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Remembering President Emeritus William T. “Bill” Higdon

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Features - Spring 22

April 21, 2022 | Shane Adams

In the annals of Graceland history, there are a few names that will forever be remembered for their contributions to the University. Marietta Walker. Roy Cheville. Edmund Gleazer. The Clossons. No list of Graceland legends would be complete without the incomparable pair: William T. ’49 and Barbara McFarlane ’49 Higdon. William, known to most as “Bill,” passed away peacefully on November 18, 2021, leaving a legacy behind that shaped Graceland for more than 60 years.

For decades, the Higdon family led the University. Higdon’s father, Earl ’27 served as acting president beginning in 1964 before his son Bill succeeded him in 1966. Bill then served as president from 1966 until 1974 when he was ordained as an apostle in the Community of Christ (then RLDS) World Conference, a position that he also succeeded his father in serving. Barbara was inaugurated as Graceland’s first woman to serve as full president in 1984 (Velma Ruch had previously served as Graceland’s first president on an interim basis in 1974, coincidentally when Bill Higdon went under appointment). Barbara retired as president emerita in 1991, succeeded by Bill, who then served his second term as president until his retirement in the spring of 1997.

There has never before been (and likely never will be) another Graceland president with the distinction to succeed both his father and his wife as Bill did, but that remarkable feat is only a footnote to the rich legacy of contributions that Higdon made to Graceland during his two terms as president. His accomplishments weren’t just numerous, they were also incredibly impactful, and will be measured by generations of students. He oversaw the development of Graceland’s Independence campus, introduced the “Bear Pit” sessions of open dialogue with student leaders, oversaw the creation of Graceland’s first master’s degree program, purchased SkillPath Seminars, and completed a multi-million-dollar fundraising campaign.

A VISIONARY LEADER

Barbara Hiles Mesle ’72, who was a student during his first term as president and then a faculty member from 1980 until 2016 after his retirement, described him as an innovative thinker and a man of big ideas. More a scientist or inventor than a college president, Mesle said, “He didn’t just float trial balloons; Bill launched airships.”

“Sometimes I’d think to myself, ‘What if I just make believe that an idea were plausible?’ but Bill believed in his big ideas and he often made them become true,” Mesle recalled. “I was the beneficiary of a Graceland he helped forge.”

“Bill was incredibly generous with his time. I am grateful for the opportunities I had to visit with Bill and receive his counsel. His wisdom, vision, and passion for Graceland set a high bar for university presidents.” -President Patricia H. Draves

Our father was a visionary. To paraphrase Bobby Kennedy’s famous quote, Dad dreamed of things for Graceland and asked “why not?” This stemmed from the very core of his character; he was able to see not only what should be but have a means to make it reality. Which he did, over and over again. He had the right temperament and the right skill set to respond to critical times in Graceland’s history.

Because Graceland was always our parents’ fourth child, wherever Dad’s vision led, Mom (Barbara McFarlane ’49) and we children came along. Each of us has memories of what we did because Dad was asking why not. When the telescope was installed as part of Platz- Mortimore Science Hall and someone needed to learn to operate it, for example, Dad said why not me (he was Graceland’s astronomy professor at the time) and off we went to Evanston, Illinois, for a summer because Northwestern had a similar telescope.

Or as people in the national spotlight came
to Lamoni, we got to meet and hang out with them. A random Sunday morning, for example, might find one or more of us shooting hoops on the driveway with a U.S. Senator (Birch Bayh of Indiana) or some Thursday night jamming in the living room with a singer-songwriter soon to be famous (John Denver). Because Dad asked why not bring the outside in to help provide Gracelanders with the exposure that would serve them in an expanding world.

This same impetus to expand led down
some less-traveled paths. Some were less successful (trying to establish an American- style university in Bulgaria); some were wildly successful (establishing a partnership with a nationwide seminar company aka SkillPath). But he was always asking why not and he had the chops to make it happen most of the time.

The same applied to him as a parent. He encouraged us to ask why not about our dreams and helped us to fulfill them. He was always looking for ways to help us to figure out how to answer “why not?” for ourselves, although both he and Mom were there to provide support, advice, and a possible safety net. Together they were a force of nature, and we were honored to share them with Graceland.

-Reflection from Beth ’73, Ruth ’77, and Rich ’79 Higdon

Anita Mortimer ’72 first met Higdon as a student during his first term as president and considered him a lifelong friend. She went on to serve on the Alumni Board of Directors and then as a member of the Board of Trustees during Higdon’s second stint leading the University. “Graceland is better because of Bill Higdon,” Mortimer said. She recalled that board meetings never went as well as they did when Higdon was president. “Everyone wanted to do their absolute best, both for Bill Higdon and for Graceland. He was a true leader with presence and the confidence necessary for a president.”

