God's Faithfulness to JBU Through the Ages

By Caroline White '21
5/31/2019 5:00:00 AM

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The Scriptures are flooded with assurances of how the Lord has been faithful. From God rescuing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s salvation from the fiery furnace to Christ’s death and resurrection for all mankind, we know that the Lord time and again works through our lives. 

This centennial year offers us an ideal time of reflection, for remembering God’s acts of great power and great mercy over the university’s first 100 years. 

“In remembering God’s work in the past, we find fresh reasons to give praise to God in the present and to have hope in him for our future,” JBU President Chip Pollard said. 

It is through the shared experiences of the university's presidents who manned the helm of leadership that we are able to recall stories of the Lord’s faithfulness to JBU through the years.

Financial Resources

In the early years, JBU encountered many financially precarious times. Founder John Brown Sr. sold parts of his land at least once and accepted church speaking engagements to invest back into the university and pay down debt.

During the financial strain of the Great Depression, JBU accumulated over $1.75 million in debt by 1941 — the equivalent of approximately $30 million today.  

The university filed for bankruptcy reorganization, and a federal court oversaw the university for a year. JBU came out of the reorganization and eventually paid all of its debt with John Brown Sr. insisting all debts were paid off at 100%
of the original value.

But financial troubles still hung over the university into John Brown Jr.’s presidency. 

“We had a big debt hanging over our heads, so I probably spent 80% of my time or more out knocking on doors and soliciting funds for the college,” Brown Jr. said. “When I became president, I didn’t really do things much different than my father had, except I intensified the effort to bring the school into a sound financial structure and to receive accreditation.”

Donors played a major role in keeping JBU financially afloat. JBU would have likely failed during its first 40 years without the gifts of Jesse Jones, a successful business man from Houston, Texas, who accepted Christ after hearing John Brown Sr. preach in 1905.

John Brown Jr. even visited J.A. Chapman, a wealthy oilman in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to ask for gifts to meet payroll. 

The significance of this relationship is still being felt today.  

Chapman added John Brown University to a group of specific beneficiaries that would derive money from three of his family’s charitable support trusts that were founded in 1949, 1966 and 1974. These trusts are now worth in excess of a billion dollars. 

JBU receives 5% of the annual distribution from the trusts — an excess of $3.5 million each year.

The university launched its first nine-figure fundraising campaign, the Keeping Faith Campaign, in July 2005 with a goal of raising $100 million—$50 million for scholarships, $30 million for building projects and $20 million for operations and programs. The campaign finished a year early and $18 million over goal. Four new buildings (Berry Performing Arts Center, Bill George Arena, Hutcheson Hall and the Balzer Technology Center) and the renovation of Kresge Dining Hall and the Cathedral Group brought new excitement to campus and began an era of increasing physical change. Many of these building projects received large lead gifts from faithful donors and foundations.

The physical growth continued, aided by the Campaign for the Next Century which to date has raised $137 million for scholarships, academic excellence, program and operating support, and new facilities and renovations. Lead gifts from donors and foundations kick-started the construction of the Health Education Building, Simmons Great Hall, Northslope Apartments and the Peer-Andrus Studio and Project Barn as well as renovations for J. Alvin Brown Hall, Mayfield Hall and the Walton Lifetime Health Complex. The campaign, which closes on the university’s Centennial in September, has also raised nearly $50 million in scholarships for students.

Along with a generous community of donors, JBU’s radio programs were also significant to the success of the university.

John Brown Sr. recognized the potential of radio broadcasting early in the university’s history and started his first broadcast in 1928 on KFPW. While KFPW was sold a year later, a changing cast of radio stations brought in much-needed funds to support the fledgling school. 

In the early ’80s, JBU operated a station out of Houston, Texas, which had undergone costly renovations but still failed to yield a profit. 

The Brown family and trustees resolved to sell the station, asking $8.5 million to cover the cost of the renovations and the original purchase. A few offers came in, but they were upstaged by a southern radio and television evangelist, who offered $10 million for the station. 

The Brown family was astonished. Then they got a second offer from Roy Disney, brother of Walt Disney, for $10.5 million. Within a few days, both parties met with lawyers, negotiated a deal and closed the sale. 

