Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Taking a fond look back at former theological seminary president’s life of service



Dr. Don Newbury is a longtime public speaker and former university president who writes weekly.


   Dr. Russell H. Dilday, Jr. — for 16 years president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth — died recently in Dallas, leaving a legacy that deserves more superlatives than space allows.

   He left marks of excellence as a minister, author, scholar and Christian statesman, known for his courage, conviction and commitment. The walls and shelves of a ballroom couldn’t contain the many plaques and trophies — as well as countless other honors — that came his way.

   Always articulate and usually jovial, he brightened lives in his congregations and seminaries, and delighted audiences of all stripes with his ready smile, quick wit and engaging stories for all occasions….


   At Southwestern, he led the institution to new heights, including an enrollment that exceeded 5,000 students. Programs expanded, new buildings added, and endowment doubled. During his presidency, it was the world’s largest seminary.

   Shockwaves rippled across the land when he was removed from the presidency, victim of denominational strife that has raged among most brands of Baptists for some 40 years. He was fired on the spot, unable to access his own office when he learned his keys no longer fit.

   That evening, I drove from Brownwood, where I was president of Howard Payne University, to speak at a formal event that called for a tuxedo, attire I rarely wore. Upon reaching Cowtown, I realized there was plenty of time to pay respects. Russell appeared when I rang the doorbell at the president’s home….


   “Oh, Don,” he exclaimed, “You didn’t need to come formal!”

   Even then, he took the high road, choosing to chuckle instead of growl.

   “Look at the grass,” he said. It was matted by the feet of several hundred students who, hours earlier, gathered on the lawn to express their love for him and Betty, Russell’s wife of 66 years who died five years ago….


   Some of his stories I have repeated on numerous occasions, sometimes crediting him. “Tell any of my stories,” he always said. “If you don’t mind using third-hand stories. (Again, it was an example of Russell being Russell.)

   He told of their visit to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, where he and his wife joined several others in the tram car that moves slowly to the top of the arch. There, visitors are rewarded with grand views of St. Louis and the Mississippi River.

   On the rambling ride upward, there was friendly banter, including some “what if’s” concerning possible tram malfunction. When it reached the top, the tram jolted to a stop. The riders figured it would operate again soon, but one said, “Dr. Dilday, you’re a preacher. Why don’t you say a prayer?” He answered, “I’m afraid it wouldn’t help; I’m not an arch bishop.”…


   On a vacation, the Dildays visited a shop where artisans were carving ducks. They were shocked in the front room, where wooden ducks — carved to perfection — had hefty price tags, some upwards of $25,000.

   They decided to go into the second room, where prices were more to their liking, some 90% less than the front room ducks. Birds in the second room were called “seconds,” well, since they had slight imperfections, like flaws in the paint or nicks made by carving knives.

   The couple selected a modestly priced “second,” noticing yet a third room, where artisans were carving more ducks….


   “What are they carving today?” Russell asked. “Perhaps drakes or mallards?”

   “Wrong on both guesses,” the woodcarver responded. “Like yesterday and probably tomorrow — we’re carving ‘seconds.’ They’re the only kind selling.”

   Finally, this: Russell granted an appointment to a seminary student whose jalopy leaked a cup or two of oil each time the young man parked “head in.” He said he couldn’t afford to keep paying parking tickets issued for his “backing in,” which caused no oil leakage. “Let this student back in,” Russell wrote on a note. “Place this on your dashboard,” he instructed. “I think the enforcement guy will extend grace.”…