By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Jane Ziebarth-Bovill’s office was nearly empty as the fall semester drew to a close.
The longtime University of Nebraska at Kearney faculty member had already packed up most of her possessions, leaving only a few items from her remarkable career behind.
Among the remaining mementos was a card featuring a flower and a quote from Mother Teresa: “Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier.”
“That’s been a mission of mine,” Ziebarth-Bovill says. “I hope I’ve inspired people to be better – better citizens, better learners and better educators. That’s my hope.”
Throughout her nearly 40 years in higher education, that’s what brought her the greatest joy. She loves to see former students succeed, whether they’re making a positive impact as teachers and administrators or taking on leadership roles in their communities.
“It’s just the most wonderful feeling to make an impact in that way,” said Ziebarth-Bovill, who retired last month.
A Wilcox native, Ziebarth-Bovill refers to UNK as her second home. That’s why it’s so hard for her to leave.
“I felt like I was a child of Kearney and UNK,” she said. “I felt like I grew up here.”
Her first experience here came in elementary school, when her late father Wayne brought her to UNK while he was serving in the state Legislature. A former educator and farmer, Wayne had a meeting on campus as part of his role with the Education Committee, allowing his young daughter to explore the library and Bruner Hall of Science.
Later, when the time came to choose a college, both parents encouraged her to consider UNK, known then as Kearney State College.
Specifically, she remembers a conversation with her late mother Renee, whose family operated Farmers and Merchants Bank in Axtell. They were sitting in the car, watching students and faculty on campus, when her mother offered this advice: “She turned to me and said, ‘I really would like you to go here. I feel like this is a place where it’s more of a family,’” Ziebarth-Bovill recalled. “And I saw that and experienced that. That’s what I wanted. I wanted to come to a place where people were positive, hard workers and felt like family. They truly cared about me.”
Originally interested in science – she wanted to be a brain surgeon or veterinarian – Ziebarth-Bovill ended up changing her major to social science before deciding to become an educator.
“I love to learn and I really love to relate to young people,” she explained. “Those are two of my strengths.”
Ziebarth-Bovill was a student teacher and long-term substitute at Holdrege High School, then she graduated from UNK in 1980 and started working at the bank in Axtell. That job didn’t last long, though.
The late Bill Nelson, then a UNK faculty member and field experience coordinator in the Department of Teacher Education, called her out of the blue to offer another opportunity.
“He said, ‘Jane, I want you to work with me at Kearney,’” Ziebarth-Bovill recalled. “I didn’t even hesitate because I thought the world of him.”
Ziebarth-Bovill worked alongside Nelson as a graduate assistant while pursuing her master’s degree and was hired as assistant coordinator of the field experience program in 1984. She was promoted to coordinator two years later.
In 1989, Ziebarth-Bovill left UNK to pursue her doctorate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, but the plan was always to come back. She worked for the Nebraska Department of Education, UNL and U.S. Sen. J. James Exon before returning to Kearney as an assistant professor in 1996.
“It was really the people. The people drew me back here,” she said. “I don’t think I could have found a better place to work, with all the people that I knew truly cared about me.”
Advancing from assistant professor to associate professor and eventually professor in 2020, Ziebarth-Bovill spent her entire UNK career in the Department of Teacher Education, where she trained and inspired countless educators.
Affectionally known as “Dr. ZB,” her caring and compassionate approach to teaching was driven by her desire to make the greatest impact in life while also having fun.
“Those who were fortunate enough to work alongside Jane were undoubtedly impacted, whether through her master teaching, mentorship of undergraduate students or academic advising. She embraced opportunities for collaboration and held a unique gift of spreading joy and positivity,” said longtime colleague Jane Strawhecker, a professor in the Department of Teacher Education.
Strawhecker called Ziebarth-Bovill a servant leader and “rock” within the College of Education who shared her love of learning with everyone she met.
“She was instrumental in the evolution of our education programs, especially with the renewal that occurred 20 years ago,” Strawhecker said. “She’s the epitome of what it means to be a lifelong learner and challenged her colleagues and her students to do the same.”
Ziebarth-Bovill frequently collaborated with colleagues across the College of Education, as well as the Department of Political Science and Calvin T. Ryan Library. These interdisciplinary partnerships led to the development of the History of American Education capstone course and numerous publications.
That work was “rich and rewarding,” according to Ziebarth-Bovill, but her favorite collaborator was her late husband Ron. He was the first director of the UNK Network of Partner Schools, where he built connections between PK-12 schools and the College of Education.
The couple taught classes, conducted research and presented at events together. When Ron passed away in 2015 after a nearly three-year battle with cancer, Ziebarth-Bovill faced one of her greatest challenges.
“When I lost him, that was tough,” she said. “I don’t think I could have stayed here without my colleagues. They helped me get through the rough times, and I wanted to give back to others who were going through similar struggles.”
Ziebarth-Bovill was inspired by Ron’s poem, “Life is Good,” and their shared passion for Invitational Education, an educational framework emphasizing human potential, value and responsibility.
“I hope that I gave a little bit of hope to my students and colleagues that life is good,” she said. “You have potential. You’re not perfection, but you can improve if you want to.”
Along with her classroom responsibilities, Ziebarth-Bovill served as executive director of the Nebraska Network for Educational Renewal and she was the first state adviser for the Student Education Association of Nebraska. She’s also been part of numerous campus, universitywide, state, regional, national and international committees and organizations. Her awards and honors include the College of Education Outstanding Scholarship and Outstanding Teaching awards, Kearney Public Schools Friends of Education Award, Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers and Delta Kappa Gamma International Society for Key Women Educators.
Following her retirement, she plans to spend more time traveling, gardening and volunteering with community organizations. She also enjoys reading and hanging out with her two cocker spaniels, Scout and Harper.
“I thank Jane for being a light for me and so many others,” Strawhecker said. “ZB leaves a lasting legacy of nurturing pedagogy, collegiality, respect and a commitment to the well-being of students, staff and faculty in our UNK community.”