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Red Grange: The Life and Legacy of the NFL’s First Superstar by Chris Willis

In an age of superstar athletes, Harold “Red” Grange (1903-1991) stands among the greatest, embodying the spirit of honest sportsmanship and American achievement. Chris Willis’ Red Grange: The Life and Legacy of the NFL’s First Superstar (2019) chronicles the rise of the humble football player from his first job delivering ice blocks in Wheaton, Illinois, to performing immortal exploits on the gridiron, to his brief acting career in Hollywood, and finally his role as the esteemed elder statesman for the National Football League.  

Consulting an array of resources, including the Red Grange Papers (SC-20) at Special Collections, Buswell Library, Wheaton College, Willis offers a fresh perspective on the beloved coach, broadcaster, pitchman, Hall of Famer and ambassador.

Chris Willis is head of the research library for NFL Films. His books included The Man Who Built the National Football League: Joe F. Carr (2010); Dutch Clark: The Life of an NFL Legend and the Birth of the Detroit Lions (2012); and The Inside Story of the 1984 San Francisco 49ers (2014). He was nominated for an Emmy in 2002 for his work on the HBO documentary The Game of Their Lives: Pro Football’s Wonder Years and won an Emmy in 2016 for his work on HBO’s Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Houston Texans.

Leighton Ford at Wheaton College

Dr. Leighton Ford is President of Leighton Ford Ministries, preparing younger leaders to spread the gospel of Christ to a needy world. From 1955 until 1985 he served as Associate Evangelist and later Vice President of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.  Ford’s ties with Billy remained strong throughout the decades.

Leighton Ford, 1951

Not only were they eventual brothers-in-law, but the renowned evangelist, preaching at a 1949 Youth for Christ rally in Chatham, Ontario, suggested to young Leighton that he consider attending Wheaton College near Chicago instead of Knox College in Toronto. Persuaded, Leighton packed his bags and headed south to the Land of Lincoln. Biographer Norman B. Rohrer relates a few episodes from Leighton Ford: A Life Surprised (1981):

The gray Oldsmobile was loaded for the trip that would take Leighton to Illinois, farther from home than he had ever traveled. Mrs. Ford insisted on going along and further embarrassed her son by renting an apartment near the campus to keep an eye on him…All who entered with Leighton in 1949 signed a pledge of total abstinence from tobacco, liquor, and movie-going. Mrs. Ford, watching from her post off-campus, found the movie ban curious. Her austere conservatism could match anybody’s, but she had not struck movies off her list of permissibles. She tugged occasionally on the apron strings from her watchtower while Leighton tried to keep her clinging presence a secret.

Wheaton [College] was a daily serendipity for the young preacher. His room was only a few blocks from the international headquarters of Youth for Christ where his heroes came and went. Gil Dodds, world champion indoor miler, was Wheaton’s track coach; a school friend named Bill Davies was the brother of internationally famous basketball star Bob Davies, who had embraced the Christian faith.

Leighton Ford preaching in Wheaton College chapel

Many thought that Leighton had copied Billy Graham’s style of preaching. The similarities were explainable: both were tall (Leighton nearly an inch taller than Billy) and thin (Leighton runs ten pounds lighter than his brother-in-law but is an inch broader in the shoulders). Both have the same vocal characteristics. Both have expansive gesticulation, a commanding voice, an urgency of theme. And both were caught up in the fervor of the new Youth for Christ movement that demanded such a flamboyant style.

In 1951 Leighton became a candidate for student body president during his senior year. He persuaded a reluctant Sam Befus to manage his campaign and the stage was set. For buttons blossomed. His campaign slogan was: “There’s a Ford in your future.” Posters showed a boy and a girl — the girl poised for a kiss, the boy admiring instead a passing Ford car. It was the wrong poster for conservative Wheatonites in the early fifties.

Leighton’s nimble mind was a seedbed for the postulations of such professors as Merrill Tenney, Arthur Holmes, Kenneth Kantzer and Clarence Hale….Leighton was qualified to enter upon his college major of philosophy. He proved it by graduating with the highest score on his comprehensive examinations of all other students in Wheaton’s 92-year history.