“Dad had an earlier flight home,” John Brown III remembered, “but I stayed and waited for the check. It was a surreal experience. I flew home with a check for $10.5 million dollars in the chest pocket of my shirt.”  

Brown III, JBU president from 1979-1993, says he and his family felt the Lord’s hand guiding the situation. The university was moving away from radio with the changing times, so the Houston station was becoming a liability. JBU’s finances were also tight because some of the university’s funds had been recently embezzled in an insurance fraud scandal. 

The sale of the Houston station for
$2 million more than they’d dared ask was reassuring that the university’s funds had been restored. 

Campus Life

For Lee Balzer, JBU president from 1994-2004, the Lord’s faithfulness was evident in the flourishing of JBU’s campus and campus life. 

“When we came,” Balzer recalled, “there were many little wood-frame buildings all over campus. The dramatic change to what the campus is today seems like an expression of what a very attractive—physically and otherwise—community the JBU campus has become. It’s kind of revolutionary to look back on it.” 

More than two decades of construction and renovation began with the Walker Student Center groundbreaking in 2000, resulting in a campus that is 90% new or renovated today.

Balzer’s presidency began on the tail end of a year of instability. The university was still seeking its footing after the first year without a president from the Brown family, but Balzer says the JBU community was extremely warm and welcoming. “There was a very clear call for us to come together to seek God’s will and purposes for the school, and he was very faithful in pulling the community together in a unified view for the future.” 

The Balzers also see God’s faithfulness in the creation of the Walton International Scholars Program in 1985 by Sam and Helen Walton. The program has enabled over 500 students from Central America and Mexico to attend JBU on full scholarship.

“Having those students on campus,” Alice Balzer, Lee’s wife, said, “is an added value to the other students and to all of us.” 

Lee agreed, “It’s so very, very strengthening to have a multicultural campus. God was faithful—and still is—to provide John Brown with the Walton program.”  

Faithful People

Chip Pollard, JBU president since 2004, finds the greatest expression of God’s faithfulness in the people who make up the university. 

“I wouldn’t do this job without contact with students,” Pollard admitted. “The privilege and honor to have real conversations with young people trying to figure things out—for me, that animates why I’m a teacher and a president.” 

He remarked too on the tremendous “length of service, and good service, that we have from faculty,” Pollard said. “We have people who’ve been teaching for 40 years and still care about teaching well next year. To see that faithful service, student-focused, for such a long time, is a joy to watch.”  

One early example is Mabel Oiesen, chair of the music department who came to JBU in 1942 from New York City. She was not impressed when she arrived in Siloam Springs. 

“It had been one of those summers that had burned the grass to a veritable crisp and the roads were unpaved and dusty...,” Oiesen said. “It was a picture of absolute desolation… My mind was made up at once to return East.” 

Oiesen did leave after that year, but she could not let go of John Brown Sr.’s vision of head, heart and hand education and wound up back at JBU where she spent the next 30 years serving as choral director of the Cathedral Choir and director of many spring musicals. Oiesen began the Christmas Candlelight Service that continues to this day, 76 years later. 

“The next 30 years were fruitful and satisfying beyond words to express,” Oiesen said, reflecting on her return. “My work with the students has been rewarding, challenging, thrilling and joyous. I never again hesitated concerning this work. I knew it was the place I was called to serve.”

Dr. James Walters initially arrived at JBU in 1968 to serve as director of admissions. His wife Lynda had grown up at JBU as her father, Stewart Springfield Sr., was the business and advancement manager for over 45 years. In 1969, when a position in the Bible department opened up, Walters was asked to teach.

Among the courses he taught were Christian Life and Bible Doctrines, two of the core Bible courses required of all students. Yet Walters wrote and taught fresh lessons each semester; he didn’t teach from “old” notes, even as good and accessible as they were. Walters taught that “all of life can be an act of worship as we respond appropriately with our minds, hearts and hands to God’s glory.”

Lynda’s diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1977 altered Jim and Lynda’s life greatly, but Walters humbly weaved their journey and their deepening worship and walk with the Lord into his classes and sermons.