Mortimer’s fondest memories of Higdon were personal ones, calling him a cherished mentor and quasi grandfather to her son, Ross. When she first joined the Board of Trustees, she would bring her son to campus and would often stay with Bill and Barbara. Once, they were eating in the Commons together and Ross wanted a chocolate chip cookie despite the fact that there were no longer any out. Higdon took Ross by the hand, marched him back into the kitchen, and Ross came back with a huge grin on his face and a cookie in his hand. When he returned to the table, he exclaimed, “Grandpa Bill knows everybody.”

Higdon brought that personal touch to his leadership at Graceland from the very beginning. Harry Ashenhurst ’70, Graceland’s current Board of Trustees Chair recalls being on campus during Higdon’s early years. “I first met him as a freshman on day one,” Ashenhurst recalls. “He stopped me on the sidewalk in front of the Admin building and introduced himself as the new president. That was the start of a friendship that spanned many decades.”

Over the years, Ashenhurst traveled with Higdon through Africa, Asia, and Europe, recalling a time they were driving through Kenya and they were driven off the road by a large semi. Even though the car flipped twice and came to rest in a deep pile of dirt, both walked away laughing that they survived
and then rarely mentioned the experience to each other again. “That was Bill,” Ashenhurst said, “always on to the next adventure.”

A TIMELINE: The Impact of President Emeritus William T. “Bill” Higdon

AN ENTREPRENEUR BY NATURE

Former Board of Trustees Chair Jennings “Jay” Newcom ’64 described Higdon as an entrepreneur by nature; always looking for a way to benefit Graceland economically. “I remember when the SkillPath opportunity came along,” remembers Newcom. “He immediately saw its benefit to Graceland and worked tirelessly to bring the Board, faculty, and staff to the point of acceptance. That acquisition proved to be Graceland’s salvation during a very rough time.”

Newcom, who worked closely with Higdon during his second term as president, witnessed the immense benefit that Graceland reaped through his natural people skills, his ability to analyze every situation, and his willingness to make the tough calls during hard times. “[Bill] constantly sought out the best and most talented people to join the Graceland team and was able to bring them on board,” said Newcom. “Many times, during that period together at Graceland, someone would ask me how Graceland was able to attract such good, competent people. I was able to give a simple answer: ‘Bill!’”

Any remembrance of Bill Higdon is incomplete without mentioning the work that he did with his partner of 61 years, Barbara McFarlane Higdon. Mesle, who began as a faculty member under Barbara, then served under Bill during his second term, put it plainly: “Not all men of Bill’s generation would have been willing to marry a woman of such formidable intellect and stunning talent as Barbara McFarlane. Their alliance seemed to me more like the King of France marrying the Queen of Spain. It’s impossible to overstate the positive effects of their lifelong collaboration.”

“It’s hard to think of them separately,” said Mortimer. “Bill never held Barbara back. And vice versa.”

Bill and Barbara treated Graceland as an extended part of their family, even referred to as “the fourth child” by the Higdon children (see sidebar, page 19). That parental influence of the University has molded and shaped the direction of the institution for generations yet to be. Graceland is not just different because of the presidencies of the Higdons; it is unequivocally better.

A PRESIDENT THAT CARED DEEPLY

William T. Higdon was a bold and visionary leader. But he was also the kind of president who cared deeply about the individual students at Graceland. Director of Undergraduate Admissions Twong Wells ’97 remembers meeting the Higdons as a high schooler. “I was in the process of deciding where I wanted to go to school and my coach was a Graceland alum,” remembers Wells. “Bill & Barbara just happened to be in Florida on their vacation and they took us out to dinner to speak more about Graceland.”

“It was at that moment that I made my decision to further my education [at Graceland],” said Wells. “I was beyond impressed with the fact that a president of a university would take the time out of their vacation to come and speak with potential students.” Wells committed that day to play football at Graceland. “That experience made me feel like Graceland was going to be different and boy, I wasn’t disappointed.” Wells, who now leads undergraduate recruiting for the Lamoni campus, was so impacted that when he is out recruiting, he tells this story to potential students. “I want them to see the level of commitment this University is willing to give to its students. My hope is that I can be as wonderful and impactful as Bill & Barbara were on students that they came across. Their passion and kindness still resonate with me to this day.”

Mesle shared that Higdon gave her several meaningful gifts. “After Barbara died, he showed up in my office in the basement of Briggs with Barbara’s GU nameplate. Bill handed it to me. The even greater gift is his daughter, Miriam Elizabeth. Beth has been the friend of my heart for more than 50 years. Thank you, Bill. You were never boring.”

“He was the consummate people person, genuinely liked and respected by everyone,” said Newcom. “I never spent any time with Bill when it was not clear that Graceland students, faculty, and staff, as well as alumni and other supporters, all were front of mind with him. I, along with many others, will miss Bill’s influence as Graceland continues to grow and prosper. I can only add, ‘Rest in Peace, my Friend.’”

 

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