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Dr. Ben McArthur, longtime professor of history at Southern Adventist University, passed away on April 10, 2017, after a long battle with cancer
Ben McArthur leaves an enduring and finely honed legacy on our campus for the liberal arts, in the community of Adventist historians as a public intellectual for our church, and within this local community. But there is no doubt that it is especially the History and Political Studies Department that was most deeply shaped by him for almost 40 years. This is where he spent most of his days: in his office on the top of Brock Hall, writing, meeting with students, grading papers; and it was from that physical and spiritual location that he launched across campus to advocate for programs or causes or initiatives that he cared about.
McArthur joined the faculty at what was then Southern Missionary College in 1979, after being approached by fellow Midwesterner and Nebraska football fan, Bill Wohlers. Dr. Wohlers recruited Ben to come to the History Department at a time when both the department and Southern were suffering from personnel and morale woes. Ben was a shot in the arm. There was a spirit of fear and controversy on campus, but Ben’s ability to move between factions, to exert humor and charm in times of angst, and to form personal relationships in the face of lines being drawn on the battlefield, allowed him to pour oil on the water.
He also immediately set about helping his colleagues forge a culture in the department of excellent research and scholarship as well as deep mentoring of the majors. In spite of the drop in students at Southern during the 1980s and 1990s, the History Department doubled in size during those same years, largely due to McArthur’s efforts. A colleague from that time has said that Ben’s strength included his ability to think innovatively and motivate students to perform, but always while affirming the Adventist faith and tradition. He refined the capstone research class, which allowed a larger number of majors to write original work allowing them to get into good graduate programs. He brought cultural history classes into prominence, especially reviving the team-taught Arts and Ideas class. He worked with the Moody family to set up an award for the top graduating senior in the department, helping our majors to see that their skills were valued by alumni and professionals outside the department. It was also Ben who largely crafted our senior oral exam to help students prepare for graduate school and job interviews, as well as assessing whether they have learned the things we hoped they would. Under his shaping, our department began to produce highly effective alumni in a wide range of professions.
Ben’s interdisciplinary cultural interests (from his own research on American theater to more recently writing screenplays as well as his wide-ranging reading habits and support for classical music) informed his commitments on our campus outside the department. He linked History with the other liberal arts and championed the Honors Program, recruiting faculty and students to join the effort to think deeply and creatively across disciplinary lines. He never let us forget that our future as a liberal arts institution depended on cooperating and coordinating and supporting the larger liberal arts and sciences. In fact, one of the final efforts he made on our campus was in the spring of 2016, when our liberal arts were being cut in the interest of lowering the number of general education hours. In spite of his recent surgery and poor health, he spent enormous effort creatively thinking about how to make sure our graduates all get some cultural heritage before they leave Southern. His proposal did not pass, but in typical Ben McArthur fashion, he was not bitter about this, and remained hopeful to the end that we will someday soon see fit to add back in a strong cultural and literary component to our General Education.
It was this element of his personality that made him such a great colleague. Ben was cheerful and tireless and had a great dry sense of humor. He took what we do in the liberal arts very seriously, but he didn’t take himself or any particular situation so seriously that it stymied his joy in the work. He advocated for causes, reminding his younger colleagues of what our goals were and why we had the policies we did, but then if changes were voted that he disagreed with, he moved on and tried to make the best of it. His own commitment to research and writing, in spite of his heavy teaching load, constantly inspired us in the department to remain deeply involved in our professional guild even as we mentored students in the process of becoming thinking Christians. He loved chocolate treats and was keen on any opportunity to celebrate. He enjoyed reading things and then popping into our offices to share them—reminding us what a pleasure it is to work in an environment where this sort of engaging discussion is part of our job. It was always fun to come to work when he was there.
Ben’s commitment to the Adventist church as a public intellectual, writing and participating in the issues that our church in North America faces, were also a reminder to us as his colleagues that what we do here at Southern is part of a bigger endeavor than just getting our students through a curriculum. Ben was not fearful and didn’t censor himself in order to avoid being attacked for his arguments or conclusions. He embodied what it meant to be a truthful, loving, loyal and prophetic participant in Adventist Christian higher education—all for the purposes of living into the promise of the Second Advent. And so he crafted a culture where we didn’t spend time being worried and stressed, but got on with the business of following Jesus through the life of the mind. There was never any doubt that Ben looked forward to a New Earth where intellectual inquiry will be ongoing, where creative and fun conversations about ideas, and the study and teasing out of cultural realities (and definitely lots of reading!) will be fundamental to how we spend our time with our Creator and our friends and loved ones.
As is usual when we think about legacies, it is the personal relationships that we have invested in which stand out. Many of you have written and shared what Ben’s mentoring and friendship meant to you. Ben always said we were a “full-service department,” which in his case meant that he continued to keep in touch with his students and think about them when opportunities for jobs, graduate school, volunteering or even the occasional marriage prospect came up. He also saw his colleagues as his friends and looked out for us socially and personally. While the life of the mind was always central for him, he and Callie extended hospitality and personal care regarding our private lives—attending our weddings, hosting celebrations for our milestones, and checking in on us during times of ill health.
He was also quick to share his thoughtful advice, and would have personal conversations with each of us over the years, sharing what he had been ruminating on regarding something he thought we should try or add into our plans. My own life was irrevocably shaped by his activist mentoring. I was an intellectually naïve undergraduate, and Ben took me aside in my junior year to tell me I should apply for a major international scholarship. I’d never heard of it before and he talked me through the extensive application process. I didn’t get it, but was transformed by being part of an endeavor of that magnitude.
Even though I didn’t take many classes from him or work for him, he and Dennis Pettibone, who was also my mentor, took it upon themselves to sit me down and talk me into applying to graduate school—Ben insisting that I apply to the University of Chicago, which ended up being the only place I got accepted. My life is entirely different because of that conversation. But even more importantly, he made some phone calls and got me into the Pew Younger Scholar program for students from Christian colleges who need mentoring as they enter high end PhD programs. It was this program that taught me how to be a grown up Christian, how to think about my faith and beliefs in the context of being an intellectual—and gave me a Christian community of scholars who are my friends and inspiration to this very day. That was all Ben, deciding that I needed a push in a specific direction. He kept in touch over the years, suggesting routes I might take that would make me a better teacher and contributor to Adventist higher education. He was wise, and I never went wrong when I listened to him.
It is that legacy that he leaves with the department that he so profoundly shaped: Think deeply and share your ideas fearlessly. But never forget that our primary job is to mentor (usually young) human beings and build a community of faith and scholarship. There’s a point to all this deep thinking. I am so grateful for the promise of the New Earth where I will get to talk with Ben about the latest thing I’m reading, have him recommend some impossibly long literary novel, or check out his most recent essay. And maybe there will be chocolate.
Paul’s words to the Thessalonians are also our department’s thoughts regarding our beloved colleague Ben: “ We always thank God for you. . . We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thess 1:1-3)
Lisa Clark Diller
Southern Adventist University
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