Reflections on Dr. Bertina Hildreth Combes

She was so good at bringing people together.

"When you think about Bertina and the kind of work she did, she made a point to personally come out and greet everybody. She's been here so long that she's probably greeted just about all of the new Black faculty members and administrators. One of the first things she would say is, 'I am so glad you're here. I'm so excited about this. What can I do to help you be successful?' When it came to being an engaged citizen of the UNT community, she was really without peer.

She was so good at bringing people together to work on issues of common interest and push the agenda forward together. That was one of her greatest skills: being able to engage almost anybody. She was thoughtful, collaborative and really willing to pitch in, whether she was leading the group or just a member of the team.

The work she did in the College of Education was so important — that critical self-examination of pedagogy and how they might change the curriculum to be more responsive to the students they're serving as well as the diverse students that their students will someday be teaching. If they're the ones teaching future teachers and principals, then they've got their fingers on the pulse of the future of education — in our state, in our region, all over the country.

Most people know her from UNT, but I saw her on Saturdays and Sundays.

She connected me with the local chapter of our sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, when I came to Texas. And she was always so thoughtful. She'd go to the regional or national meetings, and I would always get something back. When she first met me, she gave me a pin in the shape of Texas — it had a little red heart with 'DST' in the middle, for Delta Sigma Theta. She said, 'You're in Texas now!' so she was trying to give me some emblems to help me make my peace with leaving North Carolina.

Bertina was exemplary of the best of all of us. In our sorority, we have these nine cardinal virtues. Things like compassion and courtesy, dedication, fellowship, fidelity, honesty, purity, temperance — Bertina represented all of them.

Bertina was a gardener, and she was very kind last year about bringing me collard greens out of her garden. I would be out and get back to my office, and Christi would say, 'You've got a package in the refrigerator.' I'd think, 'In the refrigerator?'And then I'd realize, 'Oh! Collard greens from Bertina!' She just had so many interests. She loved to travel. I love to travel too, and it's always great to find a group of women you can travel with.

We both liked to shop, so whenever we found something green, we'd ask each other, 'Where'd you get that?' And she was so giving. I remember someone commenting on this beautiful green necklace she had, and she said, 'You really like it? Well, here, why don't you have it.' She would take it off and hand it to them. They'd always be so shocked, but that's just who she was."

— Joanne Woodard, Vice President of Institutional Equity and Diversity

What impressed me the most was not only her passion for her UNT work but also her pride in her family.

"I had the opportunity to know Dr. Bertina Combes as an Academic Fellow in the Office for Faculty Success for the 2020-2021 academic year. Here, she served as my supervisor and mentor. She was always patient, goal oriented, friendly and a great motivator. What impressed me the most was not only her passion for her UNT work but also her pride in her family. On one occasion in the midst of a work meeting, she briefly mentioned her mother and her son. She was very proud of her mom’s accomplishments in academia and of her son. She always wanted to follow on her mother’s footsteps and was very happy to have her mother nearby and be part of her daily life. She was deeply concerned about her mother’s welfare and well-being. On her son, she mentioned that her son had defended her once against someone by telling this other person that she was a “Combes” and not a different last name. As she was telling this story about her son, I noticed that she became quite emotional and I could tell that this incident had meant a world to her. To be accepted as a Combes by her son and being defended by this same son was a cherished milestone moment in Dr. Combes’ life. We did not have a chance to talk about other family members but I am writing this so that her family would know that I could tell that they meant the world to her. I especially want her son to know that she was very proud of him and that I, as a mother of three sons, could tell how much she loved him and cherished him. May God bless Dr. Combes and her family always!"

— Dr. Leticia Anaya, Principal Lecturer of Mechanical Engineering

She made people of all levels feel important and like their voices mattered.

"Dr. Bertina Combes was especially proud to be affiliated with the special education program at UNT. As a professor of special education, she cultivated an atmosphere of integrity, respect and perseverance. She was particularly mindful of the struggles that students and faculty encountered as a result of belonging to historically marginalized groups such as women of color.

Bertina put her heart and soul into mentoring students and junior faculty so that they could reach their maximum potential and fulfill their dreams even if they felt unsure of their own capabilities. She inspired people to be their best version of themselves and always had a kind word to offer whenever she interacted with others.

