Inaugural Address

John McVay
November 13, 2006


Distinguished guests and esteemed delegates, honored alumni, past presidents of Walla Walla College, board of trustees members (and in particular and in absentia, our board chair and my friend, Jere Patzer), the peerless WWC administrative team, faculty and staff colleagues, family members and friends, and, most especially, WWC students:

I thank you for being here today and joining in this celebration of Walla Walla College, its high ideals and grand mission, and for praying for all of us who seek to lead this institution.

I call to mind three stories, illustrating one idea: The existence of Walla Walla College is a sacramental one. It signals the presence of God. Its history harbors this grace-filled revelation: God is leading in our story. God is present in this place.

Three stories, one idea.

Story Number 1

The little institution ekes out a tenuous existence. A shoestring budget? This budget is so thin that it makes a shoestring seem as massive as a tree trunk.

The roster for this particular year lists the college students’ names. The school is very small, so the list is not long. Above the list of student names is the official list of administration and faculty, but an odd list this is: President (Prophet Elisha), Vice President for Academic Administration (Prophet Elisha), Vice President for Financial Administration (Prophet Elisha). All the vice presidency positions, all the deanships, contain the same, single name, "Prophet Elisha." And the monotony continues: Professor of Religion, Professor of Literature and Language, Professor of Sacred Music, Dean of Men, Director of Food Services, Director of Plant Services.

All filled by one, full-time employee: Prophet Elisha.

The proposal has been much discussed, ratified, perhaps, by the student senate. The spokesman for ASSP (The Associated Students of the School of the Prophets) clears his throat and tries, unsuccessfully, to sound nonchalant in offering the suggestion:

“Prophet Elisha, as you see, the place where we live under your charge is too small for us.”

At this, the prophet shrugs his shoulders and grimaces his assent.

The spokesman continues. “Let us go to the Jordan, and let us collect logs there, one for each of us, and build a place there for us to live.”

Now, you must admire the students who offer this request. They might have approached the matter with a smug sense of entitlement and demanded, “Prophet Elisha, we are sick and tired of these second rate quarters. You’ve admitted again and again that they need to be expanded. We have come to the firm conclusion that it is time to do so . . . right away. We, after all, are seeking to be prophets, no mean profession. We deserve far better. It is your responsibility to provide acceptable living quarters for us immediately.”

Instead, they clearly identify the problem: cramped quarters, and go on to offer a solution, one that features their own hard, volunteer labor.

The spokesman and his fellow students wait with baited breath for the response . . . and with good reason.

There may be more behind these words than an apparent and innocent request for larger quarters. One could see, buried behind the polite syllables, some dissatisfaction with Dean Elisha’s close supervision.

Maybe what they are really asking is this:
“We’re tired of this crowded dorm life and, especially of living under your thumb. The quarters are cramped, the freedom too constrained. We’d like to move a little ways away and build our own apartments. We’d like to move out of the dorm and into the village.”

Dean Elisha listens to the proposal, measures the motives behind it, and responds, “Do it.” “Do so.”

They invite Elisha to go along. And, with permission granted and prophet in tow, the project begins immediately. They head down to the Jordan and start cutting down trees.

In the first rush of excitement, the scholars are working away, each hewing a different tree. All are working hard, trying to impress each other and Prophet Elisha. The chips are flying. No one has yet yelled, “Timber!”, but one or two trees are beginning to creak and groan.

And then it happens: One of the scholars takes a full backswing and gives the blow everything he has. And when axe meets tree, he hears a crack. Thinking it is the tree, and not knowing the snap is actually from his now broken axe handle, he takes another quick backswing to finish the tree off. And suddenly the weight on the end of handle is gone and he looks back just in time to see the axe head splash into Jordan’s depths and mud.

He cries the cry of one burdened with student loans, “Alas, master! It was borrowed.”

It is not a matter of a quick commute to Home Depot to purchase an inexpensive replacement. Axe heads are rare. The student despairs at the thought of having to add this expense to his indebtedness.

Then the man of God says, “‘Where did it fall?’ When he showed him the place, he cut off a stick, and threw it in there, and mad the iron float. He said, ‘Pick it up.’ So he reached out his hand and took it."

It seems a trite, little story perhaps. And yet it survives down through the ages. And, with a handful of similar stories about the schools of the prophets, plays a central role in a much later era in inspiring a worldwide educational system. It would not be claiming too much, I think, to say that scores of Seventh-day Adventist colleges and universities and thousands of elementary and secondary schools serving nearly 1.5 million students are rooted in this story.

Trite though it may seem, there is much to admire and emulate here:
The students are an activist group, identifying problems, offering solutions, and working hard to bring those solutions about.

Elisha provides a great example for teachers and administrators. He listens to a student proposal and solution and readily approves it. And when they invite him to become personally involved, he accepts the invitation. The students and the faculty are in close contact. Mentoring of students is natural in this setting. They live under the same roof, eat the same food, share the same work. The students watch the way Prophet Elisha deals with issues of life and ministry. He models and mentors. 

The centuries have hardly made the point passé. My friend and colleague George Bridges summarizes the 1999 National Research Council report, How People Learn this way:
. . . the most effective learning occurs when instructors engage and become aware of their students’ skills, pre-conceptions, and beliefs, and then incorporate their awareness into teaching practice.

