Bill Gaskins says he knows exactly when Felicia Cornwall fell in love with him. On a snowy day in 1963, the two were walking arm-in-arm along WSU’s Hello Walk.
Felicia, a sophomore from Tacoma, was taking mincing steps through the icy slush when Bill, a freshman from Spokane, told her she needed to be more bold.
“Look Felicia, you need to stride like this,” he said, stepping forward with the athletic gait of a running back, which he was. At that exact moment his feet flew out from under him and he landed on his backside.
Bill is laughing, filling the room with his deep baritone. “That was the moment,” he says.
They married just a year later, when Bill was 20 and Felicia was 19. Now, nearly 50 years later they are still married, still in love, still in Pullman, and still proud to be Cougs.
“(Pullman) has provided us with a life’s work that we wouldn’t have had if we’d gone any other place,” he says.
For Bill, that life’s work included being a clinical pharmacy instructor at WSU while also directing the pharmacy for Pullman Regional Hospital (formerly Pullman Memorial Hospital) for 41 years. For Felicia’s part, she has been working at WSU for 37 years, first for International Education, then for the Office of Human Rights, and most recently as associate vice president for the Office of Equity and Diversity.
They both believe divine providence brought them to Pullman. Washington State wasn’t the first choice for either of them.
The daughter of a music teacher, Felicia planned to go the same route. “I was going to teach little children to sing,” she says. Though she had her sights set on a nearby college, her mother wanted her to experience a residential college.
Felicia’s high school band teacher— a WSU alum—made a few calls, and she and her mother drove to Pullman in early July to see the campus, audition for the music program, and, if all went well, register for classes.
It was the Friday before the Fourth of July weekend, Felicia says, when music professor Jerry Bailey heard that they were planning to drive home that night. He gave them the keys to his house. He was heading out of town, he said, but they should stay and get a good night’s sleep.
That kindness, Felicia said, sealed the deal for her mother. “She felt like I was going to be just fine here,” she says. In 1961, her freshman year, Felicia was one of just 24 African American undergraduates at WSU, four of whom were women.
Bill arrived a year later, recruited to the football program, he says, because the coaches really wanted his younger brother, Walter. Word was, they were a package deal. Bill says he originally wanted to attend the University of Washington, even sent them a letter of intent. But, “from the moment I came to WSU there was an immediate bond,” he says.
That visit, which occurred over Mom’s Weekend, was also the first time he set eyes on Felicia, he says. She doesn’t remember it, but Bill recalls not only the outfit she was wearing, but her mother’s as well.
Sometimes, Bill says, he and Felicia wonder if it’s possible that college students today have as much fun now as they did then with his football and track and her music and student groups. Felicia was 10 credit hours shy of graduation when life intervened. First Helen was born and then William III. Bill’s college years were interrupted by a two-year stint playing football for the Calgary Stampeders. After being injured in 1968, he returned to Pullman in December to finish his pharmacy degree, took finals in January, and moved to Puyallup for his internship.
When WSU pharmacy professor Keith Campbell called the Gaskinses to ask them to return to Pullman, they were ready. “We missed Pullman,” Bill says. “We missed the people, the family atmosphere, the ambience of WSU.”
They returned in 1970, but decided to rent a home, not buy. “We kept thinking we’d probably leave,” Felicia says. She taught piano lessons at home and kept busy in the community and eventually finished her music degree, though there were no jobs for music teachers.
In 1973 Vishnu Bhatia, the director of the WSU Honors College, was asked to direct International Education as well. He hired Felicia as his part-time assistant. The program exploded. Under his direction, the University formalized educational exchanges with more than 30 countries. Bhatia established contacts at USAID that led to projects in Zimbabwe, the Yemen Arab Republic, Syria, Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iran, Sudan, Lesotho, Philippines, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, and Mali.
Felicia was in the middle of it all. “It was a very exciting time to be part of International Education,” she says. She was program officer when WSU helped the University of Jordan establish its college of agriculture. She developed and presented educational programs in the People’s Republic of China and learned Chinese along the way. She helped establish the Intensive American Language Center on the WSU campus.
And at some point, the Gaskinses took a family vote. Do we stay or do we go? It was unanimous, so they finally bought a house. And, when the time came, their children became Cougs as well.
Felicia and Bhatia worked together at International Programs for nearly 19 years. When he retired, she was interim director for a year and a half before moving to the Center for Human Rights, where she designed and facilitated conflict resolution programs. She eventually moved to the Office of Equity and Diversity. Her office now is at the Talmadge Anderson Heritage House where she directs WSU’s diversity education programs and oversees the University’s four cultural heritage houses. “I feel very fortunate to end my career here, with this kind of focus,” she says.
Bill’s email carries a tagline that reads, “How much we could accomplish if we didn’t care who got the credit.” That’s Felicia’s life in a nutshell, he says, she does what’s right and doesn’t care who gets the recognition.
“At some point you have to give something back,” he says, providing what is, perhaps, their shared philosophy about choosing a life tied to WSU. “It doesn’t have to be the world, but it has to be something.”