Historian recalls giants, ordinary folk in WBU history

by Estelle Owens, Ph.D.
Professor of History

As we enter our second century, Wayland exists today because of the grace of God and the caliber of people He called into His service here. We would not be here had He not wanted us to exist. Our history proves it over and over again. There have always been times when there was too much month left at the end of the money. There have always been those who believed that too few Baptists lived in West Texas to sustain a school of our own. There have always been frustrations, grief, disagreements, programs that didn't quite go as planned, and students who tested our mettle and our patience. We'd be both foolish and dishonest to paint a picture of Wayland – or indeed of any human institution – in which there were no problems.

But our history also demonstrates that the clichés are true: we stand today on the shoulders of giants. We continue to go where others have not been. And we've made an enormous difference for good in the lives of thousands and thousands of people worldwide.

Our forebears were giants whose examples urge us to "go and do likewise." As a teenager, James Henry Wayland could very easily have bled to death as a result of an accident with a plowshare. But God had plans for his life, as He does for each of us. He took a Missouri farm boy and sent him to medical school, giving him a heart of compassion for the suffering of sick people and a love for God that led him to echo David and declare he would "not offer his Lord that which cost him nothing." Before he was finished, it cost him more than $100,000. He lived to see his big house cut up into rental units so that his family would have an income. He survived the deaths of three children, asthma, rattlesnakes, flash floods, and wolves sniffing his face as he lay sleeping on the prairie on the way to see a patient. He was descended from Charlemagne and English and French kings. But the only king this 5'4" giant of a man cared about was the King of Kings he served.

The giants in our past include so many nameless others whom God raised up to make a difference in the life of this institution. There were the little kids in the Sunbeam Band at First Baptist Church whose hearts were touched by the fact that the students at Wayland didn't have a water fountain and couldn't afford to buy one. So, those little folks collected pennies and laid them edge to edge along the street from the church uphill to Wayland. It was enough to purchase a water fountain. A little thing perhaps, given by vertically-challenged little people who nevertheless walked pretty tall.

Our train of giants includes Robert E. Lee Farmer, our third president, who resigned that position so he could spend full time raising money for Wayland. He was so exhausted by his quest to pay off our debts that, when he became ill with influenza in 1918, he sickened and died in four hours-literally having given his life for this school.

Another of those giants is First Baptist Church of Matador whose members raised almost $4,000 to brick our first dormitory. At the time, that was the largest gift any Baptist church in Texas had made to an institution outside its own town.

Over the course of our first 100 years, dozens of widows sent $2.00 every month because they believed in Christian education but $2.00 was all they could afford to give. We're grateful for the Jimmy Deans, Shelby Flores, Billie Harrals, and Gertrude Van Howelings of the world who have given Wayland way more than $2.00 or a row of pennies. But the bottom line is that all contributions to the Kingdom matter; and at the end of the day, it's Kingdom work we're doing here. Regardless of what your job at Wayland entails, there is no insignificant service. There is no insignificant gift to the Kingdom as we follow along in the footsteps of the giants who have gone before.

The cliché is true that we have made a significant difference for good in the lives of thousands of people. Many of those people have been Wayland employees, now numbering more than 1,200 over the course of our existence. Many of those people have been students who have taken what we imparted to them here and gone on to make a difference in their world.

When she came to Wayland in 1939, Leola McDonald hailed from a farm family in which women did not fly airplanes. Nevertheless, she loved her country and wanted to serve. She took her ground school pilot's training at Wayland in the spring of 1941 and moved on to Avenger Field in Sweetwater as one of 1100 Women Air Service Pilots-the WASPS. She was one of three WASPS killed in the line of duty in WWII. A country girl who wanted to fly learned part of what she needed to know at Wayland.

A long, tall Texan with a great comedic sense, he was a student at Wayland for one year, during which time he said, "Wayland was 40 miles from the nearest sin." Called to the ministry, he finished his education at other Baptist schools and continued to make people laugh in the name of the Lord. His career took him to twelve appearances on the nationally-syndicated "Mike Douglas Show," to a feature in People magazine, and to regular appearances on "Hee Haw." His name was Grady Nutt, and he got his intellectual start at Wayland.

Jesse Unruh was the son of a sharecropper who came to Wayland in 1939, staying only three semesters before being expelled. He wanted a career in politics and ended up making quite a name for himself in California as Speaker of the State Assembly. Known as "Big Daddy," he was a master politician who had enormous skill, tenacity, and commitment to go with equally massive flaws in behavior and methods. He wrote civil rights and education laws that put California at least five years ahead of any other state in the nation. The campaign manager for both Governor Pat Brown and for Senator Robert Kennedy's 1968 run for the Presidency in California, Unruh began his meteoric career as an 18-year-old at Wayland.

Finally, John Leland Atwood was the son of our fourth president. He graduated from Wayland in 1924 and became an aeronautical engineer. In 1934, he joined North American Aviation about the time it began building airplanes. By 1962, he was chairman of the board of the company that has since become Rockwell International. His company built more planes than any other company in the United States and earned numerous awards for its work on rocket propulsion, ICBM's, the Apollo lunar landing project, and the space shuttle. Not bad for a preacher's kid from Walton, Kentucky with an associate's degree from Wayland.

And there are thousands of other Wayland alums who have taken their candle and gone out to light their world. They're teachers, pastors, civic leaders, doctors, nurses, coaches, military officers, law enforcement officers, missionaries, and parents.

Wayland's history abounds with people who have made an enormous difference in the world in which they lived.

This essay comes from a speech given to Wayland’s employees at staff development on Aug. 13.