Sage Report by Ruth Dunn



Am I really a sage?  Maybe so, if that means I’ve learned something in 80 years!  One of the things I’ve learned is that my life has been full of surprises, which most of the time worked out better than what I had planned.


In terms of history, I had planned to become a conservationist with a state or national park, and went to Miami University in Ohio to learn how to do that.  But as I anticipated graduation in 1956, I discovered that at that time, women couldn’t do it – so I was almost back to square one.


Fortunately, I had also taken a minor in religion, with a dynamite professor from the University of Chicago Divinity School named Stan Lusby.  I immediately responded to his process theology orientation, and took every class he taught.  At the same time I was involved all four years in the Presbyterian Westminster Foundation, and had a very good experience there.  The campus minister was Dale Robb, who actually lived at the Westminster House with his wife and two small children.  (I wonder now how they survived that!)  Among other valuable experiences, Dale sensitized me to a number of social justice issues, especially  ones related to racism.  We got involved in a number of local situations, like barber shops and the NAACP, and campus issues like restrictive clauses in Greek organizations,  and I was hooked for life.


By 1956 denominational campus ministries were burgeoning, and many were hiring women as second staff persons, many without training.  With Dale’s encouragement, I decided to go for a campus ministry career, with training, and Stan Lusby got me a full scholarship to the Divinity School.  He warned me it would be tough – said,  “You’ll really suffer up there!” and I did, because I was stretched far beyond what I could have imagined, but it was the best education I could have gotten.  :Professors included people like Court Rylersdam, Walter Harrelson, Marcus Barth (son of Karl), Joe Sittler, Bernard Meland, Bernard Loomer, Jaroslav Pelikan,and Seward Hiltner.  They did make me suffer, but I made a lot of friends who suffered with me, and I couldn’t have asked for better.


By the time I had finished, Presbyterians were ordaining women, but the campus ministry thing fell apart.  The denominational programs were collapsing and partnering ecumenically with each other, and many ministers were losing their jobs.  The one interview I got was for Religion Coordinator at Cornell, and was told I would have intimate relationships with 2000 students.  I didn’t get that job!


But I had met a student from Indianapolis named Paul Crafton, who with his wife Sue was Director at the Westside Christian Parish in an African American ghetto area in Chicago.  They were in charge of a house in which lived several young conscientious objectors (Viet Nam era) sponsored by the Brethren Volunteer Service, who worked with youth in the area.  When Paul graduated, they started a similar program in Indianapolis, and I went with them.


After helping set up that program, I moved to New York City, where I worked in a couple of community centers sponsored by the YWCA in housing projects in the Bronx, and I got a lot of first-hand experience working in the inner city.  I got involved in the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, pastored by Howard Moody, and through them attended the March on Washington.


 When the YW left those programs (weren’t good at co-ed work) I went back to Indy, lived at Fellowship House and worked at a Presbyterian inner city center, where eventually Headstart got started.  I became a Headstart teacher there, and later in a Catholic School.  That’s where I made friends with a liberal thinking nun, and together we started an interfaith study group, and also became involved in a new Christian Inner City Association.  Through that experiencee I was present when Bobby Kennedy announced to an ethnically mixed group of folks that Martin Luther King had been killed that morning in 1968.   

I was invited to teach at the preschool in the lab school at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, and while doing that volunteered with a UCCF program there.  When that campus minister left, I replaced him – I was a campus minister at last!


The first year was wonderful – I loved it!  I also loved my collegial relationships with campus ministers at seven other state campuses through the Indiana Commission of United Ministries in Higher Education.  Unfortunately, there was also a Wesley Foundation just down the street and ICUMHE decided they would no longer fund either of us unless the boards merged into one.  That was accomplished at the middle of my second year, and I was established as co-director with the Wesley pastor.  However, he was not about to work on that basis with a woman.  I remember vividly the day he slammed his fist on his desk and said,  “You will NEVER be my equal!”  He got the board to bust me to his personal assistant, and was allowed to control everything I did.  He embarrassed me in public every way he could, and made life miserable for me.  I didn’t know then how to put it into the words, but I was being professionally abused in much the same manner as if it were spousal abuse. 


I had to hang in for the rest of the semester, and certainly learned a lot about what it feels like to be an abuse victim.  Even the three men who had come to the new board from my old board told me not to complain – they wouldn’t support me because they didn’t want to appear un-ecumenical.  I left at the end of the semester.


It wasn’t until, after a series of odd jobs that I became a campus minister at Vincennes University, and finally came to terms with the anger and humiliation of that experience.  In those days we had Campus Ministry Women, NCMA, and Presbyterian Ministers in Higher Education meetings all at the same place.  At my first CMW meeting (at Lewis and Clark in Oregon) I was encouraged to tell the whole story.  They listened, without judgment, and. cried with me, and the healing started.  I became a different kind of person after that.  (I almost left this part of the story out, but decided it was too strong a part of what had happened to me as a woman campus minister not to tell.) Those three organizations were very important to me, and I attended for about ten years..  I value the colleagues I met there, and am happy I will see some of them this summer.  One of the most important was Clyde Robinson.