Elisha, I would argue, knew that long ago. It was a central element of the pedagogy of the schools of the prophets.

And don’t miss this feature of the story: In the midst of their hardscrabble, everyday life they experience the miraculous. At the moment of their greatest need comes an inbreaking of God’s presence. In the midst of cramped quarters and a stalled building project comes the grace-filled revelation, “God is with use! God is in this place!”

I am honored to serve at this school, a successor, if you will, to the schools of the prophets.

Story Number 2

Story number two happens millennia later in the little town of Meade, Washington. Tragically, in 1933, the father of six boys, most still in their teens, dies. The boys, casting about to make a living, start a roofing business.

One day, a few years later, one of those six brothers falls off a roof and breaks an arm. His older brother, Jewel, the only Seventh-day Adventist in the group, takes him in during his convalescence. A young, Adventist woman, Blanche, is working as house help and tends to little brother Kenny. Apparently, that wounded brother likes the care. He falls in love with Blanche, who shares her Adventist faith with him. One day, playing his saxophone in his dance band, he hears a call to ministry and, a stint as a WWII army medic intervening, he enrolls in the fall of 1946 at a place called Walla Walla College to pursue it.

He could not afford it. But Uncle Sam helped. And so did Uncle Jewel, Uncle Ad, Uncle Harry, Uncle Mack and Uncle Warren. His five brothers pay his way. And his wife, Blanche, does the rest. He graduates in 1950, the first member of his family to graduate from college.

In the thirty-five years of life that I shared with that father of mine, he invariably spoke in glowing, reverential tones about his experience at Walla Walla College. He had an endless mental file of stories from his years here, ones that he would trot out with some regularity. 

As you listened to the stories, you could tell that he loved this place. For him, was a sacred place where God’s presence invaded his life, where he sat in awe at the feet of Spirit-inspired teachers. When he spoke the names of his professors, people like Dr. Richard Litke, you could hear the profound esteem he had for them. Walla Walla College was for him, and is for us, a place where we experience the blessing and guidance of God mediated to us through some of His treasured servants.

We each have such stories. Our history is full of them. In each such story echoes that grace-filled message: The presence of the Lord is in this place.

I am honored to serve my father’s school

Story Number 3

The third story is, by far, the most ancient of the three and yet, through the eye of faith, the most contemporary:
John 1:1-5, 14

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.

The story of Jesus, I would remind you, is a story about a teacher and His disciples. It is a story about modeling and mentoring. It is a story about teaching, being taught, and learning to teach.

It is surely a story about Christian education.

As those pupils and that teacher hiked their dusty way around Galilee and Samaria and Judea, an onlooker might have judged it all to be pretty ordinary, pretty common: An itinerant teacher leading a small band of pupils.

But those disciples and millions of people of faith after them come to recognize the presence of God in that story. Yes, in their own stories.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.

The true measure of an institution is not its endowment, its buildings, its accreditations, the size of its student body or the number of its graduates, a prestigious academic reputation, its ratings in US News & World Report, the number of active student organizations, or the qualifications and global recognition of its faculty.

All these are important, but none represents the essential measure of the institution. The real measure of an institution lies in the character and grit of its students and the service of its graduates. 

What mark do they make in the world? Is the world a better place because they walk its streets, lead its board rooms, minister in its hospitals, teach in its schools, preach in its churches, argue cases in its courtrooms, perform faithfully the task of social workers in its communities, serve as engineers in its laboratories and, perhaps most important of all, are faithful in the way they lived their lives in their home circles? In the midst of their successes and failures, do they live authentic and accountable Christian lives? Is the presence of God made manifest in them? Is the Incarnation of Jesus grasped afresh by the way they craft their lives? 

Do they personify the institution’s mission?

·        Excellence in thought

·        Generosity in service

·        Beauty in expression

·        Faith in God

The greatest gift you, future graduates, can give your alma mater is to live selfless lives that exhibit those qualities.


I am neither a prophet nor the son of one, but I would like to offer four rather daring prophecies about this place, elements of the Bold Vision for its future:

  • Walla Walla University will continue to treasure and explore its past, the values on which the institution was founded, seeking and finding guiding principles and ideas there that remain insightful and formative as we confront the changing landscape of a very different era.
  • Walla Walla University will practice careful stewardship, tending with care the resources offered to its keeping, in service of its God-ordained mission to offer excellent education.
  • Walla Walla University will take seriously the central issue of the character, integrity and faith of its students. We will hone our skills in faith nurture, spiritual formation, and Christian discipleship. It will become known that if you seek a campus that takes such matters seriously, and yet with creativity and joy, Walla Walla University is the place to be. Walla Walla University will be known by the thorough and excellent training, stalwart character, sterling integrity, and generosity of service of its graduates.
  • Walla Walla University will steadfastly resist becoming an end in itself. It will seek to give itself in ministry to its students and to this world of ours.


You may recall the words, “Higher than the highest human thought can reach is God's ideal for His children.” I believe that same to be true of institutions. However bold our vision, we can never match the cosmic proportions of God’s dreams for this place. . .”

And so, whatever our visions and dreams, we must be alert to the inbreaking presence of God. This is His school. We should not be surprised when He shows up to lay claim to it.