Lifelong Learner

Harriet Hankins overlooking Rhine River, Germany

Traveler, teacher, matriarch, social activist, survivor—nonagenarian Harriett Beu Hankins came home to UCSB and found a wealth of new educational opportunities.

“In answering your questions, I was a bit too wordy but I have trouble condensing my 90 years,” explains Harriett Beu Hankins BA ’50, who majored in physical education at the original Riviera campus of UC Santa Barbara. So do we, but here goes: After growing up on a dairy, walnut and pig farm in El Monte, California, Hankins went on to live in Hawaii, Washington D.C., San Diego, Connecticut, Italy, Turkey and Saudi Arabia; was a passenger on the Maiden Voyage of the SS United States which shattered the record crossing the Atlantic in 1952; supervised the renovation of eight homes; taught dance, health and P.E. for more than 20 years; volunteered for hospice, League of Women Voters, missions to feed the homeless and other charities; survived breast cancer at age 76, and, oh yeah, married a career Navy man with whom she has parented five children. “Ask about our children and their interesting careers,” she prods.

At a point where Hankins seems to have done it all, she actively pursues every opportunity to learn something new. So, since returning home to California in 2011, she and her husband have made it a point to regularly attend UCSB lectures and events on a wide range of topics. “We particularly enjoyed the session on robot surgery,” she notes.

When, after a series of email exchanges, Hankins writes, “Hope I didn’t bore you,” we can only reply “No. You just wore us out.”


Who or what originally sparked your interest in dance?

My role model in grammar school was the girl’s physical education teacher and that was what I always wanted to be. From age 10 I took private dance lessons at a studio in El Monte where I had a sampling of ballet, tap, Spanish with castanets, acrobatic & baton. Having a spotty introduction to modern dance in high school, my goal was to make modern dance a more creative experience in a P.E. class. I would have loved to be a professional dancer, but I was not that disciplined nor did I feel that talented—especially after spending a summer at Connecticut School of Dance.

So, you pursued dance as a major when you arrived at UCSB?

Dance was a part of the physical education department and that was my major. I should mention it was being exposed to modern dance at UCSB that made me a convert to modern dance.  My master’s thesis at the University of Southern California was on the place of modern dance in secondary schools.

 My first year at Santa Barbara was a challenge.  I think my professors must have seen some potential and I was drilled “think before you speak.”  After four years, I felt confident enough to teach.  My first job had me in charge of a 60-girl drill team. With my dance experience, I always taught dance classes and participated in related activities such as musical productions.  However, moving around. I taught in many places and there was not always a place for dance. In Hawaii, I was the health coordinator for four schools. I always could find a teaching job.  In Saudi Arabia I taught English as a second language.

Speaking of Saudi Arabia, what enabled you to experience life in so many far-flung places?

I married a career Navy man in 1955. My husband served on a destroyer and submarines and in political military affairs where he was division chief for Middle East-African Affairs for the Navy & Joint Chiefs. During this time, we lived in Hawaii, Connecticut, San Diego, Washington D.C., Italy and Turkey. After retiring from the Navy, he accepted a job managing the Saudi ship yards. We lived in Saudi Arabia seven years and retired to the Eastern Shore of Maryland to enjoy sailing our boat.  

During all your years traveling, you also squeezed in time to have five children. How did they feel about constantly moving and what were some of their favorite places to live (and yours)?

Our children always seemed excited about our next venture. We enjoyed all the places we lived with Turkey and Sardinia being the most memorable. Our children would most likely say Sardinia.  

You wanted to get in a little plug for them today.

Michelle went to Brown University and got her M.D. at Boston University. She is a senior oncologist at the V.A. in Boston. Renee went to Brown and got her MA at the University of Maryland. She teaches in Japan. Paul got his B.S. at U.S. Naval Academy and an M.S. in engineering from George Washington University. He is in marine salvage for a private company. Mark went to USC and got his MS from Redding University in England. He lives in Kenya where he is a consultant in sustainable energy. Tom was the name of our 5th child who died in a car accident at age 23.  He was very active in liberal causes.

We often hear that debate about whether people (and particularly women) can have it all, balancing a satisfying career and a family. Your experience seems to suggest it is possible. Any secrets?

I think the most important thing is to marry someone who has respect for your talents and needs.  My personal view is to decide who will be the primary wage earner for the family.  He or she will have priority with work schedule.  It is a challenge to find competent child care. I was fortunate to have almost always found someone that enjoyed our children.  

Since you returned to California, you and your husband have attended countless events including talks on an extremely broad range of topics.  What do you think accounts for your apparently insatiable curiosity? Do you think having been a teacher explains it? Your constant travel? Something else?

A husband that keeps me excited about the world we live in.

When you attend events at UCSB, are you looking to learn something completely new in an area you know nothing about (i.e. robot surgery), or do you generally look for familiar topics?

I enjoy learning something new and also hearing something I may have some views about to see if they are confirmed. I want to emphasize the education at UCSB prepared me for a successful and full life.  I’ve been happily married for 64 years, raising five children. I put to good use those child psychology classes.