Remembering Phyllis Coston

BUCKHANNON — An education pioneer and staunch advocate of students passed away unexpectedly while in Florida in late March leaving a legacy that spanned 54 years in education.

Phyllis Coston founded what would become known as the West Virginia Wesleyan College Learning Center in 1963, long before the Americans with Disabilities Act for college students was passed in 1982. Over the years, Coston helped hundreds of people with learning disabilities navigate college, earn their degrees and go on to have successful careers. Coston retired from the learning center in 1998 and from the Christian education department at WVWC in 2009.

Evan Peterson realized his freshmen year in 1969 that he was struggling with reading assignments.  His coach put him in contact with Coston.

“She had just started reading support group on the third floor of the administration building,” he recalled. “Come to find out, I had comprehension issues. I had terrible word attack issues. I couldn’t break down words. After about a year and a half, she had helped vastly improve my reading comprehension.”

Peterson graduated from West Virginia Wesleyan College in 1973, earned a master’s degree from Kean College and went on to impact students of his own.

“I spent 42 years in education as a teacher and administrator,” he said. “I even had the opportunity to study at Oxford University through a doctoral program at Virginia Tech. What Phyllis gave me was the confidence that I could learn to be a better reader. She was like a mother. She was showing me how I could do better. She was checking on me with my professors.”

Peterson said he received glasses when he was in fifth grade which helped his eyesight, but by then he had missed out on those early years of reading education.

“Nobody really cared whether I could read or not,” he said.

In 2016, Peterson was appointed to the board of trustees at West Virginia Wesleyan College and had the chance to visit with Coston during homecoming activities.

“I hadn’t seen Mrs. Coston for 40 years and I was invited to be a member of the board of trustees, and there was Mrs. Coston,” he said. “I said, ‘Mrs. Coston, you won’t remember me but let me tell you what you did for me.’ It was great to tell her the success she gave me in my life.”

Peterson is now retired and splits his time between North Carolina and Florida. He can often be found with a book, which he credits to Coston.

“For a kid for whom there was not a book in the house where I grew up, just two weeks ago, I finished ‘Grant,’ which was 900 pages long,” he said. “Now I am reading ‘Washington.’

“Education needs more people like Phyllis Coston. I wrote her husband last night. I said, ‘What she gave to me and what she gave to the world of education, we need the next Phyllis Coston to come forward and have the impact on future generations.”

Coston earned a B.A. degree from West Virginia Wesleyan College, master’s degrees from Northwestern University and Garrett Evangelical Seminary. She was later awarded a Doctor of Humane Letters from WVWC and has been professor emerita of education and Christian education since her retirement.

Shawn Kuba would succeed Coston as director of the learning center and recalled how she came to work at Wesleyan.

“Prior to our move to Buckhannon, most of my career centered on the field of learning disabilities, so I was really excited to find out that Buckhannon had its own Evelyn Wood,” Kuba said. “Evelyn Wood designed a system to help increase the reading rate and comprehension [for children and adults].”

Kuba remembers meeting Coston and how that would go on to shape her career.

“I visited Phyl the year we came to Buckhannon and we talked about the possibility of me working in WVWC’s Learning Center” Kuba said. “In 1988, she hired me as the counselor to students in her program. She also invited me, along with her other Learning Center colleagues, to teach part of her reading and study development class. Phyl focused on helping her students develop general academic strategies, and her colleagues drilled down on helping students with time management, test taking, goal setting, writing practicums and coming to understand and accept their learning difference. I loved that job and I loved working for Phyl. She was so creative and left no stone unturned while trying to help her students succeed.”

In 2013, Coston published a book, “Celebration of Success,” that highlighted  former students who went on to achieve success.

“Phyl was a pioneer in the field of delivering services to college students with disabilities,” Kuba said. “She and her colleagues from other colleges got together at reading conferences (before the inception of the ADA) and shared ideas for helping students in their reading classes become more successful. She intuitively introduced accommodations of supported note-taking for lecture classes and extended time, reduced distraction environments and readers and scribes for testing. All of these became mandated by the ADA years after she put them into place in Wesleyan’s learning center.”

Jim Chiang was accepted into West Virginia Wesleyan and into Coston’s program in 1988. He graduated in 1992.

“When I applied to colleges around the country in the late 80s, there weren’t that many schools that had these LD programs,” he said. “When I heard about WVWC, I talked to the Costons and got to know the program. It was really important for me to know there was a program like this.

“My high school teachers, for example, did not think I could go on to college. I had always been told, ‘I can’t do this and I can’t do that.’ They even tried to discourage me from meeting Mrs. Coston.”

At Wesleyan, though, Chiang found support.

“Mrs. Coston not only believed in me, but gave my application to Wesleyan her full and unconditional support” he said.
“Mrs. Coston believed in and gave full and unconditional support to all her students.”

He credits Coston with helping him find classes that were more suitable to his style of learning — visual — and seeking out professors who wrote on the board so that he could copy notes. Chiang said that by doing this, Coston focused on his strengths and gave him the opportunity to succeed.

“Mrs. Coston was my advisor my first year,” he said. “And her husband, Dr. [Herb] Coston was just as important to me and became my advisor in my last three years.”

Chiang studied history and government while at WVWC. Today, he lives in northern Virginia and produces marketing materials for a large corporation in the business sector.

He had been searching for a way to honor the Costons for their role in his earning a degree when he spotted an article in the alumni magazine asking for donations to replace landscaping around the campus.

Chiang contacted the school and said he wished to contribute in honor of the Costons. A bench and two cherry trees were planted at the corner of Haymond Hall and Chiang was able to be at the dedication ceremony.

“The Costons not only helped me at Wesleyan but they continued their support and care after I graduated,” he said.

Chiang’s story is one of many.

Kuba said, “Phyl opened her heart and home to all of her students. Every new group of freshmen in her program were invited the first weekend of school to Herb and Phyl’s home for a picnic dinner and to play bocce. As you can imagine, the students found their way down to the house at all hours during their time at Wesleyan since she lived within a quick walk of the college. She was definitely a surrogate mom to her students; with her, they thrived. She thought about her program and her students continually — it was not unusual for me to get a call in the evenings when Phyl wanted to talk about how we could help a particular student.”

Kuba has many personal stories she could share about her friend and mentor.

“The first year I worked for Phyl I learned how important sharing a meal was to her,” she said. “A few of us were invited to provide an in-service to Garrett County teachers and administrators. The event was scheduled for the early afternoon, so I wondered why we had left Buckhannon so early in the morning. After about an hour or so on the road, we pulled off to an exit at Bruceton Mills for a snack. I found myself drinking coffee and eating coconut pie at 10 a.m. I am glad to have shared many happy snacks and meals with Phyl since that day.

“I remember that Phyl opened her reading and study development classes with a wise saying, or affirmation, that helped her students understand and discuss their learning difference in a positive light. When we gave her retirement party, we pasted huge banners of those affirmations all over the room. Phyl was definitely the window the Lord opened when her students believed a door had been closed.”

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