Despite her extremely busy schedule, she always took the time to genuinely ask about people's day. She made people of all levels feel important and like their voices mattered. She embodied everything that we would want in a professor. Because of these reasons and many more, Bertina will forever remain in our hearts."

— Dr. Miriam C. Boesch, Associate Professor of Special Education in the Department of Educational Psychology

Our college is better for her contributions to it, and we suffer irreparable harm in losing her.

"For every member of our college's leadership, Bertina was a guide, a source of welcome, information, insight, and history: In my first couple of years at UNT, I bet she introduced me to 500 people. The power of all these relationships is only a part of Dr. Combes's impact on this college and UNT.

Our college is better for her contributions to it, and we suffer irreparable harm in losing her. I can easily name some of the legacies we have from her. She tried to convince us that we should shape what we do in the interests of people who might be made vulnerable by our decisions — or who were already vulnerable because of the ways the world has been structured by the powerful. Through questioning, she consistently taught us habits of considering multiple perspectives as we designed processes and made decisions, forcing us actively to imagine how they would affect people's — especially students' — experiences and life chances. As her chosen field — multicultural special education — would seem to make clear, she was especially concerned about individuals who experience hard struggle in pathways that some others may not find as difficult. She was often excited to share information about our college, and to make us attend not only to the university's possibilities and emerging future, but also to its history and the good people who worked hard to get us to where we are now."

— Dr. Randy Bomer, Dean of the College of Education

Her dedication and positivity were a genuine reflection of her values.

"I have never met a person who believed more in UNT, its students, its employees, and its potential to improve students' lives than my cherished colleague Dr. Bertina Combes. Bertina worked every day to help make UNT the best place it could be for all of us. Her compassion for everyone in the UNT community, especially the students; her generosity of spirit; and her belief in the institution guided all her interactions, even in the most trying of situations. Her dedication and positivity were a genuine reflection of her values and are exemplary."

— Dr. Beverly L. Bower, Professor Emerita of Counseling and Higher Education

With a few small words, she had the ability to move mountains in my mind.

"Dr. Combes was a colleague, mentor and friend. Hearing her sing the gospel through our adjacent office wall was a highlight of the years we spent working together in Educational Psychology. While finishing my undergrad through night classes at UNT, I'd often find Dr. Combes working late into the night, humming away, writing grants, reading papers, and working tirelessly as always, serving others and her passion for education. Her encouragement and support helped me stay the course through undergrad and heartened me during difficult times. That encouragement and inspiration grew as she progressed into our Dean's Office and higher.

I will always remember her powerful words, "I would be honored," to write a recommendation letter for little me into a highly competitive master's program at UNT. And again, when I didn't get in on my first try: "Keep your chin up, seek feedback and try again." With a few small words, she had the ability to move mountains in my mind. During the pandemic, insecurity and scrutiny of my efficacy as a mom, employee and continuing student struck again. I vow to continue to take Dr. Combes' words to heart. I will not give up on my education. Because of Dr. Combes, I will stay the course and serve our passions. I will continue to strive to make her proud.

I am so saddened by her loss. Words cannot come close to describe the impact she's had on me, and how she will be missed."

— Amber Brasher, Administrative Coordinator, College of Education Office of Technology

I had heard of her as someone who would be an excellent person to know. She was that and more.

"I knew that Bertina was a faculty member in the College of Education before my arrival at UNT in 2002. I had heard of her as someone who would be an excellent person to know. She was that and more. Under Bertina's mentorship, I had the opportunity to serve alongside her on a dissertation committee as well as on numerous college and university committees. Her calm, wise, thoughtful and fair approach to addressing academic issues resonated in her interaction with students, faculty, administrators and staff.

Dr. Combes was a strong and effective advocate for faculty. We were very pleased when she assumed the position of vice provost for faculty success. I could not think of a person more suited to a position that called for an administrator who could provide a balanced view of academic affairs through both her faculty and administrative experiences.

UNT has yet to fully realize what an exceptional person we have lost with the passing of Dr. Combes. I know that I have lost a trusted friend and colleague."

— Dr. V. Barbara Bush, Retired Professor and Coordinator for Higher Education Program

Her support was immeasurable and I would never have finished the program without her.

