Southeast Arkansas College President Stephen Hilterbran became an educator because he could not hit a curveball.
Hilterbran will retire Dec. 31, finishing a career in education that began in 1972. Before he became an educator, Hilterbran had set his sights on becoming a professional baseball player.
“I am an old baseball catcher and I tried out with the Texas Rangers. I was with the Oklahoma City 89ers, which would be like the Arkansas Travelers,” Hilterbran said. “And they offered me a contract in Arizona. But I was married and had a child and I had a teaching/coaching job.”
Realizing that if he did not advance in his baseball career, Hilterbran worried he would be without any job. Hilterbran had already earned a teaching certificate from Northwestern Oklahoma State University and could not afford to be jobless.
“We all think we are going to do things that we don’t,” Hilterbran said of his efforts at a career in baseball. “I was drafted into the Vietnam War, went to the National Guard. During spring training after I got released, I had to go to Fort Polk, Louisiana, for basic training, and got a call from Bob Van Meter, who was my old baseball/basketball coach at Woodruff High School.”
Van Meter asked Hilterbran if he wanted a teaching job and Hilterbran accepted it at Woodruff High in Fairview, Oklahoma. Before that job, Hilterbran had worked many other jobs yet did not have a passion for them.
“I got up in the morning after I had taught at Fairview for about one week and I thought ‘I’m not dreading going to work this morning,’” Hilterbran said. “I like this. It’s different every day. When you see somebody who is learning have an ‘aha’ moment, that’s pretty rewarding. … We don’t get paid enough but it’s very rewarding for educators whenever they actually see someone succeed.”
Hilterbran spent the last six and a half years of his career at the helm of Southeast Arkansas College. His wife and he plan to move to Edmond, Oklahoma, to be close to their children and grandchildren.
He considers his greatest achievements at SEARK College to be transitioning the college from paper records to online records and expanding its offerings in vocational and technical classes.
“Two years ago, we implemented over a half a million dollar electrical mechanical program,” Hilterbran said. “I am hoping that that pays dividends for this community. That is what some of the industries and businesses said they needed and wanted. And that’s something that I hope can be sustainable.”
“There are so many things we are able to monitor now and make it easier for faculty, staff and students,” Hilterbran said.
Hilterbran said his greatest challenge at SEARK College was not being able to increase student enrollment. This is something that he achieved at other colleges where he worked. Hilterbran said he has observed that when the economy is strong, student enrollment drops.
Hilterbran will be succeeded by Steven Bloomberg, who is currently the executive vice president at Oklahoma City Community College. Hilterbran was not involved in finding his successor.
“He is coming from a large metropolitan college,” Hilterbran said of Bloomberg. “My last position was at a large metropolitan college in Baton Rouge [Louisiana] Community College. You get exposed to a lot at those large universities. They have more funds to do things with.”
“He is going to bring some things to this college that I don’t know,” Hilterbran said. “We all know what we know. … He will provide us with new direction. He will take this college hopefully to its next step in its development, which is something I tried to do.”
Hilterbran thinks Pine Bluff residents support revitalization, citing their approval of the five-eighths cent sales tax increase with the Go Forward Pine Bluff initiative.
“This community is really starting to move forward,” Hilterbran said. “There is a lot of positive movement happening here. It is very similar to what I saw happen in Enid, Oklahoma, a town of 50,000; they were in a recession too. They turned their downtown around and it’s a very nice city. Everything has changed. I think Pine Bluff should be proud of itself for changing the environment and culture to show people what can be done and helping them to make them successful.”
Born in Seminole, Oklahoma, Hilterbran grew up in Bushton, Kansas.
Before leaving SEARK College, Hilterbran is still working like any other day and looks forward to one more graduation. Once he retires, Hilterbran said he will spend more time drinking coffee and reading the newspaper.
“I used to fish a little bit and I used to hunt a little bit,” Hilterbran said. “My old roommate said he wants to take me back and start doing quail hunting. I am not going to play golf. I am going to play at golf. I am not very good. I don’t know. I retired in Oklahoma and I really enjoyed that for about two or three weeks. This was a long time ago. I am hoping that I can stay busy enough. About all us old guys know to do is to get up and go to work. We’ll see how it turns out.”