Trailblazing math professor Janis Todd retires after 54 years teaching a subject few women pursued professionally at the time
Only five presidents have led Campbell University in its 134-year history, and Janis Todd worked for four of them.
Hired in the fall of 1966 by President Leslie Campbell — son of 1887 Buies Creek Academy founder J.A. Campbell — Todd was three years into her first job teaching math at a high school in Fayetteville when she learned of the opening in Campbell’s math department. Her three-tier interview started with math department chairman Harold Bain, then on to the dean Alexander Roman (A.R.) Burkot and finally to Campbell, who was entering his final year as president after 32 years in office.
Todd was more worried about breaking her contract in Fayetteville than she was about becoming Campbell’s first female math professor. The school’s superintendent was surprisingly generous, she recalls.
“He said, ‘I’ll release you on one condition,’” Todd says. “‘Send us back good math teachers.’ I said I’d do that, and the rest was history.”
Janis Todd would spend the next 54 ½ years in Buies Creek, teaching generations of students both the basics and the complexities of math, a subject few women taught at the college level in the 1960s (it would be another five years before the nation’s first organization supporting women in the field — the Association for Women in Mathematics — was formed). She insists she had at least another year in her, but retired in December after shoulder surgery made the rigors of full-time teaching even more rigorous.
She leaves Campbell as not only one of its longest-serving professors, but as a trailblazer in the math department and a role model for young women — students and co-workers — who have since shattered glass ceilings in their respective STEM fields.
“She was the first person to introduce me to what would become my career — calculus,” says Lee Ann Eldridge Spahr (’77), who would go on to earn a master’s degree in the field from N.C. State and teach for over 30 years. “Her influence on me showed me that young women can be effective calculus teachers. Her influence has led to approximately 6,000 of my students learning calculus as well.”
“For years, she was the only example to Campbell students of a woman with a graduate degree in mathematics,” says Meredith Williams, current chair of Campbell’s math/ITS department. “Working with Mrs. Todd for the last 15-plus years has been a joy. She made me feel welcome from the very beginning and was especially helpful in my first few years adjusting to a new place.
“When I need to talk through a classroom issue, she is still one of the first people I go to. She has been a wonderful colleague and friend.”
She was in ninth grade when Todd first developed an interest in math beyond daily schoolwork. She had an uncle who use to bring her math books when he’d visit, and when she’d finish a book on geometry, he’d bring her one on algebra. And calculus.
Her high school algebra teacher earned his master’s degree in math before heading off to World War II, and when he returned, he taught. And he played a big part in molding Todd’s fascination and passion for the subject.
While math was thought of for a long time as a “boy’s subject,” Todd says she was never treated differently or ridiculed by classmates for doing well in it. In fact, she was only teased when she made 100s on her tests, but that was because she was one of the few to do so.
Todd preferred teaching in college over high school, because she says her students came in with more of a purpose. Many in those early years were at Campbell to improve themselves or escape from life on the family farm.
“After my classes, though, I think many probably wanted to go back to the farm,” she jokes.
It wasn’t long before Todd earned a reputation as one of Campbell’s toughest professors. In fact, she was grouped into a trio of math professors known as the Three T’s — along with longtime professors Wayne Thomas and Jerry Taylor.
“I guess it was because I was tough,” she says. “Or because I didn’t take any nonsense in class. I did get a lot of laughs out of [the nickname]. I had a cousin in Lillington who was an X-ray technician, and his co-worker had a son that I taught. He said the son referred to me as one of the Three T’s and asked me what that meant. I said, ‘I think it means ‘terrific.’”
Much of Todd’s last year as a professor was spent teaching online, because of the pandemic. While she says the experience was tough, she was more concerned with her students, many of whom struggled without face-to-face instruction for more difficult problems.
It’s that one-on-one interaction with her students Todd says she’ll miss the most, as well interacting with her colleagues in the math department.
“I’ll miss it,” she says. “I’ll miss it a lot. Just being a part of the University — I’m happy to have been at Campbell for so long. After surgery, perhaps Meredith [Williams] will let me teach a course occasionally. Otherwise, maybe I’ll get back to sewing and making clothes. I did that in high school … I was pretty decent at it.”