Connecting Lifelong Passions

A gift from the Lorraine & Lloyd Glidden Foundation has established the Myrna Pearson Endowed Scholarship Fund for Environmental Science and the Myrna Pearson Endowed Internship for Student/Faculty Research in Environmental Science.   

It might seem unusual, at first, for a Wheaton philosophy major to endow a scholarship and an internship to support environmental science. But for Trustee Emerita Deby Glidden, Class of 1968, it was a natural choice.

“The environment has been important to me for my whole life,” she says. “I connected with biology professor Scott Shumway at an alumni event in Atlanta several years ago, when he led a tour of the Atlanta Botanical Garden. We’ve stayed in touch, and we recently had a great conversation about Myrna Pearson, who was his mentor when he began teaching at Wheaton. He described her work with students on the water in the Norton Reservoir. It clicked with me.”

Myrna Pearson taught chemistry at Wheaton for thirty-five years. Her research examined the intersection of chemistry and environmentalism, and she helped to pave the way for Wheaton to develop a major and minor in environmental science. Professor Pearson organized long-term student research projects studying the water chemistry of the Norton Reservoir and Barrowsville Pond. Her research enabled the town to apply for grants to help restore the Norton Reservoir.

“Wheaton’s environmental science major connects with my passion for the natural world, wilderness,” Deby says. “My brother Jeff and his wife Janet joined me in making this gift from our family’s foundation.”

Her Lens on the Environment

Deby’s commitment to wilderness photography has taken her to many faraway places—Alaska and Canada, Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia. Fifty-eight of her photos will soon become part of the college’s Permanent Collection.

She is particularly proud of her polar bear photographs, taken in Churchill, Alaska, the polar bear capital of the world. “These are close-up photographs of the polar bears’ eyes,” she says. “When you can see into an animal’s eyes, you can see into their souls. Their habitat is going away. I don’t know how they’re going to survive.” 

Closer to her Georgia home, at her beach cottage on Little Cumberland Island, Deby is active in the island’s homeowners association, who serve collectively as stewards for the native wildlife and plants on the 2200-acre island. In addition to being a nesting habitat for more than 300 species of migratory birds, Little Cumberland Island is home to the oldest, continuous loggerhead sea turtle nest-monitoring and management program in the world.

Little Cumberland Island has a lighthouse, constructed in 1838 from 90,000 Boston-made bricks, and decommissioned in 1915. Replacing its original whitewash has been a challenge. The white acrylic coating used to reface the surface of the 80-foot lighthouse has become discolored. The residents of the Island are working with the manufacturer to determine the cause. 

“The lighthouse has been an environmental science project for me for almost twenty-five years,” Deby says. “No other lighthouse that has used this coating has had this problem. What’s different about our situation? It’s all about the environment—chemistry, biology, geo-science, wind patterns through the dunes.” 

Experiential Learning

“My family has a long history of continual learning and learning by doing,” Deby says. “My grandfather only went to school through the tenth grade. But he became an inventor and taught himself drafting and calculus. When he died at the age of ninety, he had 150 patents in his name.

“My father, who couldn’t afford to go to college after the Depression, started working as a file clerk at a big insurance company in Boston. By the time he retired, he managed a $10-billion investment portfolio. He served on the board of a major university in Boston for 17 years. That’s unheard of for someone who didn’t go to college.”

She was a Philosophy major at Wheaton, and she says, “That has given me an incredible ability to think outside the box and to think logically. But I wondered, ‘What am I going to do with a philosophy degree?’ When I graduated, I went to work in programming and machine language for computers. That’s all logic-based.”

Since earning her MBA from Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, Deby has had a successful career in finance. She’s been a turnaround consultant for the last twenty-five years, bringing to bear all her business experience to solve problems for organizations seeking course-correction and stability. She recognized early in her life that she learned best by doing.

“When I was six years old, I asked my parents for a piano because my fingers ached to play,” she says. “They had no money, but they found a local church that was giving away a piano. I took piano lessons from grade 3 to 12. That’s the extent of my formal musical training, but I’ve played all over the state of Massachusetts, and I’ve played several parties at the Governor’s mansion in Atlanta. I’m self-taught.”

At Wheaton in her first year, a classmate overheard Deby playing piano in one of the practice rooms in the Watson Fine Arts Center. She asked Deby if she’d like to be the pianist for a musical they were staging. “I said, ‘Sure,’ having no idea that there would be rehearsals five nights a week. But it solidified a connection with Wheaton. That’s part of the reason why I fund music.”

Her love of music inspired Deby to establish the Mary Elizabeth Robinson Murphy Endowed Scholarship for music major, which is named in honor of her grandmother, as well as a fund for musical theater. She was also instrumental in helping Wheaton become an all-Steinway college.

“My music has all been improvisation,” she says. “I understand structure, rhythm, melody. That improvisational approach to music makes me feel comfortable improvising in business. I know how to think outside the box, which, again, is the philosophy connection.”

She recalls nights in Kilham Hall, creating notecards of new ideas from her philosophy readings. “There was an aha moment every night! Lightbulbs kept turning on in my head. It was just pure magic.”

In terms of her philanthropy, Deby says it’s important to know what you’re passionate about and then connect it to what’s happening at Wheaton now. “For me, it’s music and the environment.”