But during weekdays, flannel graphs and cutout Bible characters took second fiddle to the barebones beginnings of an evangelical Christian college that local Baptist leaders were praying would one day become a major contender in higher education in St. Louis.
The early days of what would become Missouri Baptist University were indeed meager, but the faithful fortitude of this institution’s early leaders, a group of dedicated St. Louis Baptists, was most certainly not.
The story of the University’s beginnings is indicative of the strong spirit and faith that surrounds MBU. Dr. JoAnn Miller, the leading historian on Missouri Baptist University, former dean of students and professor, was so moved by the power of the University’s story that she wrote her dissertation on the presidents of MBU.
“The first board of trustees and early founders expressed that good secular education was available at several schools in the St. Louis area, but an evangelical, Christian-based institution was needed in the area,” said Miller.
Today, the vision lives on more august than the founders’ expectations.
In fact, the small extension center had a knack for far surpassing expectations.
For Juanita Stalnaker—then a 31-year-old married mother of two—a bachelor’s degree was not seemingly in the plans. The devoted Baptist began classes—Bible, history and English grammar—to become a substitute teacher at the Tower Grove Extension Site. Stalnaker, who is now retired and lives in southeast Missouri with her husband, quickly realized the classes were more than mere college credits but also preparation to lead for a purpose far greater than she ever planned.
The extension site soon proved to be far more than an extension of Hannibal-LaGrange College. In 1965, just a year after its openings the extension site became the St. Louis campus of Hannibal-LaGrange, according to Dr. Miller. Three years later, the St. Louis campus relocated to a home of its own—the current main campus of Missouri Baptist University.
Stalnaker was one of the 189 students enrolled in classes at the spacious new West County campus. When the campus opened there was a sense of excitement in the air, and students enjoyed a comfortable environment to learn. So much so that Stalnaker continued to take courses even though she surpassed all requirements needed to graduate with her bachelor’s degree. The depth of her professors’ knowledge, faith and care exceeded her expectations, especially Dr. Muncy.
“He would sit on the edge of the desk and quote the Bible,” said Stalnaker. “He would ask students to follow along while he read passages from the Bible, and he would recite the passage from memory.”
An even more warm memory of Stalnaker is Muncy’s dedication to preparing students in living a meaningful life for Christ.
“Before a student left, Muncy wanted each student to have at least a basic knowledge of the Bible and be able to model their life after Christ.”
Stalnaker decided to graduate from the St. Louis campus in May 1973. Stalnaker treasured the day. From the pre-commencement service at Third Baptist Church in St. Louis to receiving her degree with 28 of her classmates outside on what remains MBU’s quad, Stalnaker’s commencement was joyous and brighter than the warm, shining sun on that spring day.
The warmth and excitement would continue to radiate from the St. Louis campus. Ten years after those Sunday School spaces were converted into college classrooms inside Tower Grove, leaders decided to make Hannibal’s St. Louis extension its own institution.
It would be called Missouri Baptist College.
The new college’s closure was no surprise. While enrollment had increased since the college moved to its West St. Louis County home, the institution was struggling and in debt. The separation from Hannibal-LaGrange further weakened the newly independent college’s financial health. So on August 17—just days before the fall semester was to begin—the board of trustees voted to suspend operation until the financial status improved. Shutdown procedures were to begin three days later.
Kathleen Wendt, currently the director of teacher certification advising, was set to begin her college career at MBC that fall. But with the closing of the college, Wendt was expected to find a new college—and fast. Standing on the campus of University of Missouri–St. Louis, Wendt recalls feeling convicted that she was not where she was supposed to be.
Wendt was called to attend Missouri Baptist College.
“This isn’t where I’m supposed to be. Lord, let there be a way,” she remembers praying.
It turns out, there was a way.
Dr. Robert S. Sutherland, recently inaugurated as MBC’s president, received an unexpected call. Dr. Ed Hewlett, pastor of Southwest Baptist Church who was not otherwise connected to the College, asked to meet Sutherland for breakfast. Hewlett, who passed away this fall at the age of 102, revealed to Sutherland that God placed a burden on his heart to see that the college did not close.
Hewlett’s daughter, Sally Hewlett Taylor, will never forget her father’s passion to save the College.
“When he heard the College was closing, he felt a huge sense of loss and just had to do something,” said Taylor.
His leadership and commitment to Christian education is remembered throughout the community, including by mbu Trustee Gerald Rogers, who was a member of Hewlett’s congregation.
“He just had a real belief that there needed to be a Baptist college in St. Louis,” Rogers said. “That was his passion.”
The following day, Hewlett recruited business leaders, trustees and pastors to meet for prayer and create a plan to re-open the College—that is, if the students would return.
And they would.
Tower Grove Baptist Church once again held an important role in the life of the College. This time, it served as a venue for a prayer breakfast to raise money for MBC’s re-opening. More than 100 pastors, students, faculty members and Christian leaders united together with faith that the college would re-open.
