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C. Orville Strohl: Dreamer, President

Dr. C. Orville Strohl, president of Southwestern College from 1954 to 1972, died Feb. 6, 2002, at age 93. Dr. Strohl left his mark as one of the most influential figures in the history of the college. His impact on the student body, the physical plant, and the financial security of Southwestern became a lasting legacy. His survivors include his children (Sheryl Holt, Joanne Darfler, and Rodney Strohl) and his wife, Marjorie. Helen Burgner, to whom he was married 55 years, preceded him in death.

At a Feb. 9 memorial service, Dean David Nichols eulogized the man who had been president when Nichols was a student. Following are his remarks.

He Had a Dream
In Joel 3:28, we read: "And it shall come to pass afterward that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions." On a day like today, it seems like that verse must have been written just for Orville Strohl. God gave Orville the capacity to dream. He had dreams for his family, for his career, and a dream for the college that was so central to his life.

From the time he graduated from Southwestern College in 1931, in the depths of the Great Depression, Orville was a working dreamer, a man who got things done. In his senior year at Southwestern, as editor of the yearbook, Orville raised $5,000 from advertising. That's 1931 dollars, folks. Could anyone doubt that this was a budding fundraiser?

His and Helen's book was titled, Fifty Years to Shape a Dream. I never have known anyone who, from head to toe, was so thoroughly grounded in the capacity to dream about making things better and then set about doing something to transform that dream into reality.

That's the important thing. Orville was not an out-of-touch dreamer. He made dreams happen.

The President Who Made the Dream Happen at Southwestern College
My first encounter with Orville's dream for the college came as a freshman in 1956. Orville had arrived at Southwestern to assume the presidency on January 1, 1954. He walked into the empty president's office that New Year's Day, opened the desk drawer and found a half-bottle of aspirin, with a note from his predecessor. The note said: "Good luck!"

He would need that luck. While the science hall was new, the administration building had burned in 1950 and was being rebuilt by means of a large debt. Student enrollment was a little over 300. The campus had only one dormitory, Smith Hall, built in 1923. The men's dorm and the student center were both housed in old army barracks.

The dreamer went to work. In the six years of his presidency before I graduated in 1960, the completed projects included:
. Completion of Christy Administration Building
. Broadhurst Residence Hall
. Kirk Drive
. The president's residence (now Strohl House)
. Sutton Hall
. Wallingford Hall
. Roy L. Smith Student Center
. Shriwise Student Apartments, and
. Honor dorm

And in the decade after I graduated, the buildings included:
. Darbeth Fine Arts Center
. Reid Residence Hall
. White Physical Education Building
. The White addition to the library

There were a myriad of smaller projects, such as Lois Hill Memorial Chapel and the Helen Graham Little Theatre in Christy.

And he built endowment. Every chance he got, Orville plowed gifts into the endowment. Sometimes the faculty complained that more of those gifts did not go into their salaries. But Orville had a dream and the courage to forego current benefits to build the long-term future of the college.

The Phrasemaker
He called it the triangular concept of college development-(and these are his words)- a triangle of "alert students on a residential campus, a campus well equipped for learning and living, and an endowment to support a capable and dedicated faculty."

Orville was a great phrasemaker, his own PR person. He loved the language and invented slogans in such bunches that sometimes the faculty and students made fun of them. He wrote that Southwestern's program was "vast in scope, honorable in intent, genuine in motive!" It was a campus "with goals that are ambitious enough to be a real challenge but realistic enough to be attainable." Southwestern College, Orville wrote: "Old enough to be proven, strong enough to be challenging, young enough to be contemporary!"

And that was all on just one page of one flyer! In this cynical age, where we disdain emotional and rhetorical flourish, we sometimes forget the power of great phrases that stick in the memory. But Orville understood their power.

And the slogans were not just for public consumption. They were for Orville and his dream. He did not just pronounce platitudes in public and go home and curse the darkness. He did not just proclaim his vision when he was president and quit when he retired. Agree with him or not, his vision was authentic. He believed it and he lived and breathed it every minute of every day.

It must have been challenging, on occasion, for both of Orville's wonderful wives and his children to live with a man with such single-minded vision, especially during the years of his presidency. But today they know the power of that vision. Orville was a man of hope-impossible to discourage, unrelenting, rejecting defeat, never giving up. You can't kill people like that. He will be with us forever, reminding us of his dreams for his children, his grandchildren, for the college, for his community, for the country he loved.

Students Were the Most Important
Orville's dream was not just buildings or endowment. It was students. It was graduates who would make the world a better place, who would, in the words of the prophet, be "sons and daughters who prophesy." Orville never forgot the students. It was legendary that, every year as president, Orville would study the names and photographs of every student and be able to greet any student on campus by name.

I first thought that I would impress you by reciting names and accomplishments of great Southwestern graduates from the 1954-1972 era, when Orville was president. But the task proved impossible. Do you realize that there were literally thousands of Southwestern graduates during those years and hundreds who have carved out distinguished careers and made incredible contributions?

A dozen graduates from that era serve right now on the staff and faculty of the college. Carl Martin, a graduate of the class of 1960, which I continue to insist was the greatest class in the history of Southwestern College, eventually served as president for 10 years.

And many of the Strohl-era students serve as trustees. Orville would have liked that. He always said the trustees were the bulwark of the college. Nineteen of our 37 trustees right now-more than half-were in school when Orville Strohl was president. They include distinguished business executives, computer experts, lawyers, scientists, surgeons, bankers, diplomats, educators, preachers, public servants, and community leaders.

And those Strohl-era students include Orville's extraordinary children-Jodi, Rodney, and Sheryl, who until recently served as chair of the board of trustees student life committee.

These family members, faculty and staff, and board members are the continuing custodians of the dream. And Orville will always be there, in our heads and in our hearts, pushing us to be dreamers ourselves, challenging us to never give up, demanding that we transform our visions into dynamic achievement.