At 92, Arthur Roberts doesn’t stroll his beloved George Fox campus much anymore. And yet, imprints of the man are unmistakable.
His handiwork – scattered throughout campus – testifies to a love of creating and his dedication to a school he’s called home the better part of six decades. Two black walnut benches he carved provide a resting place in the alcove of the Wheeler Sports Center. Two of his mounted carvings, a sculpture, a clock and a bench grace the Hoover Academic Building. His books line shelves in offices and libraries. And, later this year, George Fox is renaming the Villa Academic Complex the “Arthur and Fern Roberts Academic Center” to honor him and his wife.
Most significantly, there is the matter of the name of the university itself. It was Roberts who, as a seminary student in Kansas City in 1949, wrote a letter that persuaded the board of Pacific College to adopt the name “George Fox” rather than “Friendswood.”
For, as he reasoned, “Friendswood is a town in Texas. It has no business being the name of a college. I thought it should have a name that honored its Quaker heritage.”
Roberts’ art and publications only hint at his influence. Indeed, his greatest legacy is incalculable. “I think I’m most proud of the fact I was a concerned professor who nurtured students. I had the opportunity to minister to them intellectually and spiritually,” he says.
Countless thousands have read his books, listened to his lectures or heard his sermons. Among his former students is theologian Richard Foster, whose book Celebration of Discipline was named by Christianity Today as one of the top-10 religious books of the 20th century. Foster credits Roberts with igniting his love of the written word. “It was Arthur’s love of words – words as a communicator of grace and beauty – that led me to become a writer,” Foster says.
A return to his alma mater
Roberts never planned to become a pillar of the George Fox community upon graduating from the small Quaker school, then known as Pacific College, in 1944. He and Fern, whom he’d first spotted in a school play – “She was the heroine and kissed the lead guy; I decided I wanted to be the one she was kissing” – left Oregon to begin pastoral ministry in Everett, Wash. Four years later, they moved to the Midwest so Arthur could pursue a degree at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City. He later studied briefly at Harvard and earned a PhD at Boston University. It was while in Boston he met a fellow student by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. “It was a sunny day and we sat outside and chatted,” Roberts says of the encounter. “I asked him what he was going to do next, and he said, ‘Go back to Atlanta to help out dad.’ Nice young man.”
Meanwhile, Roberts had dreams of his own. He had served as a pastor in churches in Washington, Missouri and New Hampshire, and now, with doctorate in hand, he was poised for a career in church leadership or “whatever plan the Lord had for me.” That “plan” turned out to be a return to Oregon to assist the school he recently helped name.
“The college was in a low time in 1952-53, so board member Dean Gregory flew to New Hampshire to talk to me about coming back to Fox,” he recalls. “I felt it was a summons from the Lord. I felt good about coming. It was a worthy place to work.”
Roberts’ passion for woodworking is evident around campus, where his work is still displayed prominently in several buildings.
Building a legacy
Roberts arrived on campus in 1953 to teach philosophy and religion. His annual salary was $3,000, and he and Fern lived in campus housing as “dorm parents.” Furthermore, the school was in debt and in jeopardy of closing its doors. “I remember sitting in [President] Milo Ross’ office, and he said, ‘Arthur, what are we going to do now?’ I joined with Milo and another coworker, Harlow Ankeny, to make the case for accreditation.”
By decade’s end, George Fox – thanks largely to Roberts’ 170-page report that documented the success of George Fox graduates, who compared favorably to grads from accredited schools – gained accreditation. “I don’t know if it saved the school, but it certainly helped our cause,” he says, humbly.
He later served as faculty dean from 1968 to 1972, but the classroom was always his first love. He thrived on teaching philosophy, ethics and church history. He also loved to travel and speak truth to diverse audiences. A grant allowed him to live among the Inuit population of Alaska in the 1970s – he later wrote a book about the experience – and in 1981 he was part of the first George Fox group to visit China. The young Chinese tour guide during that visit was so impressed with her guests that she later attended George Fox. “She remembers Fern and me as her American parents,” Arthur says proudly.
The ‘retirement’ years
In the mid-1990s, the couple moved to the Oregon coastal town of Yachats, where Arthur ran for mayor and won election by one vote at age 73. His proudest moment as mayor: the day he helped engineer a water supply dilemma by spending $40,000 to resolve the problem rather than the initial estimate of $4 million. “They originally talked about having to tear up five miles of Highway 101 – very expensive,” he says. “It wasn’t exactly an academic exercise, but it felt good to achieve something like that.”
Roberts also continued to write – he’s penned more than 20 books in his lifetime – and pursue his passions of woodworking, poetry, playing Scrabble and reading “good novels.” And, upon returning to Newberg 12 years ago to live at Friendsview Retirement Community, he took advantage of the opportunity to play a game that was once forbidden. “When I was a kid, playing pool was considered sinful. Since I came to Friendsview, the game’s been redeemed.”
He’s slowed in recent years – “I’m running out of gas,” he claims – but he is still regarded as a “professor at large” at George Fox, and in 2011 he delivered the university’s spring commencement address. And, as proof his mind is still sharp, he assisted the university’s seminary as recently as a year ago as a reviewer of doctoral dissertations. These days, he and Fern cherish time with family, which includes two daughters, a son, eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
As a gentle afternoon sun washes over his face, Roberts reflects on the school he first fell in love with as a farm boy from Idaho in 1941. “The university still has the conviction that Christ and culture belong together. It still has that strong sense of Christian foundation. I appreciate that.”