AU’s visionary leader remembered

Mon, 2007-02-12 14:15 -- univcomm
February 12, 2007

To his staff, he was the executive always ahead of the game. To his friends, he was a Christian who touched lives in positive ways. To the little girl down the street and later a generation of college students, he was known, affectionately, as “Uncle Bob.” However he was regarded, Anderson University lost a dear friend and trailblazing leader when former president Dr. Robert H. Reardon, 87, died at his Anderson home Saturday, February 10, of complications from pancreatic cancer.

Visit a special tribute Web area for Dr. Robert Reardon

Final arrangements: Dr. Robert Reardon

Current president James Edwards, in a telephone interview Sunday, said solemnly, “I have truly dreaded this time that we all knew was coming, because I knew how special it has been for us to have him with us. “Among all the feelings I have it’s one of sorrow; the feeling like that when you lose your father and you know you’ve had the last conversation you’re ever going to have with him. That’s the kind of feeling I have today.”

In 1958 Reardon’s 25-year tenure as president of what was then Anderson College began. Seeing a bastion of Christian liberal arts education in its future, he ushered in a new era for the school that once occupied just a few small buildings.

By his retirement in 1983 enrollment had grown from 800 to nearly 2,000. More than 7,000 students graduated during that period and 20 building additions enhanced the college grounds.

Reardon had drawn out blueprints for success, aimed at turning the college into a university. He never saw that to fruition, but he was a big act to follow.

“He was a visionary, a leader in the best sense of the term,” said Robert Nicholson, his successor as president, proudly. “He knew what the tough issues were that had to be thoughtfully resolved and he always did it well.”

Nicholson, an academic dean who worked alongside Reardon for decades and eventually became the college’s third president, took Reardon’s direction to heart, enhancing the school academically and eventually earning it the status of a university.

He described Reardon as “an activist, a pioneer spirit. Not impulsive or erratic, but a very stable leader.

“(His staff) knew where he stood, where we stood with him and what was important to him — that’s something vitally important for a leader to have.”

To the Church of God, whose bastion of higher education AU is still becoming, Reardon was a valuable ally.

“His life and demeanor as a leader provided stability and direction for Anderson University and the Church of God,” said Dr. Ronald V. Duncan, general director of Church of God Ministries, in an e-mail. “The Church of God benefited immensely from his wisdom and faithfulness. His legacy will live for years in the lives he has touched and influenced.”

But to Jill Dickerson, who grew up a neighbor to Reardon, a friend to his kids, and eventually an Anderson student, he was something else.

“I knew him better in the role of a neighbor. You didn’t call your parents’ friends by their first names, so he became Uncle Bob,” Dickerson said.

Dickerson graduated in 1968, later becoming an assistant professor of English at AU. She still remembers renting an apartment from Reardon and his wife, Geraldine, and the wit and wisdom he shared with her in the meantime.

“Because I had lived in a not-so-super apartment before this, and this place he built was brand-new, it was really nice. I saw him in church one Sunday and he said ‘Well, Jill, if you get the right cage, you might get the right bird,’ to sort of encourage me to think about marriage.

“But I knew that was also one of his ways of saying ‘Are you sure you don’t want to come rent this new house from me?’ And it was a great apartment and, well, I did eventually get married.”

Sena Landey is AU’s vice president for finance and treasurer. She attended Anderson College from 1971 to 1975. An accounting and management major, she hired on with the school as a staff accountant after graduation.

Landey knew Reardon by the handle “Uncle Bob,” too, but by then, its use had spread into the context of his leadership at school. Students regarded him affectionately, and it showed.

“He was both wise and fun,” Landey remarked. “He just related — at every age of his he was connecting with students.”

Not only that, but she remembers him as a man with “humility but incredible ability.”

“He was so affirming of the people that worked for him. He said to me one time ‘As a leader the smartest thing I ever did was surround myself with smart people.’”

That’s part of Reardon that Nicholson remembers, too. As a longtime close friend, Nicholson had used the nickname “Uncle Bob” for Reardon many times. He speculated on how the moniker came to befit such a distinguished leader.

“He was only 39 when he became president. Freshmen may have seen him as a strong educational figure, but as they got to know him he became much more. He loved to hobnob with students. But, there was an awe about it.

“He was always busy, but his door was open, and students liked to stop in to see him, sometimes even play pranks on him. He was that at school, but also to our sons and to us he was Uncle Bob.”

Reardon maintained his composure and represented the school gracefully, even at a time of great civil unrest in the United States, with questions swirling about civil rights and the Vietnam War, according to Edwards.

“Certainly without question he had the kind of persona that represented everything we knew about the college I was attending.

“I think because we came through a period of time in the ’60s that was particularly challenging on college campuses, there were times when he was called to deal with situations with students directly in ways I’m sure I’ve never done.”

And the impact of that leadership has stuck with Edwards, not only because it was inspirational, but because even after retirement Reardon kept interest in the school he had worked so much of his life to grow.

“I’ve come to a time where this is a deeply meaningful moment for me in that I have always had him a phone call away,” Edwards said. “It truly is a personal thing for me that I’ve had the privilege, first of all, to serve in this job for 17 years now, and second, to serve after two predecessors who took the time to care for their work even after it was done.”

Reardon hired Don Collins, now 77, as the school’s campus pastor in 1978. Collins recalls a gifted leader, too.

“He had a lot of power, but as is not customary, he did not use that selfishly,” Collins said. “He used his power to enhance other people, but I would say that underneath it all was to enhance the Kingdom of God.”

Gospel music singer and 1959 Anderson College graduate and Madison County mainstay Bill Gaither said, succinctly, “I will miss him dearly.

“I had nothing but admiration for him as the leader of the college. He seemed to me to be larger than life. It was refreshing for me to discover when I got to know him as a friend, that he was still a man of incredible stature. Few heroes grow taller the closer one gets. He was a wise mentor, a true role model and a loyal friend with a memorable sense of humor.”

— Lee Noble is a reporter for the Anderson Herald Bulletin. Story reprinted with permission.

Anderson University is a private Christian university of 2,700 undergraduate and graduate students in central Indiana. Anderson continues to be recognized as a top Christian college: in 2008, U.S. News and World Report ranked Anderson University among the best colleges and universities in the Midwest for the fourth consecutive year. Established in 1917 by the Church of God, Anderson University offers more than 60 undergraduate majors and graduate programs in business, education, music, nursing and theology.