Harding University President Dr. Bruce McLarty, who is retiring Monday, said he hopes his legacy is “that he loved this city, he loved this university, he loved these students.”
McLarty said he ended up at Harding thanks to Dr. David Burks, who was president of the university at the time and returns to that role at least temporarily to replace McLarty after the university announced his retirement in late October, with Dr. Robert Walker, chairman of the board of directors, saying that “recent economic and higher education trends have created an extremely challenging business environment that has impacted the institution, leading the board to make a change.”
McLarty said he was preaching for the College Church of Christ, where he preached for 14 years, when Burks “told me about a new position they were opening on campus, vice-president for spiritual life, and this was in January of 2005.”
“And so that spring I interviewed for that position and that fall, I worked as vice-president for spiritual life and dean of the College of Bible and Ministry,” McLarty said. “I became a dean and I also became a member of the cabinet. In both of those roles, I got to learn the university and learn higher education. And then eight years after I came over to the College Church and started working at Harding, eight years later, I interviewed to become president of the university when Dr. Burks retired. I started serving as president June 1, 2013.”
McLarty said he finished his doctorate degree in 2010 at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, Ohio, where he wrote on the way that faith-founded schools have a tendency to drift away from their faith.
“So when I became president that was my passion. It was that Harding not become typical in that regard and we maintain and be faithful to the mission on which we were founded, and that was my passion,” he said. “It wasn’t about new buildings or new programs, it was about making sure the core of our identity remained the core of our identity.”
Along the way, McLarty said he had lots of interesting experiences.
He recalled four years ago when Eva Kor, a Romanian-born Holocaust survivor and author who has since died, spoke on campus.
“She probably stood about 4-foot-10 and she was a twin who survived Auschwitz,” McLarty said. “She and her twin sister probably allowed to live because they were some of the subjects in [Dr. Josef] Mengele’s medical studies. She went through this horrific experience, but she spent the later years of her life as an ambassador of forgiveness.
“She packed the Benson Auditorium and she held us in the palm of her hand. She told her story for about 45 minutes and one of my favorite things is that I asked her, ‘What do the fellow victims of the Holocaust think about what you are doing today? What about the perpetrators, the guards and soldiers, what do they think about what you are doing today?’
“She said the perpetrators love me because they are old and they are dying and they’re grasping for redemption. She said the fellow victims hate me because they feel like I am betraying what we all experienced. And then with a glimmer in her eye she said, ‘But the third generation loves me and she said they realized they have to have something more to pass on to their children than just the story of their pain.’ I thought that was just brilliant. I absolutely loved her as a presenter.”
Ruby Bridges, a civil rights activist who was the first African-American child to desegregate William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960, was another of the American Studies Institute’s Distinguished Lecture Series speakers that McLarty recalled.
“I think she had a profound effect on me and on this campus,” he said. “Once again she was someone who had gone through a terrible experience as a little girl having hate hurled at her because she was a little black girl and yet today she is an ambassador or reconciliation and forgiveness. Just a very, very gracious person.”
Another great memory that McLarty said he will take away from his Harding experience will be the Harding Read that has been in place for the past five years.
The freshman class is given a recommended book to read,” he said. “With several of them, we were even able to show a movie in chapel that went along with the book and we talk about it. The first one was about William Wilberforce, called ‘Amazing Grace,’ and then the ‘Hiding Place,’ that’s when we had Eva Kor come in, and the next one was ‘Mere Christianity’ by C.S. Lewis and we had a C.S. Lewis biographer and Douglas Gresham, who is C.S. Lewis’ stepson. They were both on campus.”
Former first lady Laura Bush also left a lasting impact on McLarty in 2018 when she spoke on campus.
“She was marvelous, a great speaker and just very gracious, a classy, classy lady,” he said. “My favorite event of that night was they brought her over to the house so we could get a picture made in front of the fireplace at the [Harding] president’s home with her.
