-campus visits per year with 75% of coursework delivered online.

Church hit it off with Kit Kacirek, the program coordinator at the time, in a phone call and then talked to her husband. The couple had been wanting to move. She asked if he would agree to move to Arkansas for the three years the program would take. Kacirek had told her that Arkansas residents over 60 could receive free tuition in the Senior Razorback program. After he located the state on a map, Church’s husband, Al, agreed to a trip to Arkansas.

A visit to the Fayetteville campus and the surrounding area convinced them they would enjoy living in Arkansas. For one thing, they learned that, instead of going to Las Vegas to see Santana perform, they could have seen him play at the Walmart AMP in Rogers. The scenic drive from the Northwest Arkansas National Airport in Benton County reminded Church’s husband of Hawaii, where his parents had lived. During a tour of campus guided by a representative of the Graduate School and International Education, Church received an Arkansas T-shirt she wore for the rest of the weekend.

Their house in California sold within a few days of going on the market, and they moved to Bella Vista first and later Holiday Island, both places where Al could fish every day. Later, Miss Arkansas taught him to call the Hogs at a football tailgate at the Janelle Y. Hembree Alumni House on the U of A campus.


Doctoral Degree

Church wrote her dissertation on a type of teaching and learning methodology called competency-based education, comparing graduation rates for schools that use the methodology to schools that use traditional direct instruction methodology. While the campus visits and her instructors were outstanding, Church says, the student cohort elevated the experience.

“Our cohort was wonderfully supportive of each other, and I had a wonderful, wonderful experience,” she says.

She also valued the flexibility of the program and acknowledged that she had an easier time than some of her classmates because many of them were working full time and had children at home, which she did not.

“There were some people, of course, who had it a lot tougher than I did,” she recalls. “I didn’t have the responsibilities of a full-time job or raising small children that make it so hard to find time to study. We had people step up and say, ‘I will tutor you; if you need some help understanding quantitative statistics, you let me know.’ On Zoom, (a fellow student) walked us through how to solve problems.”

Church started teaching part time again this year, this time online for CompTIA Tech Career Academy.


Honoring Traditions

Tears came to Church’s eyes when she thought about what being a U of A graduate means to her. It’s the achievement of a lifelong goal, and it makes her feel closer to her parents, she says. She treasures the experience of walking across the stage at commencement in Bud Walton Arena in May and shaking the hand of Chancellor Charles Robinson, who had become the U of A’s seventh chancellor in November 2022.

“I told him I was so glad to be graduating under his administration,” she says. “He gave me a hug and said that meant so much to him. I admire him a lot.”

She recently emailed the chancellor to tell him he is doing a good job.

Her mother, who lives in Colorado, recalls her time on the Fayetteville campus fondly.

“I just remember those were wonderful days, and we love Fayetteville, and we love calling the Hogs every Saturday right now,” Carpenter says.

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Heidi Wells

Content Strategist

Heidi Wells is the content strategist for the Global Campus at the University of Arkansas and editor of The Online Learner. Her writing spans more than 30 years as a communicator at the U of A and a reporter and editor at Arkansas newspapers. Wells earned two degrees from the U of A: a master's in 2013 and a bachelor's in 1988.

Wells can be reached at or 479-575-7239.

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Doctor of Education in Adult and Lifelong Learning

The Ed.D. in Adult and Lifelong Learning degree prepares students for employment in programs that provide adult literacy and education, lifelong learning, community and nonprofit organizations, military education, postsecondary education, and continuing professional education.

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