By Brooks Whitehurst
Were it not for Dr. Preston Dyer, professor emeritus of social work, the nearly 1,800 students that have graduated from the Baylor School of Social Work might have had a vastly different experience.
Dyer, now a part-time lecturer, taught full time for nearly 40 years from 1969-2008. Most recently, the Social Work Degree Guide honored him as the most influential social worker alive. The selection was based on merit, scholastic study and political activism, according to the guide’s website.
Dyer first came to Baylor in 1956 as an undergrad, receiving a bachelor’s degree in sociology. In 1969, after a career in clinical social work, Dyer made his way back to Baylor as a full-time professor.
“I’m not one of those guys who doesn’t have any experience,” Dyer said. “I’ve done my work in the field. I came back to Baylor to develop the undergraduate program.”
Dyer said back then, social work departments were a relatively new trend nationwide, and that Baylor’s social work department was a response to the current state of social work.
“Social work was being done by people who had no training,” Dyer said. “Baylor started the program in order to train people.”
According to the National Association of Social Workers, social work as a profession is just over 100 years old. The first collegiate class in social work was offered at Columbia University is 1898.
“I think what this award is all about is my being a pioneer in developing the undergrad social work system,” Dyer said.
In 1974, after teaching for a half decade, Dyer said he had a decision to make.
“After teaching for five years you either have to get a Ph.D. or leave,” Dyer said. “I had to make the decision to stay teaching and get my Ph.D. or to go back in the field.”
Had he decided to go back into clinical social work he said he probably would have made more money, but he committed to his new path as an educator.
In 1976, Dyer received his doctorate in sociology and shortly after became director of the undergraduate social work program. This position would play a pivotal role in Dyer’s career in the coming decades as Baylor developed its Master of Social Work program.
“Around the mid ’90s I realized that Baylor needed to have a graduate program,” Dyer said. “Baylor could fulfill a really unique position of offering a graduate program in social work in a Christian environment.”
After Dyer made the need clear to Baylor, the program started in 1997.
“In my career, my primary job was developing the master’s program, but my greatest joy was teaching the marriage and family class,” Dyer said.
Dyer taught marriage and family for nearly 20 years, the majority of which he taught alongside his wife, Genie Dyer.
While teaching a class with a spouse is still a rarity today, when he and his wife started in the ’90s, they were the only ones, he said.
“We taught the course together for 20 years, with our last course together ending in 2007,” Dyer said. “When students heard just me, they were hearing my side of the marriage, but together students got to actually hear the marriage.”
Dr. Diana Garland, dean of the School of Social Work, was hired by Dyer in the early ’90s to help develop the masters program. Looking back, she said Dyer and his wife have had an untold influence on families through their teaching over the decades, by helping their students launch into healthier and more resilient families.
“Dr. Dyer is a pioneer,” Garland said. “He has been a leader in undergraduate education since he arrived here in the early 1970s and developed a few courses in the sociology department into a full-blown major that would later add a masters degree and become the school of social work.”
Consistently throughout the years, Dyer said his greatest passion as a social worker has been to aid people develop good marriages like the one he and his wife share, which he described as “unbelievable.”
Dr. Gaynor Yancey, professor of social work, said the Dyer’s impact on families through their students has been tremendous.
“They modeled their class on the questions, ‘What does it mean to be a couple and what does it mean to be married.’” she said.
Yancey said Dyer’s recognition by Social Work Degree Guide was a reminder of how honored the School of Social Work is to have had him.
“He was an advocate for social work when social work wasn’t the profession of choice,” she said.
Dyer’s involvement with Baylor has lasted over 50 years. One thing Yancey said sets Dyer apart has been his resilience as a social worker to stand up for a cause, even if he had to stand alone, while inspiring those around him.
“Those of us who know Preston are blessed by him,” Yancey said. “He’s just a good man, and that’s important. He’s been a faithful servant.”