Leighton Ford is the author of several books, including Sandy: A Heart for God, chronicling the unexpected death of his son. His autobiography, A Life of Listening: Discerning God’s Voice and Discerning Our Own, was released by InterVarsity Press in 2019.

Worthwhile Struggle by Pat McCaskey

Worthwhile Struggle by Patrick McCaskey features a grab bag of inspirational stories woven with tales of exemplary athletes. Included are McCaskey’s “10 Commandments of Football,” based on his upbringing in the Halas-McCaskey family with the Chicago Bears. Deeply involved with faith-based initiatives and charitable causes, McCaskey is active in promoting strong principles and honest gamesmanship.

In the chapter titled “Oswald Chambers,” McCaskey briefly highlights the life and ministry of the great Scottish preacher, including a photo of Chambers with his wife, Biddy, and their baby daughter, Kathleen. The image is archived in Special Collections, Buswell Library, Wheaton College (SC-122)

McCaskey also profiles his friend, Wayne Gordon, who graduated from Wheaton College in 1975, and currently serves as the pastor of influential Lawndale Community Church. “You won’t see Coach Wayne Gordon’s name in the headlines or his face on television,” writes McCaskey. “And yet, he has been one of Chicago’s movers and shakers for over 40 years…He is about selflessly helping others get a fair shake, helping others succeed, helping others build their own healthy community, and helping others to live faithfully.”

Pat McCaskey is a Board Member and Vice President for the Chicago Bears. Encouraged by his grandfather, George Halas, he attended DePaul University, where he earned his master’s degree. He is the author of six books.

Putting the Husbands Through

In the years following World War II, returning soldiers enrolled at Wheaton College to pursue their college degrees. While the popular G.I. Bill assisted in paying the tuition and living expenses of the veterans, many of the former soldiers’ wives also worked outside the home to support their families. Wheaton College President V. Raymond Edman observed this service, and to acknowledge the wives’ significant contribution to their husbands’ education, created the “Putting Husbands Through” or “PHT” honorary degree.

Joy Henricksen's "Putting Husband Through" Honorary Degree
Joy Henricksen’s “Putting Husband Through” Honorary Degree

One recipient of this degree was Joy Henricksen. Joy worked at the Wheaton Academy to support her husband Charles’ Wheaton education. Charles had served in the Air Force as a bomber pilot in Europe during the war where he had flown 30 missions. After returning from the war, he married Joy, before enrolling at the University of Arizona and then transferring to Wheaton. When Charles graduated from Wheaton in 1949, President Edman presented Joy with her “PHT” certificate.

Joy and Charles’ daughter Susan reported that her mother was always proud of this recognition. Joy even directed that it be mentioned in her obituary and in the eulogy at her funeral. Susan recently donated her mother’s cherished certificate to the College Archives, where it witnesses to Joy’s service, as well as the contributions of other World War II-era wives.

Ghost in the Machine

As the Wheaton College community bids farewell to WETN, perhaps this is an appropriate moment to commemorate W9ZXR, the “other” ham radio station. Since its inception in 1937 until about 1980, ham radio station W9ZXR was located in the base of the Tower of Blanchard Hall. Students were responsible for scheduling and programming,  learning many of the skills of broadcasting. However, as various media expanded, interest in ham radio gradually diminished, and many of those involved with its operation simply shifted their activities to WETN, then located in the basement of the newly-constructed Billy Graham Center.

In the late 1970s, Col. Warren Schilling, assistant director of the Physical Plant, was tasked with locating and shutting down campus energy drains. Consequently electrician Gary Beeman was sent up the Tower to investigate. Entering the rooms at the base of the Tower, he was amazed to discover that the studio, dusty and forlorn, had been abandoned for some time, perhaps years. Even more amazing, he discovered that the transceivers and generator were still fully operational and, in fact, currently activated, humming quietly to silent airwaves. Indeed, he had discovered an enormous energy drain. According to Beeman, it was as though the last announcer simply stood up from the console and walked away, locking the door behind without a thought of returning. Beeman shut down the controls, snipped the necessary wiring and began the process of dismantling the equipment.