"Dr. Combes was one of a kind. I met her over 20 years ago when I was a student in the EBD program with Dr. Bullock. I didn't have her as a professor, rather as a friend who was willing to review a children's book I had written. We started a friendship then, and later she became family. As my major professor for the Ph.D. program, we worked together countless hours to finish up and help me become Dr. Stacey Callaway. Her support was immeasurable and I would never have finished the program without her. She will be missed by all as she was loved and respected by many."

— Dr. Stacey Callaway, Behavior Specialist at Frisco ISD

Every interaction … was about inclusion.

"Every interaction I had with her about UNT, how it looks and operates, was about inclusion.

I think that's an important legacy of her work because there's a difference between diversity and inclusion. She was so invested in new programming, particularly programming for students with disabilities. She really cared about people being included and heard and respected.

The legacy she leaves is in everyone who references her as "My Bertina" or "Our Bertina."

I think we have an obligation to pay her back, in some small way, for not only what she gave to us, but what we know she had to bear to be in the spaces that she was in.

A lot of what UNT looks like for faculty of color, particularly Black faculty and Black female faculty, we all attribute in some way to Bertina. She was so visible, always ready to work and be available to everyone. We needed that.

What she was doing with the Office for Faculty Success, trying to develop faculty wholly and ensure that UNT truly represents its philosophy — that's what she leaves behind. We owe it to her to make sure that continues, because she really loved UNT.

Kind of like family, even when things are ugly, she still saw the potential. I think she did that for all of the people that she interacted with, regardless of their race or their gender. She really cared about developing potential and allowing it to flourish."

— Dr. Chandra Carey, Associate Dean for Academics in the College of Health and Public Service, Associate Professor of Rehabilitation and Health Services and Founding Co-director of the Center for Racial and Ethnic Equity in Health and Society (CREEHS)

Her spirit can never be replaced.

"Dr. Combes has been a fixture at UNT, particularly among faculty of color. When I came for my job interview, both she and Dr. Beverly Bower were the first Black faculty that I met. Bertina, Beverly and Dr. Val Martinez-Ebers had lunch with me as a sort of "council of elders" to tell me about the experience of Black and Brown faculty on campus. Bertina was so warm, but direct and honest. She wanted me to know what I was getting into, but she wanted to reassure me that if I chose to come, I would have a support system. And that is what she has been for me all these years. There are so many moments through my career at UNT that Bertina has served as a sounding board and a solace. Her spirit can never be replaced, and I am heartbroken over her loss."

— Dr. Tony Carey, Associate Professor of Political Science & Founding Co-director of the Center for Racial and Ethnic Equity in Health and Society (CREEHS)

You could feel how important you were to her.

"She was more than a colleague and a boss — she was a friend, mentor, cheerleader, and motivator.

I've learned many lessons from Bertina but there are two that stand out the most. The first one, be gentle and listen to people — I mean really listen and hear them. Bertina had a way of listening to people and giving her undivided attention to people in a way that really made them feel seen and heard. When talking to her and being in her presence, you could feel how important you were to her. The second thing that stands out is to live life with grace and purpose. She truly made a difference, and she did so in a way that was graceful and purposeful. She was intentional about all that she did (even the little things).

The things Bertina left with me were not just about work and academia — they are much bigger and much more impactful than that: They are life lessons, people lessons, relationship lessons. Bertina had so many gifts that she left with many of us, and now we can continue the work and the legacy of Bertina by using those gifts for good and sharing those gifts with the people we encounter. I am privileged to have known Bertina and this world is a better place because she was here."

— Dr. Angie Cartwright, Associate Professor of Counseling and Higher Education

She was a blessing and her giving life is exemplary and forever inspiring for us.

"Bertina was a great colleague, a caring friend and a sister in Christ. I remember the after-class chat at night in the early years when we just got to know each other. She was gentle and sweet, and most importantly, she struck me as a person of deep Christian belief. Anything in life, ripples or storm, she would pray and give it to God. Her humble and calm demeanor made it easy for me to approach her, even with very personal and critical matters. She was caring, encouraging, non-judgmental, considerate and warm but never intrusive. I am thankful for her comradeship and friendship no matter what level of professional position she was at, and the 11.5 years our lives overlapped.

