Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Wednesday, October 16, 2019


Helen and I have been going through the flotsam and jetsam of a combined 165 years of putting mementos into boxes, sorting, passing on to the appropriate person, throwing away. She came across the worship bulletin for the awarding of my doctoral degree at the Hoopeston, IL UMC where I was pastoring at the time. It was pleasant to think back on that day, and all the people who participated in that service, including those who have transferred to the church triumphant—Half, with Frances Hunt, of the best church secretary tandem in the history of Christendom, Rose Cress; College roommates Bob ‘Ole Bob” Miller, who awarded me a full-size old farm scythe from his collection  and Bishop Leroy Hodapp; Dean of UDTS [The University of Dubuque Theological Seminary], Herb Manning.

[Presbyterian] UDTS was part of the Schools of Theology in Iowa consortium, with the School of Religion of The University of Iowa, and [Lutheran] Wartburg Theological Seminary, and [Roman Catholic] Aquinas Institute. [1]

I did two years on a PhD at U of Iowa and realized, with some help from undergrad students who did not like the grades I gave them, and theology professor Robert Scharleman, who did like the answers I gave on tests,  that I really should be in the preaching rather than teaching ministry, so I finished my degree as a Doctor of Ministry, granted by UDTS, since the consortium worked together in all ways, except that degrees were granted by one school or another, not all of them together.

Herb Manning came all the way from Dubuque, Iowa to Hoopeston, IL so that I could receive my degree in my church rather than in the commencement ceremony in Dubuque. He was that kind of Dean.

He did not set out to be a Dean, though. He wanted to be a preacher, like his father, a highly regarded Presbyterian clergyman. But, as he told it, “after several years of mediocre results, I realized I did not have the gifts and graces of my father, and decided I’d better get a doctorate and teach.”

He had done his theology degree at UDTS, which shared a campus with Aquinas Institute in Dubuque, so it was a natural for him to enroll in the PhD program at Aquinas. [1] While there, a part-time staff position in field work supervision came open at UDTS, and Herb was hired for it. Then the Dean abruptly departed. It was at the end of the school year. There wasn’t time to do a search for a new dean. Again, as Herb tells it, “I was the only person on staff with a twelve-month contract, so they had to make me the acting dean.”

He had found his calling. He was a really good dean. After a few months, the trustees and faculty understood that and hired him as the permanent dean. He was too busy as dean to finish his PhD.

It reminds me of Herman B Wells, the long-time, much-honored president of Indiana University. He was a new, young business and economics prof who had not even finished his PhD dissertation when long-time president William Lowe Bryan suddenly resigned. The president of the trustees called Wells and said they wanted to make him acting president. Wells demurred, saying there were other faculty members who were better qualified. The trustee said they realized that, and they wanted Wells as interim precisely because they knew they did NOT want him as permanent president. But he was so good at the job they had to hire him. That meant he was too busy to finish his dissertation and get his PhD, from the U of WI, but he served IU as president or chancellor for 63 years, and was the most important figure in higher education in the 20th century, for his leadership in racial integration, academic freedom, and international education.

The story of Wells is well-known. That of Manning, not much. But it’s the same story, up to a point. Wells had such a long career. Manning died, of a sudden heart attack, when he was just into his forties.  

Their shared story is that of taking advantage of an opportunity when it came along. Wells would have been a good econ professor. Manning would have been an adequate theology professor. Neither expected to be a president or dean for long. But they did the best they could in their unexpected positions.

That’s really all any of us can do. Even as old people, unexpected opportunities arise. We are sometimes put into the position of being an interim care-giver, or an interim listener, or an interim adviser. Those are not likely to lead to permanent positions, just because our years are limited, if nothing else, but we do the best we can.

After all, life itself is an interim position.

John Robert McFarland

“Just do the next right thing.”

1] Aquinas has since moved to the campus of St. Louis University.

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