Adolphson’s Passion for People Fuels Decades of JBU Service

By Tracy Balzer and Shelby Lawson ’17
Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Ida AdolphsonIda Adolphson knew there was something special about John Brown University even as a prospective student, but she had no idea how intertwined her life would become with JBU. In 1951 Adolphson graduated with degrees in both English and broadcasting, a passion for Christ and a commitment to JBU’s mission.

After graduation, Adolphson left for Manila, Philippines, where she served at Far East Broadcasting Company, a Christian radio network that airs throughout the world. After four years in Manila, she returned to the States and worked as a youth director and cashier at an insurance company in Topeka, Kansas. But four years later, she found herself back at JBU.

In  1959, Ida was hired as the Head Resident (now known as Resident Director) of California Dorm, then the women’s residence hall. Adolphson soon realized the transformative effect living on campus had on students. She loved her residents and developed a true desire to help them grow in Christ.

Ida describes the job as both challenging and delightful. On one hand there was no heat in the winter, the showers were decidedly “immodest” and to get to the swimming pool and the gym—two popular destinations on campus — residents had to trudge up and down the infamous 100 Steps.

Yet, the dorm parties, the formative conversations with residents and the storied pranks (including the appearance of a Volkswagen in the lobby) made it all worth it. One memory Ida recounted, that will always stand out, is the time President John E. Brown, Jr. and his wife, Caroline, pitched in to help residents clean up the California lobby after a remodel in the 1970s. It was this type of camaraderie that she found so special in dorm life at JBU.

In 1961 Adolphson was promoted to the position of Dean of Women, and in this role  Ida learned the significance of respect between staff and students. Inevitably there were times students would push the boundaries and Adolphson would need to intervene, but after it was done “we would just laugh and go on,” she recalled. Even in the serious moments, Adolphson’s disciplinary process was full of grace and love.

Dr. Sandra Van Thiel, a long-time friend of Adolphson’s and former chair of JBU’s education department, believes the effectiveness of Adolphson’s leadership came from her ability to be lovingly and genuinely empathetic.

“She is very understanding with people. She doesn’t have to talk — she can really listen — but she is not afraid to speak up when it’s time,” Van Thiel said.

Judi White ’67 was a dorm assistant under Adolphson’s direction for three years in Mayfield Hall. “All of the responsibilities Ida had seemed difficult, but I was always amazed at how she maintained all of those girls and still had their respect. It takes a special person to do both,” White said.

White remembers that Adolphson would stay up all night counseling and talking to students in distress.

“She was always so patient with the students; as long as we wanted to talk she would listen,” White said.

Adolphson influenced the lives of many students, but never by her own strength or for her own agenda.

“She was doing what she knew the Lord wanted her to do,” White said, adding that Adolphson knew the Lord went before her and this propelled her to give each responsibility her full attention.

After seven years at JBU, Adolphson took a job as the assistant dean of students at Moody Bible Institute. It was there that Adolphson met Van Thiel, who was hired to work under her as the head resident of the women’s residence hall.

Managing the 500-resident women’s dorm was a challenging job, and Van Thiel said she could not have fulfilled her role without Adolphson’s selfless wisdom, care and mentorship.

“The success of my time there I really give to Ida ... to have somebody who gives you advice but you don’t feel like they’re pushing it on you — it’s hard to explain the significance of that,” Van Thiel said.

Adolphson poured her heart into her work at Moody for five years before returning to her alma mater in 1973 as director of counseling.

There was never an ambitious, power-seeking motive in Adolphson’s career moves, Van Thiel recalls. “Ida brought it all before the Lord for direction. It was … a passion for wanting to help people that folded out into counseling and so forth.”

Seven years later, in 1980, that “so forth” took Adolphson somewhere she never expected to go — into the classroom as an assistant professor of psychology. She realized that teaching would provide a greater way for her to impact students.

She completed her doctorate in higher education,
with an emphasis in student development, from the University
of Arkansas in 1985.

“I prayed to be … able to draw students to … think about what I [was] saying in a way that would result in changes in their lives,” Adolphson said.

In 1990 Adolphson was elected Teacher of the Year — a witness to her clear impact on students’ lives and answered prayer for her time in the classroom.

Adolphson also paved the way for women to serve in spiritual leadership positions at JBU, something that was absent at the beginning of her career, and Ida was the first woman to be asked to teach a Bible course at JBU.

Vice President for Finance and Administration, Dr. Kim Hadley, remarked that Ida was “like an astronaut, charting new territory for us all.” Even when she became a professor in the psychology department, she was the only woman. Van Thiel remarked that though Ida was the first woman to do several things on campus, it was always “in a quiet way,” a mark of Adolphson’s humility, grace and desire to give God the glory for everything.

Adolphson was also instrumental in getting  JBU’s graduate counseling program started before her retirement. Van Thiel spoke of the way Ida almost effortlessly recruited graduate counseling students with her kind and helpful nature.

John Carmack, program director for graduate counseling, served alongside Ida for eight years. Carmack remembers Ida as a consistent source of joyfulness and encouragement in the department. She was so cherished that even after her retirement in 2005, at the age of 80, Carmack asked Adolphson to work part-time and strategically positioned her desk in the office so she would be the first face new students and their parents encountered.

“While we are all called to be encouragers, she might have been an original design for the mold God had in mind for all of us,” Carmack said. “She valued conversations with you. You were important to her no matter how different you might be or what generation you lived in.”

Carmack marveled at Ida’s consistent humility despite all of her influence and accomplishments.

“She never claimed the glory, and as a result God continues to use her as an instrument of blessing to others.”

Van Thiel noted that what she ultimately sees in Adolphson is a woman who has given herself to the Lord. “Like she always says, ‘If it’s great, it’s because God made it great.’”

On April 28, when President Chip Pollard announced the $6 million Mayfield renovation project in chapel, he invited Ida to give the dedicatory prayer.

Umprompted, but inspired by Pollard’s brief words on Ida’s impact on JBU, the students responded by giving Adolphson a well-deserved standing ovation.  

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