A day later, the MBC community gathered to hear whether enough money was raised to re-open Missouri Baptist College.
Taylor remembers her father, along with an ad hoc committee, counting the pledge cards as they arrived. “I remember the mounting excitement as we saw the slow, yet fast, climb up to the financial goal necessary to re-open the school,” recalled Taylor.
At 3 p.m., Hewlett revealed that sufficient funds were raised—immediate payment was $119,000 and an additional $150,000 was promised. By 5 p.m., the trustees unanimously decided to reopen the College.
“There was amazement and awe of seeing how the work we did made a difference for the college,” reflected Taylor. “It shows when we work as a team, with God among us, anything is possible.” In praise, Hewlett began singing the Doxology, and as the MBC community joined, the sweet melody echoed through the halls.
On Sept. 30, 1974, the College began classes with 300 students and 30 faculty and staff.
MBC would not close. God worked a miracle.
“Accepting this position was a risk, but it was certainly a calculated risk,” reflected Dr. Lacey one morning this past November. “It was evident that the college had tremendous potential.
That was never in question. The question was ‘Are we going to be able to pull it together to realize that potential?’”
Two decades later, that question can be answered with one word.
During the past 20 years, Dr. Lacey has guided this institution through what can only be described as a transformational time in higher education. Despite the dramatic changes to the higher education landscape, Dr. Lacey’s steady hand, along with a firm belief that strategic planning can drive greatness, has driven a small college nestled in West St. Louis County to become a flourishing, Christ-centered university.
Out of the 13,800 degrees that have been awarded in the institution’s 50-year history, more than 10,000 — about 77 percent — have been conferred during Dr. Lacey’s tenure.
His first and only presidential position not only continues to impact MBU, but as some of the most influential leaders in Christian higher education agree, Dr. Lacey’s work here has left a formidable mark on their industry.
“Alton Lacey has been a pillar of strength for Christian higher education over his many decades of service to Baptist higher education. He has been a steady, reliable colleague with a heart to serve others,” said Dr. Paul Corts, former president of both the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and Palm Beach Atlantic University. “I have particularly appreciated his deep and abiding commitment to the transformational development of students and the way he has maintained a laser-like focus pouring his energies into creating and nurturing vibrant educational settings of excellence where student learning can flourish.”
Dr. Lacey was inaugurated as Missouri Baptist College’s sixth president in 1995. That same year, AOL rolled out its dial-up Internet connection. At the time, the idea of online education seemed nearly implausible. But so did a lot of things that have transpired at this institution during Dr. Lacey’s tenure, a season marked by an entrepreneurial culture where innovative thought is embraced.
Dr. Bob Agee, president emeritus of Oklahoma Baptist University and retired executive director of the International Association of Baptist Colleges and Universities, said the rarity of such a long presidential tenure has benefited MBU in innumerable ways.
“Missouri Baptist University is most fortunate and blessed to have had a strong visionary leader for these 20 years. His commitment to the cause of quality Christian education and grasp of what it takes to build a strong healthy institution has enabled MBU to emerge as a leader and pace-setter in the state, region and nation,” he said. “It adds stability and strength when a capable leader invests himself for the long haul in growth, progress and achievement. He and his wife Pat have been an asset to the University, the city of St. Louis, and to the cause of Christ.”
It would be the beginning of a season of doing what Dr. Lacey wasn’t sure could be done: realizing the enormous potential of this institution.
North Hall, which allowed the College to nearly double the number of students who lived on campus, would be the first of many construction projects that would come to fruition under Dr. Lacey’s leadership. Among perhaps the most notable of those projects would begin just three years later.
It didn’t take long for Dr. Lacey to determine the campus was in need of a flagship building — an anchor of sorts for a largely commuter-based campus — that could help unify the College’s diverse student body.
The Pillsbury Chapel and Dale Williams Fine Arts Center, identified by its signature rotunda — which has been the focal point of the University’s logo ever since the building was erected in 2000 — did that and more. The facility houses fine arts programs and features one of St. Louis’ premiere acoustically engineered auditoriums.
“I used to wonder if we were going to be able to fill the auditorium,” Lacey admitted. “It has proven to exceed expectations as it daily serves as a dynamic learning environment and place that plays host to some of the community’s premiere fine arts productions.”
Every year, more than 100,000 visitors attend various events and performances inside the building, which includes a 975-seat auditorium, a 150-seat recital hall, and houses the fine arts and communication departments and executive offices.
On Aug. 29, 2002, Dr. Lacey announced at a student chapel service that Missouri Baptist College would be renamed Missouri Baptist University. It made sense considering the season of increased growth both in enrollment and programs the institution was enjoying.
The University had recently launched its first graduate program with the Master of Science in Education, and the number of students attending the University’s four regional learning centers was growing exponentially.
