‘Revered and feared,’ Cross was a trailblazer for generations of women
March 12, 2024
Author: Cal Powell  | 706-542-6402  | More about Cal

Cheryl Varnadoe was wrapping up her first year as a home economics education major when she got the dreaded phone call.

Her father had passed away unexpectedly.

After hastily packing for the long trip home to southwest Georgia, she nervously called her advisor and professor, Aleene Cross, who had a well-earned reputation among students as an intimidating, powerful figure.

Varnadoe explained the situation and informed Cross she would have to miss several classes.

Four decades later, Varnadoe recalls every detail.

“She said ‘I’ve got your schedule – don’t worry about anything. You come back when you’re ready,’” Varnadoe said. “She made it possible for me to finish everything and come back and have extra time. It was just wonderful to know I had that security while I did what I needed to do with my family. The support she gave me in that time, I’ll just never forget that.”

While Cross could be intimidating, her former pupils and colleagues grew to realize that behind the blunt talks and high standards was a woman who deeply cared for them and their future as professionals.

“It was a good fury,” Harrileen Jones said of Cross’s straightforward demeanor. “It was a fury handed down with love and care and to get me back on the right track to do what I needed to do.”

For 34 years, Cross led the University of Georgia home economics education program as advisor, faculty member and department head until her retirement in 1988.

She quickly became a force in the male-dominated field, ascending to the presidency of the American Vocational Association in 1973 and becoming the first editor of the Journal of Home Economics Education.

Cross also served as founding member of a coalition formed between the governing bodies of three professional organizations aligned with vocational home economics education in 1977.

“At professional conferences, just her presence commanded respect,” said Karen Jones, who did her doctoral work under Cross and later spent eight years with her on the faculty of what is now the UGA Mary Frances Early College of Education. “From her example, I reminded myself to hold my head up, stand straight and greet everyone with respect. She was a trailblazing force.”

Cross grew up in tiny Ocilla, Ga., the elder of two daughters of a World War I veteran who became a local businessman. Cross’s mother was a public school teacher and then a home demonstration agent before being named director of the local public welfare office in the Great Depression years prior to World War II.

“That may have been a big influence on aunt Aleene’s career direction,” said Jim Roberts, Cross’s nephew. “I think she got a lot of that (compassion) from her mother, as far as helping children and families.”

Cross received her doctorate from Columbia and was named department head in 1959, where she quickly established a reputation as “someone to be both revered and feared,” Karen Jones said.

A closed office door meant one thing for Cross’s students, and it wasn’t for a tea party.

“You’d better sit back and put on your big girl pants,” Varnadoe said, laughing.

“It was was her telling me what I needed to do, how to do it and to go do it,” Harrileen Jones said. “Of course, there were many tears shed.”

Years later, when Jones established her own career as an educator and Extension professional, she returned to Cross’s office to deliver a gift and just sit and talk with her mentor. By then, their conversations had changed.

“She was so complimentary,” she said. “It was like ‘I knew you were going to make it. I just had to give you a little direction and whip you into line.’ There’s a saying in the teaching profession: ‘Students don’t care what you know until they know that you care.’ And it was so obvious that Dr. Cross cared.”

The year Cross retired, the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences honored her with its most prestigious recognition, the Distinguished Service Award.

As a testament to Cross’s impact, a former student who wished to remain anonymous donated $50,000 to the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, designating $10,000 to fund the Aleene Cross Visiting Lecturer Series in 1979. The fund is still being used in the college.

Roberts remembered his aunt as a “very generous soul” who cultivated deep friendships and loved people and loved to laugh.

Karen Jones saw this generosity firsthand, noting Cross quietly helped pay the college tuition for the daughter of a former student who died unexpectedly, and made similar investments in dozens of students.

All these years later, it’s that same spirit of generosity and care that still inspires her legions of former students.

“She helped form our profession and touched the lives of thousands,” Karen Jones said. “There is an army of teachers, teacher educators and administrators who were impacted by her professional commitment and personal guidance. We are her legacy.”

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