No words can accurately capture the positive energy Bertina has brought to our lives and the immense grief her passing-away has caused. She was and will remain a shining star in the Sky. She was a blessing and her giving life is exemplary and forever inspiring for us. She and her family are in our thoughts and prayers."

— Dr. Qi Chen, Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Psychology

She would always reach for the Bible to guide her.

"Bertina was a supportive and caring Christian to me and many. Through times of challenging work circumstances or decisions, Bertina would always reach for the Bible to guide her. On many a day, I could get a text that had a scripture verse and a reflection on how we could reflect Christ in the academic world. We both thought that if a person experienced love, they experienced Christ. As the NT Christian Network Employee Resource Group journeys onward, Bertina provides all an exceptional example of the Christian academic."

— Dr. Nandika D'Souza, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies in the College of Engineering

We will always remember and honor her power.

"It's not typical to meet black women working as full professors in the university, but these women are central to my mentorship and academic success — and so, as a Black junior faculty member, I always search them out

In the few short engagements we had, Bertina made it clear that nothing is unattainable to me, that my career advancement is of tremendous importance, and that I should continue to pursue it as though it is already foretold — it's hard to quantify how much her example means to me. Bertina's availableness, her very presence, made BIPOC feel like we are necessary, we are welcome, and full of potential. She was an incredibly generous listener, even when she must have been pulled in a million different directions.

I am grateful for Bertina's hopeful vision of the future. I mourn the loss of mentorship she was so willing to make available to me, and Black and brown women like me. We will always remember and honor her power."

— Dr. Joanna Davis-McElligatt, Assistant Professor of Black Literary and Cultural Studies, Department of English

I am a better leader because of her.

"Dr. Combes, along with other educational leaders, joined me to host a beautiful conversation, "Navigating the Leadership Journey — A Female Perspective" at the 2019 Texas Association of School Boards and Texas Association of School Administrators Convention. We shared success stories and our hopes for future leaders. I will never forget this day as the room was full to the max — standing room only! One of my favorite memories is when Dr. Combes introduced her mother, Dr. Gladys Hildreth, to the audience. No one wanted to leave the session.

Dr. Combes helped me gain confidence over the years and together with several other professors she "welcomed me to academia." At times, I felt displaced or discouraged and every time we talked, she offered a listening ear and wise words. I am a better leader because of her. Someday I'll be Dr. French, and it will be largely because of women like her!"

— Corinne French, Coordinator of the Senior Year Experience in the Eagle Advantage Program, Orientation and Transition Programs

She dedicated so much love and guidance to my journey.

"Dr. Bertina Combes blessed my life as a teacher, chair of my committee, mentor, colleague and friend. She dedicated so much love and guidance to my journey, helping me earn my Ph.D. With her gentle strength and sense of purpose, Bertina nudged all of us to give more of ourselves and do our best in service to others. She will be sorely missed."

— Dr. Heather Hughes, Executive Director of Special Programs at Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD

She poured into me and everyone she encountered.

"I am a graduate of the College of Education in which Dean Combes professionally resided. I came to know her as an eager college student. She was someone I could come to for guidance when I was overwhelmed. She was my favorite person to ask for a letter of recommendation because she took the time to know me! She poured into me and everyone she encountered. I love her and her children so dearly. I am and will always be grateful for the way Dean Combes has motivated me to be who I am today! Thank you for everything, thank you for being you!"

— Jaylin Jackson, Graduate of the College of Education

I really can't forget how supportive she was.

"Dr. Combes was one of my Ph.D. committee members back in 2017. I really can't forget how supportive she was. I was an international student, and she was one of the few people who made me feel included and supported me during my difficult days. May she rest in peace."

— Dr. Walaa Kherais, Assistant Professor at Jeddah University in Saudi Arabia

She was a bridging type of person between so many different groups.

"We met on the very first day we both started at North Texas in 1989. At that time, the College of Education was either doing construction or just didn't have an office for Bertina yet, so she was in Wooten Hall with me. As new assistant professors, we saw each other every day — early mornings, late nights, even weekends.

