During his final Opening Convocation address to students, faculty and staff as president of Bridgewater College, in September 1993, Dr. Wayne F. Geisert said, “Time is a priceless aspect of our lives. Our time is really but a speck in history, but this does not make us insignificant. We are unique to this moment and this period in human history.”
President Emeritus Geisert, who died in January at the age of 95, lived by those words. During his 30-year tenure at Bridgewater, he set ambitious goals to propel the College into the future. As Bridgewater’s longest-serving president—from July 1, 1964 to July 1, 1994—Geisert oversaw the construction or renovation of numerous buildings, including the Kline Campus Center; the restructuring of the academic calendar; new majors added to the academic program; a substantial increase of the endowment; expanded global emphasis through Brethren Colleges Abroad; and successful completion of three major fund-raising campaigns. Groundbreaking for the McKinney Center for Science and Mathematics took place just months before his retirement. And enrollment topped 1,000 for the first time during Geisert’s presidency.
“I made up my mind early in the game that I would not use Bridgewater as a steppingstone to other academic offices,” Geisert, Bridgewater’s sixth president, told a Daily News-Record reporter for an article published Oct. 5, 1984. “I came because of the challenge that was presented to me. I felt that Bridgewater was a very fine liberal arts college and could be even finer.”
A Kansas Farm Boy Turns to Academics
Born Dec. 20, 1921, Geisert was the oldest of Frederick Jacob and Martha Lauer Geisert’s four children and was reared on a farm near Abilene, Kan. Though neither of his parents completed college (they each took short-term, practical college courses), he was inspired by his father’s love of learning. Remembered among the Bridgewater faithful for his stories and jokes—many of which he repeated in speeches over the years—Geisert seems to have honed his oratory skills at an early age. In a collection of memories he dictated after retirement, Geisert recalled: “We as kids used to give speeches on the farm, and we would have some camaraderie going…I would give a speech back from the hog pen when I was taking care of the hogs.”
Ellen Layman ’65, who was public relations director during Geisert’s last few years at Bridgewater, said that she and colleagues often joked about publishing a book of his stories that could be referenced at official College events.
“Nobody enjoyed Dr. Geisert’s stories more than he did, and that was the wonderful thing about it,” said Layman, who was a senior during Geisert’s first year at Bridgewater. “He had so many little stories about himself, and I enjoyed being in his presence.”
After graduating from high school, Geisert enrolled at McPherson College—another Church of the Brethren-affiliated school—where he met his future bride, Maurine Gish, who sat next to him at campus chapel services. He earned his bachelor’s degree in the spring of 1944 and married Maurine on July 2. Weeks after their wedding, he began service with the U.S. Naval Reserve as a line and education officer. He served until 1946, spending most of his time aboard the USS Harry Lee in the Pacific.
For the next two years, Geisert taught social science, speech and drama at Hamilton High School in Kansas, and then was hired as an economics instructor at Kendall College in 1948. After earning his Ph.D. in economics from Northwestern University in 1951, he joined the faculty at Manchester College, another Church of the Brethren-affiliated institution. Four years later, he was named head of the economics and business department. In 1957, became dean at McPherson and held that position until taking the helm at Bridgewater. In the summer of 1964, the Geisert family—which included sons Greg ‘72, Brad ‘73, Todd, ’75—left behind their Kansas roots for Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
The Economist’s Approach
Bridgewater President Emeritus Phillip C. Stone ’65 credits his predecessor as a strong leader who made solid judgments about operating budgets, borrowing money for capital improvements and managing tight resources. Taking seriously his responsibility as the College’s chief executive, Geisert developed better business practices and did not bend to criticism of or resistance to his decisions.
“At a time when a lot of colleges got in trouble for overspending and not managing their budgets well, Dr. Geisert ran a severe shop in terms of managing the budget and expenses,” recalls Stone, who served on the College’s board of trustees from 1974 until he became president in 1994. “He was a good manager and an outstanding executive for the College and kept an eye on every aspect of the College. He managed Bridgewater’s resources very well and pushed it upward in financial strength, reputation and quality.”
Describing his father as a “centrist,” Greg Geisert believes one of his father’s greatest strengths was listening to others and trying earnestly to understand perspectives that were different from his own.
“He tried to figure out both sides of a situation and to satisfy both sides a bit to keep things together,” Greg said. “An administrator walks a fine line of trying to satisfy academics while making changes that are practical and make sense from a financial and a technical point of view. He had the ability to balance those perspectives and often used humor to defuse tense situations.”
Committed to maintaining the high standards that had defined Bridgewater’s academic programs since its founding in 1880, Geisert increased the number of courses offered and expanded the curriculum to include 28 bachelor of arts degrees and 18 bachelor of science degrees. As enrollment and course offerings increased, he hired more faculty. He also was involved in the expansion of Brethren Colleges Abroad’s exchange programs to include the University of Strasbourg, France; the University of Barcelona, Spain; the College of St. Mary’s and St. Paul’s in Cheltenham, England; the Dalian Foreign Languages Institute in Dalian People’s Republic of China; and Hokusei Gakuen University in Sapporo, Japan.
“Dr. Geisert brought to the role of president a tremendous intellect, analytical thinking, the ability to relate to all people, and an interest in education related to the church,” said Dale Ulrich, former College provost. “He brought the knowledge and skills of an economist, as well as a very fine ability to tell stories and relate to people.”
