New and returning students filled Freed-Hardeman University’s Loyd Auditorium with a joyful energy during the annual Tolling of the Bell ceremony Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023. The day not only served to mark the beginning of the 154th academic year, but it also included encouragement, prayers and the chance to hear from FHU alumnus Luke T. Guard, who issued the annual challenge to the student body. Alumni Chikezie Madu and Eno Pamela Mkpong-Madu served as the masters of the bell; they rang FHU’s historic bell 15 times, once for each decade of higher education in Henderson, Tennessee.
FHU President David R. Shannon shared the story of the Madus’ daughter, Elechi, who planned to be among FHU’s incoming freshman class before she passed away this spring. Born with sickle cell disease, she became critically ill during her recovery from a bone marrow transplant the final semester of her senior year of high school.
“She was so dearly loved by classmates, family and friends far and near; the celebration of her life was an amazing time that helped build faith and helped us see clearly what a life well lived looks like,” Shannon said. He spoke of the overflow crowd that filled the Oliver Creek Church of Christ building to honor Elechi, and added, “It was truly an amazing time — a time of grief and a time of great celebration.”
Shannon also said that Elechi represented a third generation of Freed-Hardeman students in her family. Her maternal grandfather, Okon Mkpong, came to Freed-Hardeman from Nigeria and graduated in 1972. He returned to his home country, where he launched a Christian school, hospital and preacher training school. He and his wife sent all six of their children to FHU, including Elechi’s mother, Pamela.
Guard was close to Elechi, serving as her youth minister before he moved to Jackson, Tennessee. Also an FHU alumnus, he said his charge was inspired by her life and included some of her own words: “The more in rhythm you are with Jesus, the more in tune you are with yourself.”
“Go to class . . . most of the time,” Guard said with a chuckle. “But if you leave here with multiple degrees and no lasting friendships, you’ve missed it. Find the people who love you like family and forgive you like the Lord. We were created for relationships.” His main three challenges to the student body were to “find your people, follow Jesus and fully embrace the truest thing about yourself — that you are a beloved child of God.”
Elechi’s mother, Pamela, said her daughter competed for scholarships while undergoing treatment. “She told me, ‘This disease is not taking anything away from me,’” Pamela said. Elechi excelled academically, securing scholarships from Pepperdine University, the University of Alabama and others, including the college she chose, FHU.
“She was so daring of faith. She lived life with so much faith in God every moment,” Chikezie, Elechi’s father, said. “When asked why she chose Freed-Hardeman, Elechi said, ‘I feel like that’s where my spirit will thrive.’” Elechi planned to study pre-law with hopes of becoming a malpractice attorney. She had a black belt in Taekwondo and was learning sign language before her death.
FHU senior Aisha Alliu hugged the Madus after the ceremony. Alliu and Elechi were childhood friends and were looking forward to spending time together on campus. “She was so outgoing, smart and so incredibly bright,” Alliu said. “I was devastated when I heard of her passing. We’re supposed to be here together.” Alliu plans to pursue her goals and dreams with the same fervor that Elechi displayed. “I think that’s the best way to honor her,” she said.
The couple’s dedication to their family and Elechi’s care has taken them on multiple career paths, with Chikezie earning a Ph.D. in cancer genetics and Eno becoming a registered nurse, all while still serving as educators. Pamela earned her bachelor’s in 1996 from FHU, and the couple both earned their masters in 2004 from FHU. “Attending the ceremony in Elechi’s honor was not how we thought we would be here,” Pamela said. “But we are thankful to God. He is the author finishing this chapter; we’re excited to honor Elechi.”
Shannon encouraged the university body to take note of the special moment of togetherness in worship and praise. “No one is here by accident,” he said. “How beautiful it is, and none of us can truly fathom all that He has done from beginning to end. And now it is time to begin another academic year.”
As Student Government Association President Ryan Merritt accepted the challenge from Guard, he thanked Guard, FHU administration, retired faculty and staff (many of whom were in attendance) and current faculty and staff for their impact on current students. “What a blessing it is to have a home away from home that helps point us toward our home above,” Merritt said. Lisa Beene, chair of the department of behavioral sciences and associate professor of social work, served as bearer of the university mace. Faculty members Jud Davis, David Powell and Joshua Ketchum led the devotional. University Chorale Director and faculty member Gary McKnight led the group in a live performance of the alma mater, “To Thee Our Dearest FHU,” as the bell tolled.
The mission of Freed-Hardeman University is to help students develop their God-given talents for His glory by empowering them with an education that integrates Christian faith, scholarship, and service. With locations in Henderson and Memphis, FHU offers associate, bachelor’s, master’s, specialist, and doctoral degrees. More information is available at fhu.edu.