11/22/04 — Raper: Cutting the tether at last

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Raper: Cutting the tether at last

Sometimes it is hard to break the tether, but a good father raises his children not to keep them but to set them off on their own, to make them self-reliant, free to move ahead and to grow into what they ultimately are to become.

So it has been with Burkette Raper and Mount Olive College.

Dr. Raper, who took over the college when it was a baby, retired as president nearly 10 years ago, but he stayed on as director of planned giving. The college has operated quite well under President William Byrd, and the growth that marked Raper’s remarkable term has continued. Now, after half a century, Raper says he really is retiring.

Appropriate ceremonies are under way this week to mark the occasion and to recall his inspirational life and his astonishing career. They are well worth considering.

Raper grew up in the Free Will Baptist Orphanage at Middlesex and knew at a young age that he was headed for the ministry. After leaving the orphanage he graduated from Duke University and then Duke Divinity School.

He was pastoring Hull Road Free Will Baptist Church in Snow Hill when he was asked to become president of Mount Olive College. At that point, Mount Olive College existed mainly in the dreams of some Free Will Baptist leaders. Soon, Raper had the dream, too, and at age 26 he accepted the offer and became the nation’s youngest college president.

And, perhaps, its most visionary.

For a campus, the college had bought the run-down old Mount Olive Elementary School building, which had been abandoned. Raper corralled a faculty and some books, and Mount Olive Junior College, a liberal arts school with a Christian bent, opened with 22 students in 1954.

There was some fiscal work to do, too. The college had to borrow $25,000, because when Raper came aboard its bank account showed less than $10.

On Dec. 1, 1960, at less than seven years of age, Mount Olive was granted accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. That was one of the great days in its history, but more were to come.

The college bought 110 acres a mile north of the old elementary school building, and it built buildings and moved to a campus of its own.

In the late 1970s, Raper and others involved in the college’s leadership were having stirrings. Raper wrote that the need for a four-year college then was as great as the need for a junior college had been in the 1950s. And in 1986, the first four-year degrees were awarded on the new campus.

There have been other milestones. One huge initiative is under way now — a campaign to raise $23 million for three new buildings, for scholarships and to pay off debt.

Mount Olive College has never been the work of one man alone. Great leaders in eastern North Carolina have been behind it — leaders in business, religion, politics. There have been elite, high-energy fund-raising chairmen, and generous support from individuals and from corporations.

And there have been thousands of men and women, seated in the pews of North Carolina’s Original Free Will Baptist churches, pledging money every year to a college that they proudly consider their own.

Burkette Raper got started early in the school’s history, worked hard, prayed a lot, goaded, motivated and stimulated supporters and put Mount Olive College on its course. His work is done, and because it is done well he can leave loose the tether with assurance that the college will advance inexorably onward to its great destiny.

Published in Editorials on November 22, 2004 10:51 AM