When she graduated from Harding’s nursing program in 1980, Ann McLarty never dreamed she would be back at Harding, let alone as first lady of the university.
According to Ann McLarty, she first came to Harding from Ohio in the fall of 1976, having never visited the campus before. She joined women’s social club OEGE, which at the time was sister club to King’s Men. It was at a King’s Men banquet during her freshman year that she first noticed her future husband and current president of Harding, Bruce McLarty.
“We started dating in December of my sophomore year,” Ann McLarty said. “Then we married after I graduated in ‘80.”
The young couple moved to Mississippi before settling in Cookeville, Tennessee, Ann McLarty said. The two joked about the possibility of returning to College Church of Christ in Searcy but never thought it would be a reality just 11 years after leaving Harding. Ann McLarty said the possibility of returning to Harding later in their careers never crossed their minds.
“When we were students, we just blended in,” Ann McLarty said. “We were not student leaders; we were not popular … We really weren’t on the radar.”
However, when Bruce McLarty was inaugurated as president of the university in 2013, both of their lives changed completely. Ann McLarty said she turned to the advice of former first ladies Leah Burks and Louise Ganus before she stepped into the role herself.
“They gave me the best thing they probably could,” Ann McLarty said. “They gave me their support, and they gave their encouragement to be my own first lady.”
Now in her fourth year of serving as first lady, Ann McLarty said that she has definitely settled in and made it her own. After a few years of learning all that encompasses the titles of president and first lady, she said that life feels much more normal. And what comes with these titles, according to Ann McLarty, is quite a lot.
Being first lady of Harding University not only involves supporting the president, but also hosting and attending more dinners, receptions and conferences than one can count, Ann McLarty said. One of her favorite parts of the role is getting to travel not only in the United States but internationally. The couple has visited some of Harding’s international programs in the past four years and hopes to travel to Harding University in Zambia this summer.
“That is such a perk,” Ann McLarty said. “I love to see the students in their context over there and how their eyes are opened to the culture around them.”
However, according to Ann McLarty, the first lady’s greatest role is serving others.
“My first responsibility for me to make this my very own is to be an ambassador of good will,” Ann McLarty said. “I want part of my legacy to be, ‘You know she treated everybody kindly, she loved everybody and she deeply cared.’ And that trumps pretty much everything else that I do.”
Ann McLarty said that she has not only embraced Bruce McLarty’s statement of “A Community of Mission” here at Harding but also in the duration of their marriage.
“When we first married, we moved to a little, tiny town in Marks, Mississippi, population like 5,000; the church was 36 members,” Ann McLarty said. “We still felt like that was an incredible community of mission. That’s followed us everywhere we’ve gone from a 36 member congregation to a now over 6,000 student body … Don’t let the community of mission stop here at Harding. I hope (students) take it from here to wherever they are.”
In her time as first lady, Ann McLarty said the greatest blessing has been getting to know the amazing people that make Harding University unique, and she looks forward to that for the years to come.
“(Harding is) full of incredible, wonderful people, wonderful students that we get to meet, to be with,” Ann McLarty said. “We get to watch them grow; we get to watch them launch into life. I look forward to that every year. It’s a continuation of what has already been these last four years. I think it will just get better and better.”