Count Her In

Peggy Jo Tholen, UTSA’s first student, on her graduation day.

Count Her In

UTSA’s first student teaches former magazine editor Rebecca Luther how to calculate ages

[ This article was originally published in Sombrilla Magazine in Fall 2009 ]

Peggy Jo Tholen has been an elementary school teacher for close to 30 years; the woman has simple addition and subtraction down pat. So while she was gracious and willing to talk to me when I called to get her recollections of the university’s beginnings as part of our 40th anniversary coverage, she was pretty sure I had my years wrong.

“According to me, though, it’s not 40 years yet,” she says. “Isn’t that a couple of years away?”

Because while folks here on campus are counting from when the Texas Legislature established the university in 1969, Tholen counts from 1973, the year UTSA offered its first classes. In fact, on June 5, 1974, Tholen was in Austin blowing out the candles on UTSA’s first birthday cake with Dolph and Janey Briscoe. Why did she get the honor of sharing cake with the governor and first lady? Because Peggy Jo Tholen was UTSA’s first student.

A 1971 graduate of Southwest Texas State University, Tholen was teaching second grade at Harmony Hills Elementary when UTSA opened for business in 1973. At the time, her husband, Mark, was in dental school at the UT Health Science Center; Tholen reasoned that, since he was going to be working hard, and starting a family would be several years off, she may as well go back to school for her master’s degree. She knew about the UT branch that was opening in town and called for an application, then mailed it in. Apparently, she was the first to do so; in ceremonies on March 30, 1973, as representatives from the university and the UT System looked on, President Peter Flawn presented Tholen with her letter of acceptance.

Being able to take classes at night and during the summer while she continued to teach was one thing Tholen liked about UTSA. “I loved being able to do graduate work and teach at the same time. There was so much that really made sense because I was actually in the classroom now,” she says. “It was really fun. I remember the classes were pretty small [so] you got to really know your professors.”

“But don’t ask me any names because I don’t remember,” she says with a laugh.

At the time we made a big deal out of Peggy, who is a native of San Antonio and 1968 graduate of Robert E. Lee High School. A photographer even went to her elementary classroom to take pictures of her teaching her 33 students. In an April 1973 article in the UTSA Bulletin titled “The Kids Love Her,” Tholen shared part of her teaching philosophy: “The other day I was talking about spiders in science and a butterfly flew in. That was the time to talk about butterflies, while the children were so interested. We can talk about spiders another day.”

Photographers were there again on May 16, 1976, when Tholen graduated as part of the first commencement ceremony held at the Convocation Center. After graduating from UTSA, she taught until her first child was born in 1981. The Tholens’ daughter now is a physician’s assistant at a Dallas hospital, is married to the pastor at their church, and has a 3-year-old daughter of her own. The Tholens’ son arrived in 1985; he’s now a Wall Street investment banker and “is still single,” his mother adds. Mark Tholen has retired from private dental practice and now is a consultant; he’s authored three books on dentistry.

And Peggy Jo? She went back to the classroom when her son started first grade and has been teaching ever since. Though she retired from the public school system in 2007, she now teaches first grade at a Lutheran school in Dallas.

“First grade is my love. The kids are just so excited to be in school. The growth you see in the first grade year is much greater than in any of the other grades,” she says. “The main emphasis in first grade is literacy, and I love teaching that. Everything we do goes back to reading and writing.”

And it never hurts to learn to count, either.