“And my wife and I stand on either side of the guest to get our pictures made that go up on our wall and as we are about to get the picture made, Laura Bush is standing between my wife and me and she turns to me and she said, ‘I think you need to stand in the center Mr. President.’ I thought …. ‘Laura Bush just called me Mr. President,’ and there was no other appropriate answer than to say ‘Yes, ma’am. and to do that.”
This year, the memories have been different because the COVID-19 pandemic.
McLarty said it is just amazing to know that a year ago, no one had ever heard of “Zoom fatigue.” He said that it is also amazing to him that March 6 when Harding sent its students home for spring break, everyone was still shaking hands “and we had no idea that seven days later we would be telling the students not to come back to campus, that spring break would be extended, and then within another week or two we would be telling them that the rest of the semester is going to be online.”
“My description of everything since the beginning of March is ‘driving in the fog,’” he said. “I love that metaphor. You can only see so far until you have gone a little farther. I have no idea what it’s going be be like in three weeks but when we get to two weeks, we are able to see two more weeks.”
During a recent sidewalk talk with students, McLarty said his favorite question to ask was, ‘How long did you think we would stay when we came and started in the fall?’ My informal on the sidewalk poll would say that the No. 1 answer is either two or three weeks.”
Harding finished up its “on the ground portion” last Friday after 13 weeks, for which McLarty said he was thankful.
In retirement, he said he and his wife, Ann, are heading back to Tennessee. He said he was born in Nashville on May 3, 1957, but was not there for long.
“My dad was a civil engineer with the Corps of Engineers so we moved around a lot,” McLarty said. “I went to my first four grades of school in Little Rock. I went to Wilson Elementary over by Asher and University [streets]. It is a school that closed down two or three years ago.”
He recalled that “there were twin black girls that started our school that were the first African Americans in our school – one was in my first grade class and one was in my second grade class. I spent two years going to the School Board in Little Rock trying to find their names and track them down and have dinner with them.”
He said that Harding students “in a major feature writing journalism class” a year ago “were given the assignment to find those two girls, and they did after about three or four weeks. And my wife and I took one of the twins to dinner with her family.”
“We had no idea we were in Phase 3 of desegregation of the Little Rock schools and Central High School was Phase 1,” he said. “My classmate [one of the twins] even when I found her, she had never even heard of that expression.”
After his years in Little Rock, McLarty said his family moved to Memphis before he “came as a freshman to Harding in the fall of 1975, graduated in ‘78, then I went on Harding School of Theology in Memphis.” He said he majored in Bible.
McLarty said he met his wife “while I was a student here and when she graduated in 1980, we married and moved to the Mississippi Delta. ... Our first home was in the Mississippi Delta. I was the preacher for a little church there while I finished graduate school, moved to Memphis and worked there, and they sent us to Africa ... for about a year and a half, we were in Kenya.”
McLarty said when he and his wife returned from Africa, they “went to Cookeville, Tenn., and I was a minister for a church there for six years. I came from there to Searcy.”
Now, they are heading back to Cookeville, “where we came from so we have a lot of friends there and my parents retired there after we moved to Arkansas.”
McLarty said when he first moved to Searcy in 1991, he would be asked what Cookeville was like and he would say, “It is Searcy with two Race Streets. It’s a college town for Tennessee Tech; it’s a little bit bigger than Searcy is, but it would remind you in many many ways of Searcy, Ark.”
In Cookeville, he plans to return to preaching in some capacity.
“Even in my announcement of this transition, I said, ‘I’m a preacher at heart,’ and so I see myself doing that in some place, in some form,” McLarty said. “I am thankful to be at this stage in my life where I see myself getting to travel to a lot of different places, speak to a lot of different people but to have the freedom to preach more than I have been able to do while I was college president.”
Of course, he also expects to spend time with his eight grandchildren. (The McLartys have two daughters.)
“Just keeping up with them and what they are doing, what’s going on, that’s my favorite thing to do,” he said.