Exploring 150 Years of Freed-Hardeman University History
When Freed-Hardeman University President E. Claude Gardner decided to retire, the board began its search for a new man to lead the school. They went to a place not too far away and to a familiar face. They chose Dr. Milton Sewell, president of Mars Hill Bible School in Florence, Alabama, and a former FHU vice president of institutional advancement.
Sewell inherited a university that faced familiar problems, sluggish enrollment and a low endowment. When he officially became president June 1, 1990, he pledged to focus on those two areas. In addition, FHU carried a heavy load of debt. Sewell set about increasing enrollment and endowment. During his 18-year tenure, he raised endowment from $6 million to $40 million, setting new standards in fundraising; enrollment, however, continued to lag behind.
In an attempt to change that, the university began offering each fall a program for high school students called RUSH (Reaching Unlimited Spiritual Heights). Combining elements of a youth rally and a campus visit, the program attracted up to 2,000 students to campus for the weekend. By 1995, with the addition of 250 graduate students, the school reached Sewell’s five-year enrollment goal.
Early in his presidency, Sewell met with Scott Whaley, editor of the Chester County Independent. When asked what his priorities should be, Whaley advised, “Build a stronger relationship between the university and the community.” Sewell took his advice and began to open the school up to the town. Chester County High School began to hold its graduation ceremonies in Loyd Auditorium. They also began to attend events and use other facilities on campus. As a result of a favorable tuition policy for Chester County graduates, more of them began to enroll at FHU. Changes were sufficient for Whaley to write, “The university and the majority of the community have developed a closer relationship.”
When the sports center was at long last completed in 1996, it had an immediate impact on the community. The walking track on the upper level attracted many community residents seeking a climate-controlled area in which to exercise. Henderson and Chester County sometimes outnumbered faculty and staff utilizing the track. It also served as a means of social interaction and sharing information. Social work professor Lisa Beene, said, “It’s our answer to the internet. I learn about sales in town, new recipes, babysitters, gardening tips—just about everything.”
Other building projects followed, notably Brown-Kopel Business Center, thanks to a $5 million gift from alumni John Brown, CEO of Stryker Corporation, and his wife Rosemary Kopel Brown. The largest building on campus at 66,000 square feet, it opened in 2003. Unfortunately, the former home of the business department, Milan-Sitka (originally Georgie Robertson Christian College) had deteriorated to the point it could not be repaired and had to be dismantled.
Other building projects followed, including Bulliner-Clayton Visual Arts Center, funded in large part by Jim Clayton, a Finger native and founder of Clayton Homes, and named in honor of him and local banker Jack Bulliner. Clayton also funded a $1 million stock portfolio to be managed and invested by FHU business students, giving them a rare opportunity to learn with real money and the business department to reap a share of the profits.
Additional buildings, including new residence halls, were also constructed. Additional space for student activities was added with the assistance of board member Terry Crews and other trustees with the Black Box Theatre and Crews-Colbert Center.
In 2007, just short of his 65th birthday, Sewell announced his intention to retire when a successor could be found.
Information and quotations are taken from Dr. Greg Massey’s recently published “By the Grace of God: The Story of Freed-Hardeman University.” It is available for purchase for $30 plus tax in the FHU Office of Academics, which is located in Loyd 107.