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Dr. Nicholson: The Power of High Purpose

The Power of High Purpose
[Editor's Note:  Excerpts from President Nicholson’s commencement address, June 16, 1990, and taped interviews on July 5, 1989 and June 4, 1990.  Included in Faith Learning & Life:  Views from the President’s Office of Anderson University. Callen, Dr. Barry L.  Anderson, Indiana: Warner Press, 1991.]

President Nicholson with Reardon and Edwards by Morrison statueMy own pilgrimage of life, highlighted by my forty-five years on the faculty and administrative staff of Anderson University, certainly has seen its share of personal and professional insecurities. As I stand before you now, speaking at my last commencement as president and about to retire, I sense with you graduates the unknowns and challenges of the future. I have faced such things before and I have become familiar with the insecurities that have accompanied major tasks for which I was responsible, but not fully prepared. For me it has been a long and wonderful personal pilgrimage.  

It all began for me on this campus when I came on the train with my mother from Minnesota in 1940 to join the freshman class. I was only sixteen when I graduated from high school. There was no tradition of higher education in my family, and I was hardly a self-confident young man. My assigned dorm room had disturbing traces of rodents and the windows barely kept out the cold. Studies came easily for me, but socially I was very much ill at ease. As an only child, I grew up in a fairly isolated setting. Even though I was the tallest player on my high school basketball team, I still played second string.  

Having graduated from college in 1944 and functioned as a church staff member and then graduate student for only one year, I found myself back on campus. I began teaching in 1945. Only twenty-one years old, without some of the traditional academic preparation and beginning to teach in a field, music, in which I had not majored in college, there was surely insecurity. It took several years before I was at all secure. Finally I received my doctorate in music, and with it some sense of being at home.  

That settledness didn’t last long. In 1958 Dean Olt died, Robert Reardon became president, and I was called upon to fill the shoes of the man who had been the revered academic leader of the campus for decades. The insecurity returned. I was not the traditional liberal arts based person typical of other deans I soon met. It took years before I felt at home in deanly circles, but finally I did.  

But in 1983 all things seemed to change again. The presidency was now my responsibility and I was keenly aware of my shortcomings, particularly my general lack of community involvement and fund-raising experience. I judged myself not the highly articulate, verbal person I admired in other presidents, particularly in my predecessor. My twenty-five years as dean had accustomed me to organizing and accomplishing tasks, not forever making speeches, meeting people, and representing the university at numerous occasions. It took several more years for these new insecurities to be mastered.  

When retirement approached in 1990, what was ahead was full of the unknown. But now there was no fear in it, no uncomfortable insecurity.  Over the years, particularly beginning when I was converted during the campus Religious Emphasis Week of my freshman year, I had learned more fully that I was God’s child. My faith secured me when social and professional pressures were felt. There now are no real regrets and Dorothy and I look on ahead with real excitement!

What have I learned that might be of use to others? I commend to you the power of high purpose, the title of a book by Dr. William H. Mikesell dedicated to me. Each of us faces difficulties, uncertainties and insecurities in life, but the power of a God-directed purpose is the power to live a life of service and significance. God will both guide and empower. I know from experience!