Senior commemorates several special occasions at graduation 

April 29, 2011

PLAINVIEW – Graduation day holds a special place in the hearts of all college students, marking a day for which they have toiled for years.

But for one Wayland Baptist University senior, her graduation on May 7 will be special for a few very unique reasons. Not only is Plainview native Ashley Hardage earning her bachelor’s degree in English and business in only three years, but she will also be doing it on the birthday of her late grandfather, Dr. Bill Hardage, who died five years ago in a plane crash.

Dr. Hardage was executive vice president at Wayland when he died in March 2006 while picking up an Air Coupe plane he had recently purchased in California. His death marked the end of a more than 40-year relationship with the university, beginning with his time as a student and a track athlete that began in 1963 with a transfer from Hardin-Simmons. Over the decades, he had worked first as a track coach and instructor, moving up in the ranks through faculty and directorships into administration. He was heavily involved in the development and oversight of Wayland’s external campus locations which now number 13.

But for one 15-year-old girl in Plainview, Hardage was simply “grandpa.”

“I was always really close to my grandpa. I was the oldest grandchild on that side of the family, so I was the only one for three or four years and was pretty spoiled,” recalls Ashley, adding that she has fond memories of attending basketball games and plays at Wayland with her grandparents, getting to “dress up” and enjoy hot chocolate at McDonald’s afterward.

The elder Hardage’s death was a blow to the Wayland family he had loved and served and the Plainview community as well. But it was especially hard on Ashley, who was then a freshman at Plainview High School.

She remembers every detail leading up to the final word that indeed, her grandpa was gone. Bill had flown out on a Friday and planned to return home the next day. Ashley was babysitting on Saturday for another family and her parents were at a Sunday school party. When she got home that night, she knew something was wrong.

“Dr. (Claude) Lusk’s car was out front of the house. I remember thinking it was odd that he was there that late,” noted Ashley of the vice president for enrollment management. “He was on the phone upstairs and my dad had his cell phone on one ear and the house phone on the other ear. My sister was in bed and mom wasn’t there, which was also odd.”

After asking more questions, Ashley found out that her grandpa hadn’t arrived home yet and according to her father, things didn’t look good. Unnerved by the news, the Hardages encouraged Ashley to get some rest and to pray for her grandpa that night. She did, knowing he might not be alive but willing herself not to dwell on the possibility.

The next morning when she woke, the family opted not to attend church, and once services were over, the visitors began pouring in. Around lunch, they got the dreaded call that Bill’s plane was found near Hollister, Calif., and the crash was fatal.

The next few months are still a blur to Ashley, who recalls a private family graveside service and the memorial at First Baptist Church of Plainview, where she sang a few songs in tribute to her grandpa, including “It is Well with My Soul.” A few days later, Wayland held its own memorial service and the family attended.

But after that, Ashley said she was a zombie through the rest of her freshman year and the summer, including the first Father’s Day without him, only beginning to move on as her next year started and she got busy with school again. Even now, five years later, her memories are tender.

Second only to the memory of her grandfather that will mark her special day is the fact that she is earning her degree early, a feat she has already accomplished once in her lifetime. Hardage finished her diploma at PHS in three years as well, though she said neither was something she set out to do at the beginning.

Her fast track started in eighth grade with freshman algebra, which put her on course to take advanced classes throughout high school. With few electives by her choice, she filled those slots with needed classes. Then in her junior year, she realized she was coming close to having all she needed to graduate early, especially after she took some concurrent courses at Wayland and earned dual credit. So she did.

Having practically grown up at Wayland through the heavy involvement of her parents, WBU alums Tim and Stacie Hardage, and her grandparents, moving into the next chapter of being an actual student at Wayland seemed a natural transition anyway.

But there was one small hitch. For the first time in her life, Ashley wasn’t sure if Wayland was where she needed to be. Though two years had passed since her grandpa’s death, she was afraid being on campus again – without him – would be too much to bear.

“My freshman year was really hard because after grandpa died, there wasn’t really a reason to be at the basketball games or in the Black Box. Those were always things we did with him,” she said. “There were times when I thought it would be easier to be somewhere else because I wouldn’t have to deal with the memories here. I struggled quite a bit with that my first semester.”

But then Ashley got involved at Wayland, singing in the International Choir, joining Student Foundation and planning a trip to Kenya with the mission center. Somewhere during that first year, she became ingrained into the Wayland family again and knew she could never leave.

“Once I started my second year here and had been able to work through the tough parts, I didn’t want to leave. Wayland has been such a big part of my life for my whole life. This is home,” she said. “The people I work with and are in school with, I know I can go to any of those people for quarters to do laundry or for the bigger issues in life.”

Coming into Wayland with 15 hours, she began her courses as a traditional student, albeit a younger one than most of her counterparts. She enrolled in summer terms every year and rolled through her degree plan at warp speed. Suddenly, she noticed that she was getting closer to the credit hours needed to graduate… and it would be early.

She enrolled in 22 hours for the Fall 2010 semester, mostly out of habit, and then realized halfway through that with another full load for the spring, she would be done. Once she realized graduation fell on her grandpa’s birthday, she knew she had to make it happen.

“I was telling mom that graduation was on May 7 and she got this look on her face. Then she told me that was grandpa’s birthday, and I hadn’t really thought about that. From that point on, it’s been really special to know that I’ll get to walk across the stage and get my diploma from Wayland on his birthday,” she said. “It’s like everything is coming back to where it all started.”

During her time at WBU, Ashley has been in Sigma Beta Delta business honor society and Sigma Tau Delta English honor society and she served as a President’s Ambassador her last year. She will continue in that role as a graduate assistant while starting a master’s degree at Wayland in the fall. While she hasn’t yet decided fully what direction to go, she has a desire to teach and possible pursue the path of educational administration much like her grandfather. She can see herself working at Wayland in the future and even making a career out of it.

Part of that comes from finally coming to terms with her family heritage.

“I shied away for a while from being a Hardage and the family tie, but once I finally decided to embrace that and started reflecting on the legacy that grandpa had left at this place, it was special,” she said, noting a bit of sadness as graduation nears.

“It’s bittersweet. I know he would be proud of me and he wouldn’t miss it. To resign myself to the fact that he won’t be here is the bitterness of it,” she said. “But the sweet part is getting a degree from the place he loved, and doing it on his birthday makes it all the sweeter.”