I had 19 good years at Vincennes.  Vincennes University Junior College was a state owned two year school, with dormitories, so it was both residential and commuter.  UCCF was ecumenical, with a good number of local churches involved.  I learned a lot about board development, and fund raising!   When I started there, ICUMHE forbid us to raise money;  by the time I left we didn’t get anything from them if we didn’t  raise half of our funds.  That’s part of the history of campus ministry!


At first many of my students were from mainline denominations;  by the end most were from evangelical churches or no church at all.  Discussions were often lively – I remember a Bible study where a Missouri Synod Lutheran guy was complaining because they weren’t even supposed to smile in his church, and a Pentecostal girl said,  “Wow!  Last Sunday I ran all around the sanctuary three times before I collapsed.”  We certainly learned a lot from each other.


In addition to doing things like Bible study, worship, weekly fellowship meals, retreats. and other typical things, I was the unofficial chaplain to the university.  I had many faculty  and staff contacts, did some programming with them, participated in many memorial services for students and faculty/staff, and in graduations.  The university president  and I respected one another, and on that small campus a lot was possible.  It was interesting to be invited to participate in programs we had started which the university took over, like a Christmas tree- lighting service for the community and the school, and a coffee house for students.  I guess they were our gift to the university.


Some important things I initiated:  cooperation with an art professor and some Chinese students in the construction of their own Lady Liberty statue which became a prayer center during the Tiennamin Square situation, prayer services for the community before and after the first Middle East war, being ready to stand up to the KKK when they threatened to disrupt a homecoming parade (they never did it) and several multicultural retreats in cooperation with the international student advisor (from Afghanistan) and the Black student advisor.  A colleague, Bob Epps, led one of those retreats.  We were part of a watch group when trains carried nuclear waste from Trident submarines through Vincennes.  A highlight was getting to know a South African student who was a member of the ANC, and came to the US when death threats were made on him.  He got Naomi Tutu to speak at VU when I took him to see her in Terre Haute.  I was fortunate to go on trips to the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico with Jack Diel, and to China with some other campus ministers from Chicago (whose names my brain is blocking.)


About eight years after I started we invited the Catholic Diocese to share our facility – a former Methodist parsonage – and have Newman Center there.  I had a creative partnership with several young Catholic campus ministers.  I also had a good relationship with the university counseling center, and a number of the faculty in various departments, like the nursing school.


I managed to get a D.Min in Pastoral Care and Counseling at Christian theological Seminary in Indianapolis by commuting for several years on my day off, and did a lot of special counseling with women in the community who had been abused.


In about my 17th year, I had to get some students to haul me to my feet after sitting with them on the floor, and I said,  “Just call me Grandma!”  Well, they did.  From then on that was my title.  I realized it was a term of endearment and respect, but I knew it was time to think about retiring, which I did 18 months later in 1998.


I have moved to Ohio, where my brother and his wife gave me an acre of ground on a farm they still own but don’t live on anymore, and I put up a nice double-wide house.  It is peaceful and quiet here, and surrounded by fields and woods.  I love it!  I have many members of a large extended family not far away – in and around Cincinnati and Oxford –  and many friends, but I can have solitude when I need it.  I did stated supply and interim stints at a couple of small churches. and because I can’t get Campus ministry out of my blood I became president of the Ohio Campus Ministry Board, (one of the last such in the US, and going out in December, but will stay as a volunteer organization for CM’s), moderator of the Higher Ed Committee of the Synod of the Covenant (Ohio and Michigan), and recently a member of Campus Ministry Advancement.  The Synod had been exciting because it is very diverse racially and ethnically, and very committed to social justice and peacemaking involvement.  I will go off membership of all three organizations at the end of this year, and maybe then I will learn how to retire. 


I have already slowed down – with more time to read, relax and have fun.  I am doing some painting – oils, watercolor, and pastels, and someday might be able t call myself an artist.  I have a small involvement in Presbytery, and am in touch with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and Rick Ufford-Chase.


I have had the opportunity to meet Walter Brueggemann, who lives near Cincinnati, and attend several series of his lectures and discussions.  I am a big fan, and he helps me to work on my present concern – how can I, as a retired clergywoman, make a contribution to the healing of this terribly broken world.  I don’t have any answers yet, but at least I’m not as discouraged as I used to be before I met Walter.


As for reflections on all of this – my career as a campus minister, after all the preliminary jobs and education that helped prepare me for it, has definitely helped define the woman I have become.  I have learned that God works in mysterious and surprising ways, offering many of those opportunities for growth that process people call eternal objects.  The ones I have chosen to take advantage of have transformed me in many ways.


I have slowed down, now that I am 80, and have some neuropathy and arthritis problems, but I’m not ready to throw in the towel and stop being involved as best I can – but at a much more relaxed pace! 


Ruth Dunn, May 2014


Ruth is currently retired – but in retirement she has served as Moderator of the Committee on Higher Education, Synod of the Covenant, 9 years;  President of the Ohio Campus Ministry Board, 6 years;  member, Campus Ministry Advancement, 2 years.  She is now enjoying painting, reading, spending time with her extended family, a few contacts with former students, and sharing concerns about social justice/peacemaking issues.



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