Since 2000, the University has seen thousands of graduates in its continually expanding graduate programs. Currently, MBU offers 11 graduate programs, along with the Educational Specialist and Doctor of Education degrees. The number of MBU regional learning centers located throughout Missouri and Southern Illinois has grown to 12.
And then there is online education. While the idea of completing college coursework online seemed a world away 20 years ago, some argue the Internet has been a game changer, even a disruptor, to an industry many times synonymous with a resistance to change.
Under Dr. Lacey’s leadership, MBU saw the change as an opportunity to educate students who may not otherwise have access to Christian higher education. It’s a trait Dr. Corts has seen time and time again in his friend and colleague.
“Over the span of time of his career, our Christian higher education movement has been through thick and thin times, and he has been a voice for reason over emotion with a pragmatic, can-do spirit,” Dr. Corts said.
MBU began offering web-based courses in the fall of 2000. In July 2008, MBU received approval to offer its first online degree program: the Master of Science in Education with concentrations in Sport Management and Curriculum and Instruction.
Today, MBU offers 11 graduate programs and one undergraduate program online with the University’s strategic plan calling for more aggressive expansion to the University’s online offerings in the future, Lacey said.
Despite the changes to higher education, Dr. Lacey believes there remains a place in higher education for students to experience a traditional, more holistic Christian higher education experience. You don’t have to look further than the growth on the University’s main campus to see why. Today, more than 1,200 students are pursuing more than 40 majors on MBU’s main campus. The number of resident students has increased from just over 100 when Dr. Lacey took the reins of MBU to nearly 400 today.
Along with such growth, the University’s main campus continues to undergo an indisputable renaissance. Also under Dr. Lacey’s leadership, MBU has constructed the Perk coffeehouse; Spartan Village, which includes apartments and the innovative Spartan Row; a new bookstore; and the Carl and Deloris Petty Sports and Recreation Complex. That state-of-the art facility features a fitness center, indoor track, group fitness room and community spaces. The R. Alton Lacey competition gymnasium seats 1,000, complete with a digital control system, premium flooring and electric bleachers.Every existing building has undergone extensive renovations including a recent expansion to the MBU Dining Hall.
Currently, the University is building an artificial turf football field and complex for the University’s young football program. The new field and complex will be located on an undeveloped part of the campus’ west side.
Those additions, coupled with a strategic landscaping design plan, have helped create a campus regularly recognized for modeling collegiate campus design.
But the progress made under Dr. Lacey has not been confined to MBU or even the St. Louis region.
Dr. Carolyn Bishop, president for the Consortium for Global Education, works with more than 40 accredited American colleges and universities, including MBU, and their 241 overseas partnerships involving more than 80 countries. Largely because of Dr. Lacey’s influence, MBU has been a critical partner in the internationalization of higher education, she said. Over the years, MBU has partnered with various international colleges and universities, sending MBU faculty to share professional expertise in higher education and hosting students and faculty from other countries.
“The impact and reach of MBU is much greater than the campus or stateside networks, as it has been a strategic partner in overseas programs where the world has come into their classrooms and the quality programs of MBU have impacted Christians globally,” she said. “Dr. Lacey is a lighthouse among Christian higher education presidents, directing many to follow a way to reach the world.”
And while perhaps surprising, he thinks MBU’s bright future will not necessarily stem from its agility or entrepreneurial culture alone, but rather from a heritage marked by an unwavering commitment to the core values.
He points to the following principles of the University that have continued throughout its history:
“This institution’s mission, which has remained constant throughout the last 50 years, has been and will always be its greatest strength,” said Lacey. “If MBU continues to operate a mission-driven institution, the recent successes we have been blessed to be part of will be a prologue for what is to come.”
Coinciding with its 50th anniversary, MBU has launched a new capital campaign aimed at continuing its pursuit of being a University characterized by faith and learning. The campaign includes strategic initiatives to build a new academic and student development complex, expand athletic facilities, increase scholarships and endowments, enhance student support services and build additional on-campus housing. Those additions will help serve a growing student body. MBU plans to continue to aggressively explore new academic and athletic programs. In particular, Dr. Lacey said the University is exploring the additions of allied health programs, including nursing and occupational therapy.
The University will continue to explore the prospect of adding athletic programs that fit within the mission of the University. Dr. Lacey said the University is currently considering the addition of some women’s programs, including swimming, diving, archery, sand volleyball and field hockey.
No matter the future plans — and there are many — they are likely to be spelled out in the University’s strategic plan, two working documents that include objectives for every department on campus.
Since Lacey took the reins, strategic planning has become a signature of his administration. It is a University-wide effort that has allowed MBU to embrace a culture of continual assessment while developing a vision for the future.
It’s that type of bold vision-casting that will allow this institution to continue to grow into what its early leaders knew it could one day become.
It’s the same potential Dr. Lacey saw nearly two decades ago in that small Midwest college, and one that he’s been working to realize ever since.