At the heart of the Newcom family is a deep connection to Graceland.
Scheduled to be completed in early 2020, the transformation of the MSC to Newcom Student Union will continue the impact of JAY ’64 AND CHERRY PHELPS `65 NEWCOM on Graceland students for generations to come.
Together with their children, Shandra ’90 and Derek `96, the Newcoms led the charge to renovate the central gathering place for students on campus, providing a lead gift that was joined by many other donors. For these alumni and friends, it is a way to impact Graceland students by giving them a sense of home. "It's where you get your mail, where you meet your friends, where you see a lot of people, even if you're just walking through," said Cherry. "It's the central location where people interact, kind of like the kitchen of a home."
But the Newcom legacy stretches far beyond a name on a building. The family's roots go back to the late 1940s when Jay's parents, known affectionately to the Lamoni community as "Mom and Pop" Newcom, moved to Lamoni when Jay was only three years old. They purchased the little hamburger cafe in town, The Pantry, and later, both came to work in different roles on campus. Jay grew up in Lamoni; one of his first jobs was working the grounds of the campus and painting dorm rooms.
When he came to campus as a student in 1960, Graceland's signature housing system was nonexistent. Students were asked to join social clubs very similar to fraternities and sororities. That all changed in 1963 when Jay became Graceland's student body president. Working with the administration, he worked to rewrite the student government constitution, which formed the structure very similar to the one that is in place to this day. The newly formed Graceland Student Government (GSG) included the Campus Organization for Social Activities (COSA) and a student senate, as well as a restructuring of social clubs, which became the housing system that is foundational to the Graceland experience.
Even with all that, if you ask Jay what is the most important thing that happened to him at Graceland, he smiles and points to Cherry, his wife of over 50 years. Cherry attended Graceland for two years, during which time she was a Crescent and active with the student newspaper. At the groundbreaking ceremony for Newcom Student Union, Jay pointed to a spot just outside the building where he and Cherry met for the first time. “Cherry and I met right by Patroness Hall. My life has never been the same. I thank Graceland for that.”
The Newcom legacy doesn’t end there. Shandra ’90 served as one of Graceland’s campus ministers from 1999-2002, the first woman to serve in that role. She and Blake Smith presided over campus ministries during the events of Sept. 11, 2001, which was a unique challenge.
She remembers, “We tried hard to create a space and feeling of home, especially for international students, who were having issues feeling at home in the United States almost overnight.” The MSC Main Room was transformed into a safe space during that time, where students could grieve, light candles, and express themselves and their concerns.
Derek ’96 arrived on campus several years after his sister graduated and remembers his own time on “the Hill” fondly. “There was, and is, a sense of community at Graceland,” he remembers. “I have never lost that deep sense of belonging.”
At the beginning of this summer, Derek recalled being in the Kansas City airport next to a group of nursing students. “I was close enough to strike up a conversation with them and soon realized they were Graceland students on their way to Guatemala,” he said. “It’s funny how Graceland goes with you wherever you go.”
Since graduating, the Newcom family’s connection to Graceland has remained strong. After Jay and Cherry were married, they headed to the East Coast where Jay attended the University of Maryland and then Harvard Law School. They then moved west, living in Chicago and California before returning to the Kansas City area.
Over the years, they have continued to serve Graceland in various roles. Cherry served on the alumni board and sponsors a scholarship for students engaged in religious life. She also has attended almost every Spectacular as a delegation leader for 40 years. Jay’s service includes 26 years on the Board of Trustees, where he oversaw the University’s purchase of SkillPath.
“Our hearts called us back to Kansas City many years ago,” Jay remembers, “which allowed us to live our lives close to Graceland.”
The Newcom family’s Graceland tradition continues in the fall, when a grandson will arrive on campus. As grandparents, Jay and Cherry have been bringing their three grandchildren to homecoming at Graceland for years — another family tradition that centers around time spent on the campus, surrounded by friends. “We remain close to many of our friends from our time at Graceland,” Cherry says. “They are still a part of our life — we are still Graceland family.”
“Graceland is a defining part of our lives... not because of who we are; it's because of who Graceland is.”
-Jay Newcom ’64
At the heart of the Newcom family is a deep connection to Graceland. “I can’t describe the Newcom family history without featuring Graceland,” Jay says. “It is a defining part of our lives — of Cherry’s and mine, of Shandra’s and Derek’s. That’s not because of who we are; it’s because of who Graceland is.”
The Newcom family wants to continue to see a vibrant and relevant Graceland, and the new Student Union will be an important part of that. Jay said at the groundbreaking of the building, “I see Graceland as being a central location for the development of attitudes in the young people who come here... to have a humane impact on the development of society as it struggles through the technology revolution that is even now only just beginning.”
This speaks directly to Graceland’s mission to create learning communities where students develop their potential for meaningful and productive lives. Newcom Student Union will be a central location on campus where students can gather, interact, communicate and collaborate together, building lifelong relationships that, hopefully, reflect the spirit and love of the family whose name will adorn the building for generations to come.