A couple of years ago, I wrote a tribute to my baccalaureate alma mater, Concordia Senior College in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I wrote of the immense academic and spiritual gift that CSC had been to me during my junior and senior years of college, as I was preparing for pastoral ministry in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). I also recounted the trauma that I experienced, when the LCMS decided in 1975 to terminate this extraordinary vehicle of pre-seminary education for no better reason than that the new president of the Synod’s second seminary in Springfield, Illinois, coveted the campus. (For the article see http://thecresset.org/2019/Trinity/Heider_T19.html.)
Now comes the time to write of the demise of my first collegiate alma mater, Concordia College in Bronxville, New York, where I spent my freshman and sophomore years. As it happens, I arrived there exactly fifty years ago this coming fall, in 1971. Although I am not as familiar with all of the facts related to the decision as I was with CSC, the reality is that there will be no fiftieth anniversary homecoming celebration: Concordia in Bronxville ceased operation with the Class of 2021.
At a certain level, I am not shocked by this development. The COVID-19 pandemic has been stressful for all kinds of institutions, including colleges and universities, but especially for smaller colleges that depend heavily on tuition and room and board revenues for their year-to-year existence. Concordia Collegiate Institute in Bronxville (known in recent years as Concordia College—New York) was such a place. There was little room for dips or downturns in revenue and certainly no endowment of the size needed to see such a college through a pandemic. Outside revenue (specifically, subsidy from the churchbody that “owned and operated” the college) decreased a long time ago (to the extent that, for some years during my presidency at another Concordia, there was no subsidy at all, so I came to speak of the Concordias as “owned, but not operated, by the Synod”). Finally, there comes a point when too many systems fail, and the patient succumbs. Concordia in Bronxville has not been unique in this respect. During the time of my involvement in LCMS higher education leadership (1987-2003), there were ten institutions in the Concordia University System. Now there are six, with the closures of the Concordias in Selma, Alabama, Portland, Oregon, Bronxville, New York, and the (forced) absorption of the Concordia in Ann Arbor, Michigan, by the Concordia in Mequon, Wisconsin.
But let this not be the final word on my first alma mater. Concordia/Bronxville was an institution in transition during my two years there. Just two years earlier, in 1969, it had given up its high school division, reflecting a move away from a six-year Germanic Gymnasium program in preparation for the seminary (which was standard across the LCMS for more than its first century) to a two-year college alone. Indeed, along with many of the other Concordias, Bronxville was in the process of transitioning to a full four-year baccalaureate college; its first such class was graduated in 1975.
That was my class. But I (and seventeen of my classmates) chose to maintain the older pattern of transferring to Concordia Senior College (CSC) in Fort Wayne for our final two years of pre-seminary preparation. I’ve written elsewhere (see above) of what a blessing that was.
But those two years built on two at Concordia/Bronxville, and those preparatory years are rightly our present focus. The Concordia/Bronxville of my time was, frankly, not an outstanding academic institution. It was, as noted, a college in transition from being the capstone of a six-year seminary preparatory experience (or teacher preparatory experience for transfers to the Synod’s four-year colleges in River Forest, Illinois, and Seward, Nebraska) to a self-standing baccalaureate institution. Its mission was broadening from church worker preparation to a broader liberal arts (and professional) focus. Under the leadership of its new president (as of 1971—my arrival year), Robert Victor Schnabel (former academic dean at CSC) gave the place a sense of a college on the rise, both in terms of curriculum (the transition to four-year status) and faculty.
It is indeed the faculty to which my mind turns in tribute to my years at Bronxville. To name some is to omit other, equally outstanding mentors and teachers. But to name none is to do injustice to them and to all. There was Ralph C. Schultz, simply the finest conductor with whom I ever worked. It was he who moved my understanding of “professional” from a British distain vis-à-vis the ideal “amateur” to a goal to be sought in performance. (To this day he remains a dear friend, especially after our service together as presidents of two Concordias.) There was Thomas Nelson Green (a.k.a. “T. Green”), teacher of literature extraordinaire and unfailingly droll wit, whose insistence that “you have to know what the words mean” saved me from the fallacy of guessing sense from context. There was Tom Sluberski, whose general course in the Humanities opened worlds to me (especially in context with a smorgasbord course in New York City concerts led by Connie Just). There was Carl “Pop” Weidmann, whose gifts to me lay primarily outside of the classroom (thanks to a stroke just before I was to begin studying Greek with him), along with his wife, Cathy, who remained dear friends long after my Concordia days. And there was sage Cliff Peterson, Dean of Students, and his wise counsel during my involvement with student government. With that I’ll end, with profound apologies to many who could have been included with equal enthusiasm. What set these teachers apart was not so much their professorial standing (they had no time to become published scholars), as the profound care and skill that they brought both to their subjects and to their students.
I could add with equal enthusiasm my classmates. In this case I’ll name but two. First was my roommate of four years (including CSC), Tom Glasser. He was a hard worker and a good friend and an exemplar of the truly great potential pastors whom the LCMS drove away when it went to war with itself in 1973 (he simply couldn’t choose a seminary, so he went on to a career in computers), Second was my dear friend Gerald Patrick Coleman, a fine musician and a finer friend. That he volunteered to play the organ at my father’s funeral decades later in 2013 is quiet testimony to his undying love.
Then there were the extracurriculars, of the sort that only a relatively small school can offer to all and sundry. I played my last year of football as a frosh. I sang in the tour choir as a sophomore, including a memorable trip to Florida. Then there were the Friday night “entertainments,” a come-one-come-all variety show by any student with the gumption to get up front. (My favorite act was my classmate Michael Hoy from Maine, doing his marvelous “Bert and I” sketches in full Down East accent.)
To sum up, I’ll put it this way. The fact is, I always wanted to go to Harvard or Yale for my undergraduate studies, but my mother would have nothing of it. A child of the Great Depression, she was certain that I would never have the fiscal resources to be comfortable in an Ivy League crowd. I’m not sure that she was right in her rationale, but I’ve come to see the wisdom of her decision. But for that brick wall, I’d have missed out on an extraordinary academic community in Bronxville, New York, and most especially on a community whose effect on me was profound. For what it’s worth, I did finally get to Yale—for my Ph.D.—but I’m convinced that that experience was all the richer for a little, mission-focused college in Bronxville that preceded it.