Off campus, the tradition continues locally with the Wheaton Community Radio Amateurs, who meet to promote the advancement of the hobby and science of amateur radio.

1939 postcard advertising ham radio station W9ZXR, broadcast from Blanchard Tower

Prexy says, “Merry Christmas and fear not!”

President and Mrs. Edman decorate the tree, 1954.
President and Mrs. Edman decorate a tree, 1954.

Dr. V. Raymond Edman, fourth president of Wheaton College, wrote a brief devotional called “Prexy Says” for the Wheaton Alumni magazine. Here is his confident exhortation for December, 1959:

Of course we believe in angels – but do we?

The Christmas story abounds in references to angels who spoke to Zacharias, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds. The scriptures assure us that angels are “ministering spirits, sent forth to minister to them who shall be heirs of salvation” (Hebrews 1:14).

They are our unseen but very real helpers; and we should believe in them Christmas Day and every day.

And here is his entry for December, 1960:

There is no need to be afraid! The Christmas story abounds in assurance for the apprehensive. The word to Zacharias was, “Fear not…” (Luke 1:13). To Mary it was, “Fear not…” (Luke 1:30) To Joseph it was, “…Fear not” (Luke 2:10). And to all of us it is, “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.” (Isaiah 41:10).

Afraid of something or somebody?

Fear not!

Friday Night Lights

Wheaton High School Football team, 1920The school year has begun in many parts of the country and, despite record-breaking heat, fall is in the air. This means football! Football begins on Red Grange field as the Wheaton Warrenville South Tigers take on the Glenbard West Hilltoppers from Glen Ellyn. Over ninety years ago Harold “Red” Grange (first row, third from the left) donned a football uniform along with his fellow Wheaton classmates and made his way to the local field with its simple wooden goal posts. Before play could begin it was likely necessary that the field needed to be cleared of the many apples that had fallen from the trees around the field. The “Red” Grange collection at Wheaton College is the largest publicly available archival collection on this football great. It covers much of his life and career.

The Best Laid Plans

From 1927 until 1937 Kenneth and Margaret Landon were Presbyterian missionaries in Siam, present-day Thailand. While there Margaret became interested in missionary history. After her arrival she realized that she was part of a much larger community and a continuity of ministry that went back many years.

Edna ColeMargaret became interested in three missionary women that traveled to Siam on the S.S. Peking in the fall of 1878. Interestingly all of their surnames began with “C.” These women were Belle Caldwell of Wheeling, West Virginia, Mary Margaretta Campbell of Lexington, Indiana, and, Edna Sarah Cole of St. Joseph, Missouri. Campbell and Cole, former schoolmates, were assigned to work in Chiengmai in northern Siam and Caldwell to a girls school in Bangkok. In 1880 Caldwell married fellow Presbyterian missionary John Newton Culbertson. They left the field in 1881. That same year, in February, Edna Cole’s partner, Mary Campbell, drowned while a brief vacation. This left Cole as the last of the three to remain in ministry in Siam.

Edna Cole graduated from the Female Seminary in Oxford, Ohio (later absorbed into Miami University of Ohio) and remained on the field until 1923. She later moved from Chiengmai to the Wang Lang School for Girls–where Caldwell had served. The Wang Lang School was succeeded by Wattana Wittay Academy. Landon saw Cole as the true founder of women’s education in Siam. This is what prompted Landon to write her first book on Cole after her own return from Siam in 1937. Landon had access to all of Cole’s correspondence to her sister while in Siam, but only if she would use them in St. Joseph, Missouri. With a family that included three small children and a husband seeking permanent employment after resigning from missionary service staying in St. Joseph to conduct research was not feasible.