Boosting the Endowment
A gifted fundraiser, Geisert oversaw three successful fund-raising campaigns: an early campaign that raised $1 million; an $8 million effort tied to the College’s centennial celebration in 1980; and the $18 million campaign “Impact/91”completed in mid-1991. During his tenure, the endowment grew from $788,065 to a market value of over $16 million, and the College increased its financial aid offerings for students.
Bill Swecker, director of planned giving from 1982 until Geisert’s retirement, traveled often with the president to make calls on potential donors. He was always amazed at Geisert’s ability to take people out to lunch and then ask them for $1 million.
“He could talk people out of money,” Swecker said, laughing. “He had a nice way of talking to people, but once he got his teeth into them, he was like a bulldog and wouldn’t let go. And people weren’t upset about it. I learned an awful lot from him on how to deal with people.”
The two developed a close bond over the years, and Swecker said Geisert treated him like a fourth son.
“He kind of adopted me,” Swecker said. “Dr. Geisert deserved the best. He did so much for the College and brought so many people into the fold for the College. He was always tough, but always kind.”
Geisert believed that forming connections within the surrounding community and throughout the Church of the Brethren was key to enhancing the College’s reputation. Locally, he served as president of the Shenandoah Valley Educational Television Corporation and the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber of Commerce, and was chairman of the board for First Virginia Bank-Planters. A strong advocate for higher education in the commonwealth, he served as president of Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges and the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia. He also was moderator for the Church of the Brethren, the denomination’s highest elected post.
“I covet for the College in the future a continuation of academic traditions, a strong liberal arts program and a caring environment—one that holds onto Christian ideals,” he told a Daily News-Record reporter in 1984.
Geisert’s accomplishments were recognized throughout the community and beyond. He received numerous awards including the McPherson College Alumni Citation of Merit in 1974 and an Educator of the Year by Greater Madison, Inc. (James Madison University) in 1983. He received honorary degrees from James Madison University and Manchester, McPherson and Bridgewater colleges. Bridgewater bestowed upon him the Flory Medal on Founder’s Day in April 1994.
A Fondness for the Students
Stone, who was a senior during Geisert’s first year at Bridgewater, recalls a feeling of excitement among students as their new president arrived on campus. Considering him an honorary member of the freshman class, the students gave him a beanie like the one that first-year students traditionally wore in that era.
“I wore it for their benefit at some of the [campus] events, for instance football games,” Geisert recalled in his recorded memories.
In his recorded memories, Geisert recalled a prank Phil Stone pulled on him during Homecoming 1964. Geisert had been asked to crown the Homecoming queen during halftime, but Stone was responsible for carrying the crown, atop a pillow, to midfield. As Geisert prepared to walk across the field, he noticed that the crown seemed to be upside down. So he whispered, out of the corner of his mouth, “Phil, are you sure that crown is right side up?”
Stone replied, “Don’t worry about it. Just pin it in her ears.”
Geisert recalled, “So I put the crown on her head the way the rascal had put it on the pillow, and then realized it was upside-down. I determined that I wasn’t going to change it, so the queen wore the crown upside-down until she got back in the stands.” Geisert seemed to get a kick out of the prank, and it was a story he told many times over the years.
Geisert’s early years at Bridgewater coincided with unrest across the country as the civil rights movement and anti-war protests dominated the cultural landscape. He was determined to maintain standards of decorum and civility on campus. There were attempts by students to march on the front lawn of the President’s House, and one week while he was away, a few students unsuccessfully tried to set a fire under the administrative offices, according to Geisert’s recorded memories.
Throughout his tenure, students also pushed for loosened restrictions concerning alcohol and smoking on campus, as well as increased co-ed dorm visitation hours. Geisert did not sway.
“As student leaders, we may not have always agreed with Dr. Geisert’s decisions regarding campus social policies, but we knew that he would be consistent—even though his answer would often be ‘No!’” said Rick Claybrook ’74, who served as vice president of the student body during the 1972-73 academic year. “In retrospect, there is no question that he always had the long-range vitality of Bridgewater College as his first priority.”
Jonathan Lyle, ’79, who served as president of the Student Senate during his senior year, recalls a kerfuffle when female students sought the same 24/7 keycard access to their residence halls that male students had. Though the project was approved by the Student Senate, as well as a committee comprising students, faculty and administrators, Geisert was opposed, and the project was dropped. Lyle recalls that Geisert was concerned about the possibility of lost cards resulting in an unsecure environment for female dorm residents.
“Dr. Geisert took a long-view towards the College’s operation, and wasn’t swayed by the enthusiasm (or emotion) of youth,” Lyle said. “Additionally, the financial realities he dealt with were not, by-and-large, on the student body’s collective radar. I can’t say Dr. Geisert was worried about being popular with the students—he was focused on keeping BC not just alive, but growing.”
Despite the occasional conflicts with students, Geisert enjoyed working with them. He and Maurine occasionally traveled with the Concert Choir, for example, and they accompanied the Chorale on international concert tours through Europe and Scandinavia. He enjoyed passing around a bag of candy on the tour bus or treating students to ice cream during stops for lunch or dinner.
In his recorded memories, he said, “Through all of the dealings with students, I reinforced my feeling that one must be firm, but kind; one must be serious, but also willing to see the funny side of things. It was an interesting experience over the years.”
Referring to the College song, “Bridgewater Fair,” Geisert once said, “I get a lump in my throat every time we sing the line, ‘I love thy sons and daughters.’” For 30 years as president and through his remaining years of life, the Kansas farm boy cherished Bridgewater’s storied halls and held a special place in his heart for the College’s sons and daughters.