December 12, 2009
I am privileged to be invited to reflect on Dr. Willard Aldrich’s influence on Multnomah University. Believe me, Multnomah would not be what it is today without his profound tenure as our second president.
I will always remember Dr. Willard as a distinguished man. He was distinguished in appearance, in demeanor, and in manner. But when I assess his impact on Multnomah, I would call him a man of distinction. Of course, he was a distinctive president in some obvious ways. He was Multnomah’s youngest president, appointed to the office when he was only 34 years old. He also served the longest tenure of any of the four presidents—a remarkable 35 years. I doubt whether those two records will ever be broken. They certainly will not be surpassed by the one Multnomah president still standing in the room! But Dr. Willard was a man of distinction in much deeper ways.
First, Dr. Willard was a man of distinction as a theologian. He loved teaching students theology and did so throughout his entire career. He will be remembered especially for his two beloved specialties: the great doctrines of our salvation and of the grace of God. But more importantly, Dr. Willard was a noted theologian at a time in the Bible college movement when theology was often regarded with suspicion. To have a theologian as president identified Multnomah as an institution which takes the great doctrines of the faith seriously.
As a theologian, Dr. Willard was also a Biblicist. He loved the Scriptures. He was, after all, the one who coined Multnomah’s famous motto, “If it’s Bible you want, then you want Multnomah.” But Dr. Willard always elevated the Bible over doctrine, always willing to adjust his theological conclusions if the biblical text demanded, not the other way around. Not every institution takes this priority seriously. Multnomah University does so today, and it is part of Dr. Willard’s legacy.
His theology was a warm theology. The tag line on Multnomah’s doctrinal statement for many years was, “and we believe in doing something about it.” I do not know whether he actually wrote this, but he certainly believed it, modeled it, and lived it.
After Dr. Willard retired from the presidency in 1978, he continued to teach theology for half a decade more. I was on faculty when he finally retired from teaching. At a ceremony I will never forget, Dr. Willard received a new Jeep. I understood the practical nature of this gift, of course, but I always suspected it was also a metaphor for a man who enjoyed spending his life navigating the rocky roads of contemporary theology.
Second, Dr. Willard was a man of distinction as an educator, overseeing Multnomah’s development from a financially fragile Bible School to a robust institution of excited Jesus people. He understood curriculum, having begun his career as registrar, and he spent his entire tenure developing a respected faculty.
He oversaw the move of the campus from the mortuary on NE Halsey St. to a blind school on NE Glisan St. Believe me, I think I’ve heard every possible joke about this! He was a great builder. Memorial Dorm, Bradley Hall, the Prayer Chapel, Lytle Gymnasium, and his beloved A-Frame remain as part of his legacy. Out of a passion for missions, he launched the Grad Certificate program in 1947. He added college majors in the early 60s and developed two master’s programs that became cornerstones for Multnomah Biblical Seminary years later.
He was a charter member of the American Association of Bible Colleges (AABC) and led Multnomah to its first national accreditation five years later, proclaiming Multnomah’s commitment to quality biblical training and positioning Multnomah to pursue accreditation in the future.
Dr. Willard, the Servant-Leader
Third, Dr. Willard was a man of distinction as a servant leader. The term servant-leader is a term that is tossed around a lot these days. In my last twelve years in this office, I have met many presidents of Bible College and seminaries. I have not found that humility and grace are ubiquitous traits! But for Dr. Willard they were genuine. I have often wondered how such humility was formed. Was it that he was mentored very early by two older, godly men, Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Sutcliffe? Or was it that he served for decades beneath their long and significant shadows without complaint. Perhaps humility was fostered by raising nine children, and keeping family such a high priority. Or perhaps it was formed in the crucible of tragedy, including the loss of his first wife.
Dr. Willard served continuously as a trustee from 1936 to 2004, a period of 68 years. I know he did not agree with all the decisions I made, and he would appropriately express his opinion in trustee meetings. But outside the meetings, perhaps passing me in the parking lot, he was always generous with his encouragement. “You’re doing a fine job, Dan,” he would tell me. “You’re the right man for president.” He did not need to say this; but he did and it meant the world.
Yes, Dr. Willard was a man of distinction: as theologian, as educator, and as servant-leader. But I actually will remember him for something more, something greater, and something far more important. It was something he shared with his son, Dr. Joe.
This last year has been a difficult one for us, and for the Aldrich family. Two of Multnomah’s four presidents have passed to glory. But what characterized both of these men—father and son—is that they were faithful to the end. They finished well. When I think of Dr. Joe, I think of Abel—a man of faith cut off in the prime of his life by a tragic event. But Dr. Joe finished well. Dr. Willard, living over 100 years, was, I think, more like Enoch. Throughout his long life, he simply walked with God. But Dr. Willard was faithful to the end.
What a legacy. I pray it is mine—and yours!