Margaret had to give up her project on Cole (who died at 95 in 1950), however, several years later, once settled in Washington, D.C. Landon was able to complete another book project. Anna and the King of Siam was not the story that Landon wished to write. It was not her best laid plan, but it was the one could be completed. Landon’s interest in Siam missions history had been aroused and continued throughout her writing career. She found the missionaries in Siam to be some of the most interesting and unusual people. Landon’s second book, Never Dies the Dream, a semi-autobiographical story of a female missionary running a girl’s school in Siam, was a way for her to sustain that interest.

Jesus Freaks

Jesus PeopleThe late 1960s and early 70s were years of tremendous ideological upheaval in the United States, not only in secular culture but also within the church. Christian youth, frustrated with staid worship and lifeless routine, longed for energetic, artistic expression. The Jesus Freaks were not seeking new content for their faith, but instead desired a re-packaging of traditional messages with brighter, hipper wrappings. An example is Larry Norman’s widely-popular song, I Wish We’d All Been Ready, its lyrics lamenting the absence of the unsaved in Heaven after the Rapture of 1 Thess. 4:16-17, the instantaneous “catching away” of Earth’s Christian population immediately preceding the worldwide Tribulation. Norman sets to music doctrines advanced in Hal Lindsey’s best-seller The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), which attempts to succinctly outline biblical end-time events from a premillennial perspective. Another influential text of this time-period is Kenneth Taylor’s Living Bible, a paraphrasing of the scriptures in modern idiom. Jesus PeopleIn his autobiography, My Life: A Guided Tour, Taylor expresses satisfaction that his work spoke to this audience: “These were the early days of the Jesus People Movement and, concurrently, the charismatic movement. One leader of the charismatics gave me his opinion that Living Psalms was one of the chief sources of nurture within the movement…This youth rebellion took some destructive and damaging forms, but at the same time it produced a sort of counterrevolution…Suddenly great numbers of young people in their late teens and twenties were turning to Christ for the answers they were so sincerely seeking…[They] were a receptive target for the fresh, up-to-date vocabulary and contemporary style of the Living version of the Bible.”

Recently an individual wrote to the Special Collections with appreciation for the influence of the Living Bible: “As a high schooler from 1970 to 1974, [Ken Taylor’s] Reach Out version of the Living Bible made a big difference in a lot of the young people of that era, me included. [H]is dedication to having the Bible in an easy to read format was so novel, so new, that it seems hard to believe now in the 21st century! So praise be to our Lord for using Mr. Taylor to bring the Good News to so many young, impressionable people who are now aging ‘young adults’!”

From Five Cents to Fifty Thousand Dollars…

When Jonathan Blanchard came to Wheaton he was brought to the Illinois Institute to resurrect the failing school. He was known for his connections and his fund-raising–having saved Knox College from financial despair and leaving it with hearty reserves.

Thaddeus StevensIn February 1868 Blanchard wrote to Thaddeus Stevens, the radical Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, “…I am building a college building as a breakwater against secret societies and all like abominations, for which I want fifty thousand dollars more than are provided: and if, after providing for those who have been faithful to you and your principles, you have any sum from five cents to fifty thousand dollars to leave for the erection of the main building of Wheaton College Ill. and I survive you, I will see every cent you give sacredly devoted to that object and if you leave and (sic) considerable sum the building will bear your name.”

Under Jonathan Blanchard’s plan the completed limestone building atop the hill of center-campus would have been called Stevens Hall and would not have borne his own name. A newspaper report indicates that the completion of the tower was marked by shouting, cheers, a “comparatively feeble” ringing of the bell, and a raising of “the glorious old stars and stripes.” Jonathan Blanchard’s office was “elegantly fitted up” the same day as a surprise for the president.

When Jonathan Blanchard retired as president in 1882, the building remained asymmetrical–built out mainly to the west. In 1890 the east side of the building was flanked with an addition with a full wing, to complement the west wing, being added in 1927. The 1890 addition included a museum, laboratories, and the first library. Other portions of the building contained the above mentioned president’s office, a prayer room, laundry, apartments and classrooms.