Scholarship Namesake Mary Dillard Still an Inspiration

Students, family reminisce with beloved teacher as she turns 90

Though she hasn’t taught in Highland Park ISD since 2000, Mary Katherine Harris Dillard remains an avid fan of her former students.

Dillard worked in the district for 36 years – teaching eighth grade from 1964 to 1970, then at the high school level from 1970 to 2000.

“My years there gave me more joy than I could have ever hoped to experience,” she said.

As Dillard turned 90 in November, she and others reminisced with Park Cities People about years spent sparking a love for literature and language within her students.  

“I initially gravitated toward a career in education as a student, admiring the outstanding teachers at Texas High School in Texarkana,” she said. “My calling was confirmed while at Baylor University through the influence of extraordinary English professors there.”

She earned awards and accolades during her career and served in many leadership and advisory roles.

Dillard worked as a faculty consultant for AP College Board, grading the AP Literature and Language exams of students throughout the country.

She authored a study guide for The Great Gatsby, published by the Research & Education Association that is still used today by students striving for a deeper understanding of the novel.

However, despite those accomplishments, Dillard views her students’ success as her primary legacy.

“My students’ own achievements in life, literary or otherwise, provide the greatest personal satisfaction that I could ever know,” Dillard said.

Mudbound by former student Hillary Jordan, won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction and was later adapted as a film.

“Dillard’s love for her students was mutual,” added Sarah Hepola, a former student who authored the New York Times bestselling memoir Blackout.” 

Hepola recalled entering junior English with a disengaged and lazy demeanor.

“Our classroom conversations about Macbeth and Lord of the Flies snapped me to attention,” Hepola said. “Here was a teacher who was smart, deep, and funny. Writers need an audience, and I am so lucky she was mine.”

Former student Adam Beshara created a scholarship in 2007 in Dillard’s honor, awarded annually to Highland Park students with a particular interest in English. That same year, Dillard won the Distinguished Service Award.

To celebrate Dillard’s birthday, family and friends traveled and gathered on Nov. 17 at the Barcelona Road Baptist Church in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

“The mother of two, grandmother of five, and great-grandmother of 11 has spent her 90th year doing what she does best — caring for those around her,” daughter Laurie Reasons said. “While our mom is deservedly so highly respected for her professional achievements, her family will be most grateful for her spiritual teaching and guiding us toward faith.”    

Dillard still advises aspiring authors: “Dream those big dreams that compel you to persevere [but] accept that there will be failures and rejections.”

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