Her office is filled with pictures of Joseph and Emma Smith. She’s written more than 120 books and often travels to places like Nauvoo and Jerusalem to give lectures and grace thousands with her knowledge of the gospel.
She has crowds of students rushing to register for her classes. And once they get into her class, they start lining the walkways and squeezing into the aisles of the auditorium just to hear her voice.
For Susan Easton Black, BYU’s first female religion professor, teaching church history at BYU has become a dream come true. While sharing her knowledge of the early saints with students, Black also infuses her lectures with her own life stories.
A woman of many talents, Black is a prolific writer, a gifted teacher and enjoys challenging her students and family members to a game of pingpong every now and then.
Black’s love of church history grew from an early age, when her grandmother would tell her bedtime stories about Joseph Smith and the pioneers.
“I always wanted to hear about Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, but [my grandmother] insisted that she could only tell me things that were true,” Black said. “So nightly, while she was in the home, I learned about my ancestry and Joseph Smith, and I was hooked.”
That love of Joseph Smith, combined with her love of education, helped prepare Black as she struggled to support her three children as a young, single mother.
“You educate a woman, you’ve educated someone who will be a mother, and as a result you educate a family,” Black said. “For me, education opened doors.”
Her zeal for teaching is apparent in the classroom, and many students have come to appreciate church history through her eyes. She has helped the subject come alive for the many students who take her classes each semester and she prides herself in being able to teach in a way that helps her students understand and retain the material for years to come.
“I think Sister Black is a fantastic teacher. To be able to get up and lecture without notes and give names, dates and locations without missing a beat is such an amazing feat,” said Raymond Forrester, a previous student and senior from Nelson, New Zealand. “Her knowledge and testimony combined with her humor and near sassiness makes her stand out above the rest.”
What most students don’t know about Black is her competitive pingpong skills. At the beginning of most semesters, Black even challenges her students to play her for an A in the class.
“You’re not going to find a woman that goes on to forge ahead and get any upper education that doesn’t have a sense of competition,” Black said.
Much like her love of church history, Black’s love of pingpong grew from an early age. Growing up with four brothers, Black found pingpong was the only sport she could consistently beat her brothers in.
Pingpong continued to play an important role in Black’s life, even when she was raising her three boys. Family council involving some important issue was always held around the pingpong table rather than around the kitchen table.
Black’s son, Brian Easton, said he remembers growing up with pingpong in their home.
“We would always talk while we played,” Easton said. “All my friends would come over and we’d all try to beat my mom but nobody could.”
Black said she must have taught her sons well because now they can all beat her.
“I do challenge my sons and I do have to say they’re the only ones that can consistently beat me,” Black said. “And I think it’s a psychological edge.”
For Black, the memories and laughs shared over the years by the pingpong table have meant the most to her.
“You can guarantee with this game that you’re going to get tons of laughs,” Black said. “If you can hit it or slam it to the side and make the other person lose their balance, it can be pretty funny.”
And Black knows all too well how funny this can be because she catches many of her opponents off guard with her forearm slam and tough back spin serve.
More than anything though, Easton said he is lucky to have had such a wonderful mother.
“I took her classes and she was my favorite teacher at the Y,” Easton said. “She has been an amazing mom and I’m very lucky to be her son.”
Black’s three sons have all gone on to receive doctorate degrees, and she hopes to keep influencing her students’ at BYU to do the same.
“I get the best subject and students,” Black said. “Where could I find better students than here at BYU? I feel very blessed. Every day in the classroom is a good day for me.”