Distinguished Alums 2014
Rita Lester pursued the study of religion and religions as exemplary of the liberal arts, including methods and data from humanities and social sciences. She holds two degrees from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, a master of theological studies conferred in 1991 and a doctor of philosophy conferred (jointly with Northwestern University) in 1997.
Lester has taught at Nebraska Wesleyan University (NWU) in Lincoln, Nebraska since 1998. She currently serves as professor of religion and is also the faculty president, a member of the board of governors, and was chair of the philosophy and religion department (2006-2012). In addition to undergraduate courses, Lester has taught religious diversity in NWU’s master of arts in historical studies program. Lester is a strong advocate for a comparative approach to religious study. Lester teaches courses such as World Religions, Understanding Religion: Christians and Muslims, Women and Religion, and Contemporary Religious Studies.
Students and colleagues of Lester say she is known for her rigorous courses. In the same breath, they are quick to point out that her courses are so intriguing and engaging that students want to come back for more. “It is one thing to teach information, but it is really something else to inspire,” wrote one of Lester’s NWU students. She is celebrated by her colleagues for her ability to stretch students’ minds, stay current on best teaching methods, her countless hours spent helping students with their prestigious scholarship applications, and work with students outside of the classroom.
It is because this continued dedication that Lester has earned recognition and unique career opportunities. She spent 2007 on sabbatical in Toronto where she studied and conducted research at the Encounter World Religions Centre. She served as a Fulbright Program adviser during the 2009-2010 academic year and continues to contribute to prestigious scholarship programs such as Fulbright, Boren and Critical Languages. In 2010, she was one of 12 professors in the nation selected to attend the “Teaching About Islam and Middle Eastern Culture” seminar in Jordan. That same year she won NWU’s 2010-2011 Margaret J. Prouty Faculty Teaching Award. In 2012, Lester was named the Nebraska Professor of the Year and was honored on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. She was selected from nearly 300 top professors in the country.
Lester was one of the 150 authors who contributed to the Encyclopedia of Women and Religion in North America (Indiana University Press, 2006), which was edited by Rosemary Skinner Keller and Rosemary Radford Reuther, both former faculty of Garrett-Evangelical. Lester's most recent publication is a chapter on tradition in Voices of Feminist Liberation (Equinox Press), which was published in the fall of 2012.
While her academic department is small, many agree that her reach is wide. “I went to school back when one could get a degree in religion, but really only study one religion, or even just a part of one religion,” said Lester. “The study of religion is more like the study of languages these days; people should know more than one. And knowing other ones may even help you to better know your own and yourself.”
M. Franklin Dotts
After teaching high school English in Pittsburgh for six years, M. Franklin Dotts received a call from God to move from public education to Christian education. He pursued this call by attending Garrett Biblical Institute and received a master of divinity (M.Div.) degree with a specialty in Christian education in 1961. In this same year, he was certified in Christian education and ordained an elder in the Nebraska Annual Conference of The Methodist Church. In 1969, he received a doctor of education (Ed.D.) degree in religious education with a specialty in curriculum planning from Teachers College, Columbia University, through its joint program with Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
While pursuing his doctoral degree, Dotts began his long tenure at the United Methodist Publishing House (UMPH) and the General Board of Discipleship (GBOD) of The United Methodist Church. He started there as an editor of church school curriculum resources for young children and early elementary children in the Department of Children’s Publications. After six years, he became the Director of Curriculum Planning, which meant working with the entire editorial staff in long-range planning of curriculum resources for all ages. From 1986 until his retirement in 1990, Dotts served as Executive Editor of Children’s Publications, with responsibility for all church school resources for children from birth through Grade 6. Throughout his time as editor on the national staff, Dotts was widely known for his encouragement and leadership. He served as a professional and personal mentor, setting an example for countless colleagues through whom his work continues today.
Dotts retired as an elder in the Nebraska Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church in 1991 but continued to share his editing gifts in free-lance work with both The United Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ. He also served the church through consulting and leadership training in local church, district, and annual conference Christian education.
For the past 28 years, Dotts has also served as a children’s consultant in the Committee on the Uniform Series of the National Council of Churches, which produces the International Lesson Series curriculum outlines for numerous denominations and publishers. His work there exhibits Dott’s deep commitment to ecumenical Christianity as he has brought his wisdom and wealth of theological and biblical expertise to such a diverse ecumenical setting.
Dotts currently serves on the Board of Directors of Sacred Traditions and Rituals (STAR.), an inclusive worshipping community at Central United Methodist Church in Spartanburg, South Carolina. In recalling Dotts’ impact on STAR, The Rev. Susan E. Perrin writes, “In ordinary things done, one can experience extraordinariness. That is what Franklin has done, does, and will continue to offer his family, friends, community, church, STAR, and his alma mater… That is why the Rev. Dr. M. Franklin Dotts is worthy of this recognition from his beloved institution.”