One of the newest members of the Oklahoma Baptist University family, University President David Whitlock told students the story of how their institution was founded on Oklahoma's wind-swept plains, on neutral ground once known as "Bison Hill." Dr. Whitlock shared the legacy of the university during Founders' Day chapel Wednesday, Feb. 18, in Raley Chapel, which sits atop Bison Hill.
Founders' Day is an annual OBU event commemorating the university's incorporation in February 1910. University officials say one of the purposes of Founders' Day is to honor the memory of former faculty members and administrators at OBU. The day is dedicated to those and others through the years whose love for Bison Hill and dedication to scholarship still inspires the OBU community today.
Whitlock retold the biblical story of the children of Israel who were delivered not only by crossing the Red Sea, but also the Jordan River, both on dry land. In Joshua 4, the Bible says the newly freed people were instructed to erect stones as a reminder of God's provision.
Thousands of years later, in 1910, two men stood on a hill in Shawnee where bison roamed and wallowed. Oklahoma Baptist leaders W.P. Blake and G. Lee Phelps believed God had led them to this place to establish a university which would be built on truth, honor and humility, as well as on intellect and faith. They established an altar of stones at the location as a sign of their commitment to the task.
"They were convinced that God had divinely led them to this point and had orchestrated the founding of a new university to serve the new State of Oklahoma," Whitlock said. "The two bowed and prayed, and the university's foundation began to be built."
Oklahoma Baptists' desire to establish a distinctively Christian university began four years earlier with the joining of two state Baptist conventions - representing the Indian Territory and the Oklahoma Territory - which united, forming the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma in 1906. The new convention appointed an Educational Commission to evaluate Christian education. A year later, with Statehood nearing for Oklahoma, the commission determined a need for moral leadership established by denominational schools.
Originally, founders debated possible locations for OBU including El Reno, Lawton, Oklahoma City, Hobart and Putnam. In the end, Shawnee resident George McKinnis recommended his city because it was neutral ground, located in the old Pottawatomie Nation instead of either Indian Territory or Oklahoma Territory. Shawnee was the location where the two conventions had become one, and it was centrally located in the new state. For the university, the City of Shawnee proposed to give 60 acres of land and $100,000.
"In so many ways, those early pioneers - George McKinnis, the leaders of the new state, the leaders of the Baptist convention, the citizens of Shawnee - were laying a firm foundation for a new university that would have the highest academic standards and nurture a vibrant faith among thousands of students who would someday roam the halls and sit in the classrooms of the new university," Whitlock said. "Students, so many men and women have sacrificed that you might be prepared for a life of service and a life of meaning.
"Today OBU is known for a beautiful campus, for its first-class faculty scholars and for graduates who are changing the world," he said. "Students, you are now part of a great legacy and tradition which is OBU."
Whitlock shared details about the OBU community to emphasize the university's tradition of excellence: In the Human Genome Project, the scientist whose company developed the gene mapping equipment which enabled completion of the revolutionary project is Dr. Mike Hunkapiller, a 1970 OBU graduate. The youngest astro-physicist in the world, who works at Princeton, is Branson Stephens, a 2000 OBU graduate mentored by Dr. Albert Chen, OBU professor of physics. OBU is the No. 1 sending institution in the world for missionaries through the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. And OBU has a winning tradition in athletics, with the current basketball teams ranked third in the women's poll and second in the men's NAIA coaches poll.
"The successes of our faculty and students are proud achievements, and they are made possible because of the firm foundation that was laid by OBU's founders, and by so many others who have built upon that foundation and poured out their lives in service here on Bison Hill," Whitlock said.
The sacrificial giving of many through the years is exemplified by the university's first president, Dr. J.M. Carroll. Neither the citizens of Shawnee nor the Baptists of the state were able to raise sufficient funds to meet necessary expenses of the new university. Carroll was an avid ornithologist - a collector of birds. He acquired an impressive bird collection, which is now housed at the University of Oklahoma - not at OBU - because upon leaving the university in 1912, Carroll sold his collection to OU to help support the new institution on Bison Hill.
"Suffice it to say the foundation that was laid for Oklahoma Baptist University is a firm foundation built upon God's Word, a commitment to Christ Jesus, and an absolute dedication to academics in the liberal arts tradition," Whitlock said. "Suffice it to say our foundation is founded on a love of learning and a love of God.
"As we prepare to celebrate OBU's centennial year, we pray we are found by our successors to have been faithful in our stewardship as faculty, staff, administrators and students," he said. "Let it be said of us that our time spent on Bison Hill was marked by our commitment to our founders' purpose."