Walters’ personal ministry outside teaching included counseling thousands of students, formally and informally, offering premarital counseling and officiating over the weddings of hundreds of students and saving many marriages as well.

Even after retiring from JBU in 2003 Walters continued teaching Christian foundations in the Graduate Program for many years and served as primary editor of the 2015 JBU devotional “Keeping Faith.” 

In an essay titled “Why I Teach at John Brown University,” Walters said that the people of JBU were one of the core reasons he was at the university so long. “We have laughed together, grieved together, worshipped together, and grown together. We do not excuse being imperfect, but we strive to respond to imperfection in a way that is not imperfect.” 

Dr. Leo Setian arrived two years after Walters as a professor of engineering and construction management (CM). At the time, the department was in the humble Hyde Building which had been built in 1930.  In 1979, the department was able to move into one of the Cathedral group buildings when the library moved into the new Learning Resource Center. But the continued growth of the department during Setian’s years outpaced the capacity of the facilities. When Pollard announced funding for a new dedicated engineering and CM building, Setian teared up. “I have been in so many meetings about the need for this facility, and I thought that it would never happen in my career. Glory be to God.” Setian, who was voted Teacher of the Year in 1988, was able to enjoy the Balzer Technology Center for his last year of teaching before he retired in 2012.

“Leo was an inspiration to me as a new faculty member,” said Dr. Kevin Macfarlan, professor of engineering and chair of the Division of Engineering and Construction Management. “His concern for students, his passion for teaching, his dedication to maintaining his physical health, and above all his love for the Lord always inspired me to emulate him in all these areas.” 

A college placement agency led Terri Wubbena to an opening at JBU in 1976. During her interview, Wubbena recalled asking the department chair, “How big is the band?” She received a deflected question in return: “What do you think of teaching music to elementary education students?” She replied, with characteristic self-confidence, “I think I could.” And so Terri was hired by JBU to teach woodwinds, choral music education, and freshman theory and musicianship. 

During her second year at JBU, Terri met a new organ and music teacher, Dr. Jan H. Wubbena. Their friendship eventually blossomed into romance and marriage.

Terri taught for 42 years but also served in administrative roles such as chair of the Department of Music and the chair of the Division for Communications and Fine Arts. When you include Jan’s decades of teaching, the Wubbenas served JBU for 72 years.

“Terri is good in almost everything she does,” said Pollard. “But her passion for her entire career has centered on two things: the presence and growth of instrumental music at JBU, and her love for, and the growth of, JBU students and colleagues.”

Oiesen, Walters, Setian and Wubbena are just a few examples of long, faithful service to the university in those early years. But in the bricks leading up to and surrounding the cathedral plaza, there are 141 names inscribed, each signifying a faculty or staff member with over 25 years of service to the university.  

JBU, as Pollard sees it, has been blessed by the Lord’s molding of its people into an open and caring community—students, faculty, staff, board members and donors alike.  

“My family really saw God’s faithfulness through the JBU community when our son Ben passed away,” Pollard said. “They were gracious in support, in allowing us space, in praying for us. So, for us, that was the greatest example of the Lord’s faithfulness.”

Every spring, Pollard holds a question-and-answer chapel. It’s a time set aside for intentional conversation with the student body, a time for them to address the president with their concerns and ideas. 

“The year after we lost our son,” he remembered, “the first student stood up to ask a question, and all he said was, ‘How are you doing?’” Pollard paused. “I still get choked up about it. That’s the kind of support people provided—the fact that he even thought to ask. To me, God has been loving and faithful that way—through the people of JBU.”  

When John Brown Sr. was inspired to start a college, there was certainly no guarantee that it would be around 100 years later. Almost 40 universities and colleges have been started and closed in Arkansas alone, two of which were in Siloam Springs.

It is a significant landmark to reach 100 years. 

“This year, we remember and tell JBU’s history from generation to generation in order to praise God for how he has extended his might and his mercy, his power and his protection, his creation and his care, to his people through this institution,” Pollard said. “We remember what has happened at JBU in order to praise God.”

God has worked miraculous provision and provided gracious mercy during times of great adversity and during times of flourishing. Let us be a generation that continues to commend God’s work from one to another.

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