By Dirk Webb
Dr. James L. Edwards, President, Anderson University | Photo by Dale Pickett
Through Anderson University’s history only four men, soon to be five, have occupied the office of President. After John Morrison, Robert Reardon, and Robert Nicolson, Dr. James Edwards is soon to relinquish the reigns of leadership to incoming President, John Pistole. Not only has Anderson University not gone through a transition in 25 years, they’ve seen little change in leadership since 1923.
As the winner of this year’s Keith J. Pitcher Character in Business Award, Dr. Edwards has lived his own version of the American Dream. From an ideal childhood in Piqua, Ohio, to high school years in Kettering, Dr. Edwards and his wife, Deanna, have called Anderson home for the longest part of their lives.
Dr. Edwards remembers Piqua as “shady, tree lined streets where we basically grew up playing every sport, for every season, and swimming in the pool at Fountain Park. Piqua was also home to one of the first atomic energy generators.”
After graduating from Fairmont High School in in Kettering, Ohio, Dr. Edwards made his way to Anderson College and the School of Theology in 1961 where he received his Bachelors and Masters Degrees. In 1966 he joined the staff as Director of Student Recruitment.
Later, after a stint as pastor in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Dr. Edwards returned to Anderson University as Director of Church and Alumni Relations from 1972 to 1975.
Called to the position of Senior Pastor of Meadow Park Church of God in Columbus, Ohio, Dr. Edwards spent 14 years leading a growing congregation that had close to ties to Anderson University. During this time he began the arduous task of pursing a PhD in Educational Policy and Leadership at The Ohio State University.
“The congregation was composed of people who were great encouragers…” and, at the beginning of the computer era, they supported my work at Ohio State in many practical ways, including paying the tuition.
During their time in Columbus the Edwards children, Cory, Todd and Katie, attended the Columbus College of Art and Design. All three graduated from Anderson University and have since gone on to film success in the Los Angeles area.
Dr. Edwards returned to Anderson as President of Warner Press, the publishing arm of the Church of God. In 1990, after a year in the position, the Board of Trustees of the University contacted the Board of Warner Press and a “trade”, according to President Edwards, was made that permitted him to be elected the fourth president of Anderson University.
In March of 2014, Dr. Edwards announced his intention to conclude his term as President at the end of the 2014-15 academic year.
In a letter to the Anderson University family, President Edwards commented: “Across the years of our extended service to Anderson University, Deanna and I have experienced the living out of our values in relationships that remain precious. We count it the blessing of a lifetime to be part of this good place, an honor we shall always cherish.”
What are your goals for 2015? “One goal is our personal transition. Deanna and I are moving out of a house we’ve lived in for 25 years. She works every day on the move. We are excited to catch up with our kids’ lives in the Los Angeles area as well as plug in as grandparents to our six grandchildren. Deanna is magic at this, I’ll just come along for the ride.
Professionally, I want to help the University to transition to new leadership; something it has not done in 25 years and something that happens at a very public level. Trying to live up to the examples of my predecessors has been my pleasure and now the joyful task is to help a new leader prepare for new challenges. Helping with the transition also includes getting out of the way.”
What are some of the highlights of your tenure at Anderson University? “There have been so many satisfying projects. The creation of the Flagship Enterprise Center. The rebuilding of University Boulevard; the architects said it was the most complicated project they had ever worked on. The Kardatzke Wellness Center. We rebuilt the Hartung Hall Science building to make room for the nursing program. I think the best project of all is the new York Performance Hall. Academic leadership knew what they wanted and orchestrated the design; particularly the acoustics. Speaking of Jim and Elizabeth York, they donated their rare Children’s Literature collection. What a pleasure it was to give a family’s legacy a home. There are so many boards that I’ve served on where the members all came together speaking different professional languages but telling a collective story so well. Finally, the friendships of people like Tom and Sch’ree Ward, Gary Burrell, Dr. And Mrs James York, Leland Boren, Glenn Falls, and of course, the many years friendship that Deanna and I have had with Bill and Gloria Gaither.
Additionally there is often a bit of a distance that exists between faculty and administration. But faculty are amazing and being able to walk into someone else’s life, learning what they do, is very rewarding. We are continually renewing and restoring our school. As one retires, new gifts and gifted people come in to take up the work.”
What is special about Madison County? “We have extraordinary people and many have the entrepreneurial spirit to serve and to advance the good life for all our neighbors. We love to grow things here. The relationship between ‘town’ and ‘gown’ has been exceptional. The university has been blessed to be in this town, to be appreciated, involved and we’ve grown up together. Deanna and I have found great fulfillment through so many friends in this community. We have one of the finest small community orchestras in the Anderson Symphony Orchestra; and tremendous student performances at AU. We have wonderful institutions, great arts, athletics and rich opportunities for our families. We have lots of needs in the community but needs create the opportunity to lift aspirations and hopes. We’re doing well; we can do even better.”
Who do you consider the most courageous person in history and why? “I am drawn often to Abraham Lincoln who saved the Union and instituted many courageous values that have helped us to overcome some of our darkest national days. He walked through that momentous time while overcoming tremendous personal loss and while lacking many of the tools that the leaders of today possess.
I am also inspired by Winston Churchill who stepped up rather late in his life to lead a nation through unspeakable conflict and whose leadership was remarkable for its inspiration and strength of vision and character. He embodied the very spirit of his nation. Lincoln helped to form that character for our nation.
Indiana Pacers executive, Jim Morris says, ‘We should see ourselves in the largest possible context.’ From a historic point of view, Churchill saved the world with his tenacious way of standing on rooftops of London at shaking his fist at the Luftwaffe. So as we take on the challenges of our times what is required of us? These historic characters leak into our lives.”
If you were to take that person on a tour of the university, what one thing would you want them to see? “We have a remarkable, uncommonly good teaching faculty and some of the finest collegiate facilities reflecting our commitment to student success. We have very special people in a number of fields. I would want to share this picture of who we are. Dr. Morrison didn’t have a college education but established great wells of education here.
I would also like them to see the care with which this campus is maintained. I am in awe of this campus setting including the Valley, the the architectural work of Ken Montgomery and others.”
What was the defining moment when you knew you were making a difference at Anderson University? “That question is a little uncomfortable but I remember a humbling moment when a faculty member sent me a note that read, ‘in almost every way, things are better since you’ve come.’
When a few friends entrusted me with commitments from the legacy of their lives in major campaign contributions, I had the sense that I was going to be trusted to lead and advance the university. When I was able to hire some truly gifted staff to join in this work, they too trusted their future to my leadership which was affirming and inspiring.
Students have their own way of telling me how they feel. A few years ago a student group produced a tee shirt to sell. On that shirt was printed ‘I (heart) P Eddy. Students have had their own way to let me know that I am a significant person in their lives and that is most gratifying. I try to meet with student leaders once a month and have loved working with the editors and writers of the Andersonian, our school newspaper. They have not always been gentle but they have certainly been fair and full of youthful wisdom. It has been a meaningful experience to walk along beside them.
From his hometown of Piqua, Ohio to a recognized fixture within our community, Dr. James Edwards will be missed but his contributions will stand. In his own words, “We have been blessed with the affirming work of some remarkable individuals from whom I have tried to learn. Their regard for my work has been enormously supportive and has provided some of those guiding lights in my life and work on this campus. We retire gratefully.”
Dr. Edwards will be awarded the distinguished Keith J Pitcher Character in Business award at the 2015 Annual Awards Gala