I was the first person of color in my department, and we were both openly affirmative action hires. There was a small group of us at that time, young African American professors, and we felt a lot of pressure to do well. Some of us were so scared, but not Bertina. She was the calm one, the quiet leader who had experience and knew what to expect. We learned a lot not only from her, but also from her parents.

I think one of the other things that defined Bertina was her ability to bridge faculty and administrators. She was a bridging type of person between so many different groups. Her research was in special education, but her interests were interdisciplinary and always about helping marginalized people. When you study marginalized groups, a lot of the work is interdisciplinary. Bertina knew people not only in different departments, but across so many different groups. You wouldn't think they would come together, but she would bring them together."

— Dr. Valerie Martinez-Ebers, Professor of Political Science and Director of Latina/o and Mexican-American Studies

She was not just a colleague but a close friend and confidant.

"Bertina was not just a colleague but a close friend and confidant. We shared many happy memories of fun times during our joint projects and trips to other cities while participating in professional conferences. My fondest memory is when we were in D.C. one time and enjoyed a "destination dinner," sampling each course at a different restaurant, acting like old college buddies. She always remembered that I am vegetarian and checked the menu at restaurants before making a reservation. At holiday parties in my department, she always brought a vegetarian item, keeping the small minority in mind."

— Dr. Smita Mehta, Professor of Special Education in the Department of Educational Psychology

Always present in good times and bad times.

"I have the honor of being mentored by Black and Latina scholars who paved the way for me and support me with their knowledge, wisdom and love. One of these mentors is Dr. Bertina Combes. Through our women of color peer-mentoring group, La Colectiva, Dr. Combes accompanied me, and so many others, always listening attentively and with great care, and always imparting wisdom. No matter how defeated, how broken, how angry I felt, I always left any meeting or conversation with Dr. Combes feeling whole, respected, valued and cared for.

Dr. Combes not only survived in a white majority institution, she thrived, and she made it her responsibility to make sure that the rest of us thrived along with her. Always present in good times and bad times, Dr. Combes always made sure to acknowledge and celebrate our individual victories as collective triumphs. She was there for the publication of a book chapter by La Colectiva and she was there to greet our individual successes with her bright and contagious smile. She led by example, strongly, steadily, fighting insurmountable battles against injustice with a gentle demeanor and a sharp mind. Rest in power my dear mentor and colleague Dr. Bertina Combes, I miss you dearly."

— Dr. Mariela Nuñez-Janes, Professor of Anthropology and Director of Graduate Programs

She was kind, graceful, funny, encouraging and knew when you needed some tough love.

"Bertina was an amazing mentor. She was kind, graceful, funny, encouraging and knew when you needed some tough love. She was supportive and knew how to question you to get the best out of whatever you were trying to achieve or accomplish. Her love for special education and those that work in the field was always apparent. As a mentor she shined — whether it was fun times at conferences, co-presenting, or feeding us with amazing food she prepared for us during long weekend classes, we all knew she cared about us as people as well as students. Bertina led our Project TELL cohort with a fervor to build leaders in the field, and we are all — in our current roles across North Texas and beyond — living examples of her legacy."

— Dr. Nicole Park, Coordinator of Special Education at Frisco ISD

This story is just one of many that exemplifies the spirit and light Bertina brought.

"When Bertina was interim dean, Kinesiology had one student teacher graduating whose father had brain cancer. He was not expected to live two more weeks until graduation. Bertina and I went to his family's home in Krum, dressed in full regalia. The student was also in his graduation gown. We carried the KHPR banner and Bertina had graduation music on her phone. His entire family and his friends were there as well.

We marched in just like you would at graduation and both of us gave a little speech. Although his father could not talk, you could see he fully understood and was so proud. There were tears all around. Indeed, his father did not live until UNT held graduation that spring. This story is just one of many that exemplifies the spirit and light Bertina brought to UNT and the College of Education."

— Karen Weiller, Associate Chair of Kinesiology, Health Promotion and Recreation

I could always visit her for words of encouragement and wisdom.

"Dr. Combes was like a special Aunt to me. If I was having a difficult time, I could always visit her for words of encouragement and wisdom. I will miss her wonderful smile."

— Melody White, Senior Lecturer of Information Technology & Decision Sciences

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