Dr. Ron Manahan stepped down in May after serving Grace College and Theological Seminary for more than 35 years, including the last 20 as president. This article is adapted from a longer story which appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of 2|8|9, Grace’s magazine for alumni and friends, “Ron Manahan: Ambassador of Grace.”
By Kerith Ackley-Jelinek & Andrew Jones
In 1994 Grace College and Theological Seminary had a site visit from its institutional accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association. Dr. Ron Manahan remembers the walk-through assessment well. “The guy who chaired [the site visit] said, ‘You know what Grace needs is someone who’s going to be there for a while.’” Manahan had just assumed the role of president. In the turbulent time prior to his taking office, the school had struggled to stay buoyant in a mire of problems ranging from fragile finances and conflicting personalities to aging infrastructure. Manahan’s first few years as president were a reconstruction period from what had been, in Manahan’s words, “challenging times.”
As of April 2013, Manahan served as president for a full 20 years. And although his tenure ended at Commencement 2013, he will continue to serve Grace as senior advisor to newly appointed president, Dr. Bill Katip. So what is it that keeps him around, active and successful? He says simply, “If you believe something is valuable to do, work at it. And then hope that there’s a way to bring people along.” Which is exactly what he has done at Grace.
Where it came from, Manahan can’t explain. His parents grew up in extreme poverty, both dropping out of school after grade six to help support their families. Manahan was the youngest of seven children, and they lived in the diminutive town of Paw Paw, Ill., where resources were few and money was tight. But he remembers it as clearly. “As a five- or six-year-old kid I remember riding around on my trike thinking about teaching — at a college,” recalls Manahan.
After graduating from Grand Rapids School of Bible and Music (now a part of Cornerstone University), marrying fellow classmate, Barbara Campbell (July 18, 1964), earning his bachelor’s from Shelton College (Cape May, N.J.) and his Master of Divinity from Grace Theological Seminary, Manahan was invited to join the faculty of Grand Rapids School of Bible and Music.
Manahan had garnered a reputation as a great, introspective instructor, and Grace was privileged enough to welcome him back as a professor of biblical studies in 1977 where he faithfully and powerfully taught God’s Word. One day in 1982, Manahan wasn’t sure whether his career at Grace had long-term roots. Another Christian university in Ohio had offered him a contract to teach. Manahan and his wife were seriously looking into the possibility of moving because, for all they knew, Ohio was just the next place God was calling them. But one man didn’t think so.
“Homer Kent, Jr. took me out to lunch, and he said, ‘I want you to know, we want you to stay,’” Manahan remembers. “That was a stake in the ground for us.” That lunch opened a gate to a winding but clear path for Manahan. That stake, as it turned out, led first to his appointment as vice president of academics and then provost.
After controversial personnel changes nearly sunk Grace, Manahan was asked to become acting president. A search for the new president was conducted, and dedicated to a willingness to serve and a relentless commitment to accountability, Manahan became, not just acting president, but president in 1994.
Less than two years into Manahan’s presidency, God began to do big things at Grace. “The day he decided that Grace should buy Westminster is the day that Grace turned the corner,” says Grace’s dean of the School of Adult and Community Education, Dr. Steve Grill. It was 1996, and Grace hadn’t seen new programs in more than 15 years or buildings in more than 20 years. But there were bigger problems. The local community saw Grace as a fenced-off island that wasn’t interested in the needs of the community. So when Manahan decided Grace should buy the dilapidated and soon-to-be-torn-down Westminster Hotel — an old relic to the Winona Lake community — there was plenty of skepticism.
The Board conducted a feasibility study to determine if it could raise enough money to renovate the building. The conclusion was overwhelmingly negative. There wasn’t a dime to be raised from the community. But Manahan wasn’t swayed. He went to the board and said, “We can either dry up and go away or get connected to the community.”
