Remembering where you come from



Anyone who wants to understand Buena Vista University should take a look at the names on the buildings: Siebens, Schaller, Ballou, Edson and White. Storm Lakers all, Buena Vista graduates none. Buena Vista was founded in the Mack Law Office when it was upstairs on Lake Avenue. The college was kept alive through economic recessions and depressions, through wars big and small, by Storm Lake. By Ed Mack and Zene White and Willis Edson and Loyal Ballou.

LeMars and Fairfield were not able to keep their academies (Westmar and Parsons) afloat through it all. Their communities surely felt the loss of a vital institution.

Siebens spent happy childhood days in Storm Lake. He asked his friend Harry Schaller how he could do something for the lake. Siebens’ banker friend replied that Buena Vista was having a hard time and that his help could be used better for the Beavers. And so it went that the largest private gift to a college was made long after Schaller Memorial Chapel was built.

The Siebens family might have saved Buena Vista from the same fate as Westmar and Parsons.

Buena Vista recently named its 18th president in the person of Joshua Merchant, vice president for development at the University of Northern Florida. He has progressively worked his way up the ladder through private colleges and public. He was a fundraiser for Michigan State and his alma mater, Albion College, a Methodist institution with a similar enrollment to Buena Vista in a town of about 8,000 near Battle Creek, Mich.

Merchant was reared on a farm and got an education in Extension. So he knows the lingo around here and could speak it with a few farm boys on the board of trustees. They loved him during the interview. They say he will do fantastic things.

Merchant, according to the BVU press release, is excited and lists community relationships among his priorities. That’s good to hear. We hope to hear more of it when Merchant shows up on campus for good.

Enrollment has been in a funk for many years. The depopulation of rural areas, the appetite of public universities for more student revenue and the urbanization of education are stiff headwinds. The university needs the community’s help in every way to fill up those dorms.

Buena Vista had to “reinvent” itself by cutting the number of majors, including religion and philosophy. The other Presbyterian-affiliated Iowa college, the University of Dubuque, maintains such an undergraduate field of study alongside a seminary. So do Morningside and Simpson, both Methodist schools sans the seminaries. Buena Vista had to make some hard business decisions. A new president needs to evaluate how to implement its Presbyterian mission of “Education for Service.” It might be the most fundamental question.

We were reared getting chased out of the fieldhouse by Harriet Henry and off the football field by Virg Pithan because we were locked out of our own community facilities. But we always kept coming back on Saturdays for the real game. They’re not coming back like they used to. The bonds of Blue and Gold are not as strong today as they were some time ago. A new president can revitalize that relationship and put the Buena Vista fun back in Storm Lake.

We’re among those who grew up just a few blocks from Buena Vista. We love it as much as anyone who did not attend. (Brother Bill put in a couple years at Boola Boola before transferring to Loyola in Chicago.) So we are anxious, of course, as a new administration is about to set in.

Storm Lake is the reason Buena Vista exists. Were it not for the Macks and Edsons it may still be operating (or not) in Fort Dodge where the seed was first planted before it was uprooted and moved. Storm Lake was dry at the time, Fort Dodge was wet as a monsoon.

Joshua Merchant, it would appear, has the background (farmboy made good) and obvious sales skills to be a great success here. He will be helped right from the start if he first understands why those names are on the buildings. This is a place Storm Lake will never let go. It’s something you can let slip if you aren’t always remembering it. Merchant is apt to appreciate where he is, they say. It will be good for everyone to hear with their own ears.