Retiring Judson president proud of ‘staying true to mission’
By Dave Gathman firstname.lastname@example.org May 22, 2012 9:54PM
Dr. Jerry B. Cain speaks during the Golden Corridor Community Prayer Breakfast at Judson University in Elgin, Ill., on Wednesday, May 4, 2011. | Sun-Times Media~File Photo
Updated: July 2, 2012 9:23AM
ELGIN — Ask Dr. Jerry Cain what he is most proud of during his 14 years as president at Judson University, and he evokes the image of spinning dinner plates.
“We remained true to our mission,” he says in his laid-back, Old Southwest accent. “It’s hard for a school to be intentionally Christian and also do quality education. You’re spinning two plates at the same time. Most schools will just give up on one plate or the other. They will either be intensely Christian but not be known for delivering a quality education, or they will de-emphasize the Christian part.”
Cain is retiring on June 30 at age 66. Only the fifth president in the history of the Baptist university, he will be succeeded temporarily by retired college president William Crothers while a committee searches for a sixth president.
Preaching at 13
Cain said he has always felt a call to some kind of religious mission. But he at first wanted to become a missionary to some exciting foreign land, along the lines of Judson’s namesake, Adoniram Judson,
Cain gave his first sermon in a church at age 13. By 17, he had a job as another church’s pastor.
“I grew up in New Mexico in an oil town called Lovington,” he explains. “My father was a grocer.
“When I was 13, our pastor announced he would be absent the following Sunday night. But he said, ‘I will ask Jerry to preach for us.’ When you’re 13, you’re bulletproof. I got up and spoke for maybe eight minutes.
“Pretty soon, whenever any pastor in the area got sick or went on vacation, I was the fill-in.”
His life changed, Cain says, when he enrolled in Eastern New Mexico University and met a man named Robert Clarke.
“My idea of ministry had been limited. Bob Clarke was both a chaplain and a teacher. He had a head and a heart at the same time, and that intrigued me.”
For four years, he worked as an associate minister at a church in New Mexico’s biggest city, Albuquerque. Besides being in charge of “helping people who couldn’t pay the light bill,” he says, he started working with teenagers, driving them to colleges in an effort to convince them to try higher education. Those trips brought him into contact with Wayland Baptist University across the Texas border, and he landed a job there as a chaplain.
That began a religious-education career that climaxed with 20 years as chaplain and vice president at William Jewell College, a Baptist institution on the outskirts of Kansas City.
Love at first sight
In 1997, James Didier announced he was retiring as president of another suburban Baptist college named Judson. The chairman of Judson’s board, Malcolm Shotwell, recalled how he had once attended a youth retreat and been impressed by a Missouri man named Jerry Cain. Shotwell asked Cain to apply for the job.
Cain says he had never been to Elgin in his life, but when he came to be interviewed, it was love at first sight.
“Weighing the pros and cons of coming to Judson, it was all pro. Our kids had just left home, and it was a time in your life, at age 52, when you can make changes.”
“I wasn’t really trained to be a university president. But I was ready to learn.”
One thing he learned, he said, is that “every time you make a decision, you make five people upset. So a leader can never make any decision based on his popularity rating.”
Another thing he learned is that raising money “is half the job of a college president, and sometimes it seems more like 75 percent. But it’s fun work. It’s being the salesman for an institution whose product costs $1 to produce and is sold to students for 85 cents.”
Fundraising is especially challenging at Judson because, only 49 years old, it doesn’t have a huge endowment fund and thousands of rich, aging alumni. When he arrived, it had an endowment of just $4.9 million. William Jewell College had $60 million.
“But our advancement team has raised $42 million over the past 14 years,” he said. The endowment has more than doubled, to $11 million.
College to university
“Dr. Cain has led Judson through one of the most challenging economic times in our nation’s history,” said Judson trustee and Elgin pastor Nathaniel Edmond.
During Cain’s years in office, the university built the environmentally “green” and architecturally daring Harm A. Weber Academic Center, as well as a Rockford campus and the Creekside South building. It also finished reworking the final three floors of the Lindner Tower, a former hotel, for college use.
The school’s academic stature also soared, as it went from “unranked” status on U.S. News and World Report’s annual college rankings to No. 20 out of 185 in its category.
But Cain thinks the greatest change during his era was converting from “Judson College” to “Judson University.” This was partly just branding, to avoid the connotation of the word “college” among American teenagers of being a two-year school and among some foreign countries of being a trade school. But becoming a university also brought a change in attitude and organization, Cain said.
The new university has begun offering master’s degrees in architecture, organizational leadership, bilingual/ESL (English as a Second Language) education and literacy education, with a fifth field to follow soon, Cain said.
“One of our claims to fame is finding a niche and filling that niche, rather than just rehashing what every other university is doing,” Cain said. “For example, not-for-profits need trained CEOs. So rather than starting just another MBA program, we set up a master’s program in organizational leadership. Willow Creek-style churches need people trained in worship arts, so we started a major in that.”
In the community
On his off hours, Cain is chairman of the Elgin Symphony Orchestra board, is active in the First Baptist Church and Rotary Club of Elgin, and was named person of the year by the League of United Latin American Citizens.
“Dr. Cain has been a well-known fixture in the Elgin landscape,” said Judson Trustee Bruce Strom. “Many service organizations, schools and businesses welcome Judson students because they reflect the heart of their president, who reflects the heart of Christ, in service and excellence.”
When board Chair Carol Thompson led a salute to his career during Judson’s annual community prayer breakfast this month, Cain read a virtual love letter to Judson’s hometown. He said he would like to live in “a town whose Walmart looks like the United Nations on a Saturday morning.” But he added that he also wants to live in a town that contains his grandchildren.
He said he and his wife of 43 years, Linda, will move to Kearney, Mo., where their son, Michael, and their two granddaughters live.
Meanwhile, a committee of eight Judson trustees and four faculty members began searching for a new president 10 months ago. “They have already gone through one round of negotiations with a number of candidates and are beginning another round,” Cain said.
Taking over as interim president beginning July 1 will be Crothers, who was president of Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, N.Y., from 1981 to 2002 and runs a consulting firm for not-for-profit groups.