Debbie Strong’s journey from the armed forces to art instructor

By Daniel Yanez

At first glance, Debbie Strong might seem like any other ordinary art instructor. However, under closer inspection, a different personality of her extensive military background is exposed. Strong’s Army character adds an extra dose of energy to her classroom. Reminiscing on her former military days from ordering men into formation, to sparking creativity in her students, Debbie Strong has accomplished success both on and off the field.

Born in Washington D.C. to a military family, Strong moved across the country and internationally before retiring as a first sergeant after serving in the Army for 20 years before she and her husband eventually settled  in rural Northeast Texas.

Although Strong’s family housed a military background, her motivation to join the armed forces came after falling in love with a German high school sweetheart while Strong’s dad was stationed in Germany.

After returning to the U.S., Strong insisted her dad let her return to Europe in search of love but found out her only ticket back to Germany was an Army want ad in a California newspaper. Although Strong was hesitant about joining the military, the sound of serendipity seemed enough to convince her. After enlisting in the Women’s Force through a recruiter in California, Strong found herself back in Germany.

The rest is history. However, not before Strong’s life took a turn of life changing events including the death of her German beau.  Joining the Women’s Army Corps at the age of 21 in 1974, Strong went into the armed forces in a time of change and sociopolitical movement.

“I came in during the Vietnam War, which ended shortly thereafter,”  said Strong. “I stayed in 20 years and retired as a First Sergeant in the maintenance management field. “Women had been in the military, but there was a lot less of us then. That was pretty unusual in those days, now it’s pretty common,” said Strong.

After retiring from the Army as a first sergeant in February of 1995 from Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, Strong sought the ideal ranch home for her animals and beloved horses. But it wasn’t easy.

Strong made the trek from Maryland to Washington where weather and rowdy neighbors in Orange County, Calif. disturbed the peace at the ranch.

Finally, cheap land in Texas seemed to be calling her name. Texas not only offered a quiet country side, but it was also stationed in between Florida and California, a midpoint between family.

Also involved in the big move were chickens, goats, cats, dogs, horses and a miniature mule. Before long, the Lone Star State, beckoned Strong and her husband, Ed, to 15 acres of land for their 19 animals just east of Mount Pleasant.

“We needed to move somewhere out in the country. We wanted to move some place that didn’t tax our retirement check and out in the country where we can buy a lot of property and so that’s what brought us to Texas, good prices on real estate and ranches,” said Strong. “We didn’t know anybody in Texas and it was halfway between Ed’s family, in Florida and California.”

Strong established herself in the Mount Pleasant area and made her first appearance on the Northeast campus as an art student before stepping into the classroom as an educator.

“I came out here to socialize with other artist, taking art classes. I did the silver-smithing classes, and ceramic classes and drawing,” said Strong, “then I started substitute teaching.

At the time, the college was in need of an adjunct. Strong applied and was accepted for the position where she served from 2008 to the spring 2016 before becoming a full time employee and faculty art director at the start of the current fall semester.

Teaching has always been instilled in Strong’s character.

“I always wanted to be a teacher. Always. Ever since late elementary school I remember telling my parents. But my father said, you don’t want to do that, you don’t make any money. But I always wanted to do it,” said Strong. “If you looked at my career in the military I was a chief instructor. I was in charge of 380 people at the company level at the ordnance center school in Aberdeen Proving Ground.

“We trained about thousands for that whole environment. One course that I was in charge of we trained about 1,700 students annually. And there was like 60 instructors that I was in charge of. It was a nightmare, it was just like running a small college basically.”

However, becoming an art teacher was an eyebrow raiser for many as they questioned the mix of her rigorous military principle and discipline with such free form of expression.

“Everyone says how does what you did, have to do with art? Basically art has always been with me ever since I was a little kid. I started doodling in the sides of my notebook,” said Strong. “My parents were real supportive. I took oil painting lessons when I was in high school from a German master when my dad was stationed in Ramstein. I always took lessons, oil painting, pastels, stained glass and watercolor.”

An oxymoron to many, discipline and structure are important elements in the military, more so in art Strong said as she explained the importance of learning and following the rules in art and design before being able to break them.  As an artist, Strong mentions exploring concepts and ideas before expanding an idea is key. She said a student’s creativity needs structure before breaking loose, a free minded individual is able to see more once he or she understands the basic principles and elements of art.

“There has to be rules and the Army did instill that discipline in me,” said Strong. “You can tell the way I talk to people, they don’t realize it, but then I tell them I was in the army for 20 years and my dad was in the Air Force for 26 years, that’s my life.”

A stickler for tardiness, Strong said she has learned to relax over time as she explains her background to people and students. Graphic Arts major, Maria Ramirez, said Strong has been an inspiration to her. She said her instructor’s influence inspired her to put her medical studies on hold and pursue a career in art.

Ramirez also mentioned Strong’s firm military character finds a soft balance and with art and supports her students in making and setting life or career goals.

“She’s taught me to be very outspoken and to express my ideas,” said Ramirez. “She’s so positive about art, she’s so excited and encouraging about it. She’s always checking up on students making sure we’re on the right path, and mentioning new paths that we might be interested in, that’s her way of helping us.”

Strong started her teaching career in California directing 7th grade courses in pre-algebra, English, some science and military history before moving to Texas. Even more, it was in the California Military Institute, a charter school, the first of its kind in California. Still in existence, Strong was the first teacher they hired.

“Teaching art, I guess, is just natural because of my love for it, and my passion for teaching, it just works,” said Strong. “I think and I hope my enthusiasm for the arts bleeds over into how I portray it and pull out a little bit of somebody that might have a glimmer in there and say, I can do this.”

Art is special, particularly for Strong. For her, art is an essential form and way of connecting with others.  In her terms, art has a way of speaking.

“Teaching or showing that art is a way for all of us to communicate without using words. Not all of us speak the same language or have the same backgrounds that made us who we are today,” said Strong. “But if you have art, you can express your feelings and your emotions through that and portray that to your audience. So that’s what I really enjoy, being able to let people use their emotions to communicate.”

A learner for life, Strong said  her enthusiasm for new discoveries motivates her to share learning and education with others.

“I can pick up an art book, even though it’s art history, flip through it and always find something new, I just think it’s part of me,” said Strong. “I want you to delve into something that you’re passionate about and explore it, go off in different ways and figure out what it is.”