Few thought the Westminster renovation project was a good idea. Community leader Jean Northenor, then executive vice president of Lake City Bank (Warsaw), remembers when Manahan called her and asked her to come walk through Westminster. “It was such a wreck. There were birds flying around in there! My thought was, ‘This should just be bull-dozed.’” Northenor says there was a sparkle in Manahan’s eyes. He believed so confidently that the project could be completed that she decided the only option was to help.
Manahan formed a committee of community group leaders. Grill says the only reason it worked is because Manahan’s vision was for more than Grace; this project wasn’t just about meeting another need for Grace, it was about serving the community. Northenor and several other community leaders agreed to join Manahan’s committee, and vision became reality. The committee raised the several million dollars needed to renovate the building. To this day, the first floor of Westminster is used often for community needs. Grace and the community are inseparable now.
Home to the largest three orthopaedic companies in the world, Warsaw, Ind., is practically synonymous with orthopaedics. So when Manahan was at a seminar in Indianapolis and the speaker inquired what would happen if the orthoapedic companies decided to relocate, an idea began to germinate in Manahan’s mind.
Getting the “Big Three” together had never been done. They were competitors, battling for market share, skilled employees, and patents. Nevertheless, in 2001 Manahan began having conversations with the leaders of Biomet, DePuy, and Zimmer before inviting them to meet together to discuss the possibility of building and funding the Orthopaedic Capital Center (OCC), a facility that would be a rallying place for community businesses, Grace athletics, and regional events.
Dr. Dane Miller, then-president of Biomet, remembers that first meeting. “The presidents of all three companies showed up; … it went really well. We each made a commitment of $1 million.” It was the first time in history that the three largest orthopaedic players supported a joint project. Miller explains, “Ron just won’t accept no for an answer. Even though there may be a lot of barriers, he just keeps the ball in play.”
Manahan’s determined leadership proved to be more than a boon: it was a game-changer. “Ron’s character, integrity and persistence have given him an incredible reputation in the community, and you can see it on display in the OCC,” says Grill.
In November of 2011 Manahan went to Washington, D.C. to sit with a number of other educational experts and to present to the Congressional Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training on the topic of “Keeping College Within Reach.” Manahan offered his perspective on what higher education schools like Grace could do to stay competitive in an unpredictable economy. When the recession hit in 2008, nobody wanted to take any chances. It was best to hunker down and ride out the storm. Enrollments were declining across higher education institutions. Colleges were cutting staff and programs to compensate for lost revenue. But Manahan saw the economic downturn differently because, where others see threats, Manahan sees possibilities.
More than one member of that congressional committee was impressed by Manahan’s revelation of Grace’s multi-site Weber School, the carefully monitored cost-control that kept tuition competitive, and many other original initiatives.
“Ron truly saw the economic crisis as an opportunity. He believes you have to be able to take advantage of a crisis. Not that he didn’t have some sleepless nights, because he did. But ultimately he saw potential,” says Dr. Jeff Gill, dean of the Seminary.
Mix the ashes of the recession and one man’s resolve and what do you get? Grace’s extraordinarily popular three-year bachelor’s degree program. It just goes to show what integrity and competence can do to open doors.
Dr. Manahan’s presidency will be remembered by his uncanny ability to make the unattainable, attainable. Miller, the former president of orthopaedic giant Biomet, says: “When it doesn’t look like it’s going to be possible to get an idea implemented, that’s when he does his best work. [Manahan] is motivated by the impossible.”
During one of his first months as president, Manahan met with a prominent community leader who aptly described the school’s precarious state. He warned, “If you don’t hit a home run … the community’s going to kiss [Grace] goodbye. It’s the bottom of the ninth. Three-two count. You’re a run down, there’s a guy on first. If you’re going to win, you better hit that ball, and it’d better be a homer.” Manahan hit his first home run with the Westminster project and since then, he’s hit a whole lot more.
One of Manahan’s favorite verses to quote is Ephesians 3:20: “Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory ….” Manahan’s faith in God has birthed more home runs during his 20-year tenure as president than anyone imagined. Glory be to God.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of GraceConnect magazine.