"We Believe in Mars Hill"
"Next to the Lord and My Family, MHBS is the Love of my Life"
Adapted from a speech by Dr. Kenny Barfield, March 2018
Next to the Lord and my family, MHBS is the love of my life.
God gave me the opportunity to work with many intelligent and talented young men and women through the years. And let there be no mistake -- Mars Hill Bible School has been, and is, blessed with exceptional students. They are exceptional because they were, and are, blessed with sacrificial and loving parents committed to helping their children succeed in life and in eternity. They sacrifice things they would enjoy in order to provide their children with a Christian education.
Larimore's first choice for the school's name wasn't Mars Hill. It was "The College of Mercy, Hope, Love and Truth." My reaction was, "Boy, I'm glad he didn't choose that one!" But over the years, I've thought how appropriate it would have been. Those are the qualities this school tries to instill in every student who walks through these doors. In the fall of 1947, members of churches from Lauderdale and Colbert counties established MHBS. They didn't do it because they were opposed to the excellent public schools in the area. They did it so their children could study the Bible and experience daily chapel. It's the same today. Mars Hill isn't here to compete with public education; it's here because it provides something that the courts no longer allow in public schools.
Our daughters received an excellent education here. They were highly successful in college and in their chosen vocations. But Nancy and I didn't send them here with that as our primary goal. It wasn't easy. In the early years, we didn't receive any type of tuition break. Nancy and I both had to work and I had two full-time jobs plus extra work on the side. But we wouldn't trade the Christian training they received here for anything. We would do it all over again and then some. And many of you did the same thing. You sacrificed to send your children and grandchildren here. You willingly passed up adding on to your retirement accounts and big vacations and new cars. And you, too, would do it all over again. I thank you for your sacrifice. You are the reason MHBS is so special.
T.B. Larimore's son, Virgil, donated the land and the buildings for the school. They included a civil war munitions factory that had been transformed into a barn, some old barracks, and the Larimore Home that had been built in 1871. The barn became the cafeteria/auditorium. Classrooms were added on both sides. The school's founders hoped for 200 students on the first day; they had almost 500.
Male teachers were expected to supplement their income by preaching for local congregations. They were guaranteed $200 per month, but if they made $200 per month as ministers, there was no paycheck from Mars Hill. Every time we come on this campus, we stand in the shadow of the greatness of humble men of God who invested so much of themselves in this school.
Mars Hill opened in 1947, the year I was born. My family lived in Iron City, Tennessee, which was nothing like it is today. It had a cafe, a hotel, three filling stations, a barber shop, a post office, a drug store with a soda fountain, three general stores, a lumber plant, a casket factory and a train station. Buses ran to and from the plants in the Shoals three times a day. Dad had a good job; both Mom's and Dad's families were there. But Mom and Dad noticed that some of my friends weren't likely to provide a good influence. So when Ralph Snell came to Iron City to hold a gospel meeting, he persuaded them to send me to Mars Hill. Dad accepted a job at the First National Bank so they could move to Florence.
I still remember the day after Labor Day in 1953 (65 years ago)... Mom loaded me into the family's 1947 Hudson and drove me to campus to enroll me in a first grade class taught by Miss Beulah Moudy. Mom and dad had to scrape together the monthly tuition. At the time, I didn't realize the sacrifice they were making. Tuition was $12 per month. A few years ago, while sifting through some of my family's old checks, we came across their monthly house payment. It was just $22 per month. Mom and dad moved here so that I could attend this school no matter the cost. So have countless others through the years. No wonder Mars Hill is so special.
There were several unique features in those early years. One was the Rainy Day Schedule. We have no gym, only outdoor basketball courts with an abundance of red mud. On rainy days, school dismissed 45 minutes early. We also had a fall vacation known as Cotton Picking. We were out of school for 2-3 weeks in October so students could either help with the family farm or earn some money to help pay for their tuition. I remember these things, but they weren't what made the school special. That came from sitting in daily chapel with Ralph Snell and from the unbelievably good influence of other faculty and students.
I quickly learned how much MH teachers cared for their students. My sixth grade class was taught by Mrs. Aurelia Underwood in one of the main floor rooms in the Larimore Home. There were 36 sixth grade boys in one room. We were seated in alphabetical order -- or, I should say, we were crammed in in alphabetical order, so my seat was on the front. On the first day, we were told to have our textbooks the following day and we had to get them at a store on East 5th Street in Tuscumbia. The next day all but one of us had our books. Mrs. Underwood asked my classmate why he didn't have his. Rather quietly he told her, "My family doesn't own a car and mom says we can't afford the books." The next day, new books were lying on his desk. Mrs. Underwood told him, "You take good care of these books, because you can resell some of them next spring." Mars Hill teachers care. This school has always been known for its caring teachers... men and women unequalled in giving their lives to help MHBS students. They had, and still have, hearts of gold as big as the universe. And their students were and are successful... not because the students have the latest technology, but because they're encouraged. Because there's a special camaraderie between students and teachers.
I graduated from Lipscomb University in 1969 and applied for a teaching position. As was often true during those years, no funds were available. Dad later told me that Ralph Snell and Lawrence Williams went to the Board and told them that if they would approve hiring me, God would help them find the money. Board member J.C. Hamm presented their case. I got the job. In 2000, J.C.'s son, Rick, chaired the search committee that recommended that I be given the opportunity to serve as the school's seventh President. I will forever be grateful to all of them.
Milton Sewell, David Willingham, and I learned from Ralph Snell and Lawrence Williams and Jack Wilhelm that, "On paper this school shouldn't exist." But it did... and it does... because God looks after His own. There were times when board members borrowed money from their own accounts in order to meet payroll. There were times when board member got down on their knees in prayer asking God to help them get through another month or to avoid having to close the school at the end of the year. God answered their prayers.
I remember one June when David and I were staring at our budget. It was squarely in the red. We didn't need to borrow money, but something had to give. A couple of days after that gut-wrenching discussion, David received a call from a lawyer in Birmingham. He asked to meet with him about an estate gift being left to the school. The donor, David McMeans, had lived in Rogersville, and he kept up with the school and its students. Although he had no children, he was impressed with what was happening here. Not long after, David return to Birmingham and the school received a check that, at the time, was the largest amount ever given to the school. Mr. McMeans so impressed his lawyer with his descriptions of MHBS that his lawyer even added a personal check for $10,000. The crisis was averted. God was at work.
There were many times when we wanted to find funds to raise teachers' salaries. MH teachers make a huge financial sacrifice to work here and, on paper, those raises never work, but the board agreed more than once to step out on faith and, when they did, the school received unexpected donations, often from people we didn't even know, but they had heard of MHBS. God was at work again. We dreamed about MHBS being on the cutting edge of educational technology but, even after help from alumni, we came up short. Charles and Joel and Terry Anderson and the Anderson Foundation stepped in with another grant. God made a way. He always does.
Dr. Sewell wanted to start a band but, again, there was no money. Dr. Mitch Burford said, "I think I can help." He never had a child at Mars Hill but he knew what the school stood for and, when his estate closed last year, he became the largest benefactor in the school's history. I remember him telling David how, one day, he wanted the proceeds from his estate used to benefit the students. The new addition planned for the elementary was one of his dreams. God used Dr. Burford and his sister, Jean, in ways we never dreamed of. It reminds me of Ephesians 3:20 where Paul wrote, "Now all glory to God, who is able, through His mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think."
Through the years, MHBS has earned three Excellence in Education Awards from USDOE. Mars Hill students consistently have some of the highest ACT/SAT scores in the state. For decades, the school has sent almost 100% of its graduates to post-secondary education. Two-thirds to three-fourths of its graduates earn scholarships. Every class has students accepted into med schools and law schools and engineering schools and business schools and nursing schools. Every class!
Everywhere I travel, I encounter people who know about Mars Hill Bible School. When our debaters qualified for nationals in Portland, Oregon, the church we attended in Portland had people who knew about Mars Hill. At a tiny church of about 50 in North Platte, Nebraska, there were people whose lives had been impacted by someone who graduated from Mars Hill. Soli Deo Gloria! Glory goes to God It's His work.
And God shares that glory with the men and women who work here at a fraction of the salary they would earn elsewhere. And don't kid yourself by thinking it's the only place they can find a job. Every one of them could land an excellent job elsewhere. Teachers are here because they want to be here.
Because they know that this is the Lord's work.
Because the rewards they seek aren't simply physical ones.
The great Russian novelist, Dostoevsky, concludes his epic, The Brothers Karamazov, as Karamazov stands by the memorial stone for Ilyusha; he says, " We shall soon part. And whatever happens to us later in life, if we attain to honor or fall into great misfortune -- still, let us remember how good it was once here, when we were all together, united by a good and kind feeling which made us, for the time, better perhaps than we are."
Soli Deo Gloria! To God be the glory. As long as this school is God's work, He will take care of it. May God bless each one of you and may He continue to bless Mars Hill Bible School.