It is a blustery morning in 1955 as a 9-year-old boy hustles out of his home into the biting cold just as the sun creeps over the Colorado horizon. Escaping the frost, he enters the Denver Post office, gathering his bundle of 125 newspapers needing to be delivered. Arms full of inky newsprint, the child pays $5 — four cents per copy—for his merchandise and begins going door to door to door, charging five cents for each issue. It’s hard work, but he doesn’t mind. He is an independent contractor, a self-governing entrepreneur, an autonomous businessman, and every day he makes $1.25. That’s not bad for a second grader willing to commit to a daily dose of hard work and responsibility.
Though his career in newspaper delivery only endured four years, this child, Gordon Anderson, did go on to earn a doctorate in ancient studies and become a professor of religion, history and philosophy, eventually becoming the president of a prominent Christian university—a post that will officially come to an end June 1, 2017.
After 22 years of presidential leadership at North Central University, Anderson’s leadership era will come to a close at May’s end: an era marked by extensive property expansion, enrollment fluctuation, and spiritual and academic integration.
Anderson was named the sixth president of North Central in the spring of 1995 – A year that saw the first release of Toy Story, Bill Clinton’s presidency and the final published strip of Calvin and Hobbes.
On Oct. 27 of the same year, Anderson was inaugurated in the presence of students, faculty, alumni, representatives from 37 other colleges, and Thomas Trask, the general superintendent of the Assemblies of God. No classes were held that day in order to give students the opportunity to take photographs with the new president and attend the different ceremonial events. At the time, Anderson acknowledged the “weight” of his new position, but said God had “called and prepared” him to fulfill the responsibilities presented.
In March, just two months before his retirement, Anderson reflected on his presidency while sitting in his office in the Christian Life Center. He has not started packing yet—books and binders still line the shelves, an oversized 70th birthday card sits in the corner.
Throughout his tenure, Anderson said he has never felt like a stereotypical university leader—someone of great power and charisma. Instead, he considers himself a trailblazer, a chief steward, a trustworthy and responsible frontrunner. All traits he learned much earlier in life.
While at the University of Colorado, Anderson was elected to his first presidency – a 12-man singing group called the Buffoons where he sang bass. Needing someone to take care of the group’s details, the men chose Anderson as their leader, dubbing him their president. With his knack for administration, organization and responsibility, Anderson was able to lead the group as they sang on campus, created records and made television appearances.
Not all of his leadership abilities stemmed from this glee club, but for Anderson, the early years drilled qualities into him that taught discipline and diligence for every assigned task. “Take responsibility. Bear responsibility,” Anderson said while sitting in his office. “When everyone else leaves, be responsible. No whining allowed.”
Anderson received his first undergraduate degree in religion from Southern California College, his second bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Portland, a master’s in history from the University of Portland, and a Ph.D. in ancient studies from the University of Minnesota. Anderson has also written several books including “Orphans and Kings,” published in 1986 and “A Theology of Revival,” published in 1997.
The get-it-done work ethic of Anderson has been critical in his presidential role. Though he saw the largest student enrollment of North Central history in 2004, 1,239 students, his tenure has overseen the subsequent ebb and flow of student population, dropping to an enrollment of 904 undergraduate students in the fall of 2016. The 2015-16 school year saw other prominent structural changes, as three colleges—the college of missions, college of ministry, and the institute for biblical and theological studies—merged to form the college of church leadership. This restructure was largely due to a 50 percent decline in students pursuing occupational ministry majors in the previous 10 years. Six faculty members and one staff member were also laid off as budget cuts necessitated.
Anderson acknowledges enrollment as the financial engine of a university, but calls it a “pain in the neck.” He hopes people can look beyond the numerical issue to see the overarching health and success of North Central, he said as he leaned against the mahogany-stained conference table. Anderson is particularly proud of the deep spiritual and academic culture represented among the students and staff of the university.
“I’ve never been criticized for a diminished spirituality; I’ve never been criticized for a diminished academic quality,” Anderson said. “If you can get those two right, that’s pretty good.”
Anderson believes the spiritual atmosphere is a largely defining aspect of North Central. In one of the first chapels Anderson attended in April of 1982, he remembers observing students as they repeatedly sang the words “Abba, Father” in unison, exuding a fervor unparalleled in other environments. After worship, Gordon Fee, acclaimed theologian, preached a sermon demonstrating his exegetic expertise Anderson said moments like this, moments combining spiritual fervor and intimacy with God, will be some of the treasured memories he carries away from North Central.
While Anderson has impacted the lives of many in his 22 years of presidential service, he has also overseen property expansions and additions that total over $35.8 million. Since 1995, North Central has grown its downtown footprint drastically. A few major changes include the acquisition of Centennial Hall, Mensing Hall, Liechty Hall, several apartment complexes, the construction of Phillipps Hall, and the expansions of the F.J. Lindquist chapel and Christian Life Center. The program offerings have also expanded significantly as the school added majors including American Sign Language interpreting, English, evangelism, music performance and many others. Anderson also spearheaded initiatives to change the name from North Central Bible College to North Central University, transition the school mascot from Flames to Rams and create policy allowing students to utilize DVD and VHS players in the campus residence halls.
In 2002, Anderson was part of an initiative to launch Woven, a program spearheaded by Larry Bach, current dean of the college of fine arts, Joanne Kersten, associate music professor, and Dianne Anderson, Gordon Anderson’s wife. On any given Monday evening, one could find the president driving through Minneapolis with kids who had signed up for the free music lessons offered to urban students through the program. The students, mainly 6-8 years olds, would joke around with Anderson, who attended their recitals, congratulating them when they completed lessons in piano or guitar or voice. The kids didn’t see him as President Anderson—he wouldn’t want them to, Bach remembers. They saw him as the nice guy with white hair who gave them car rides, encouragement, an escape from the difficulty of life.
Anderson’s interaction with the student body has largely been found in the Trask Word and Worship Center on weekdays from 11-11:50 a.m. Sitting in the front, right-most chair of the left-most section of the sanctuary, Anderson is frequently seen greeting students, worshiping with arms extended, engaging with visiting speakers and actively participating in sermons. On March 16, 2017, local pastor Nate Ruch invoked Anderson to throw a football as part of a sermon illustration. Anderson obliged, lobbing the ball in perfect spiral to Ruch. “I feel like Gronk catching that,” Ruch exclaimed as the student body clamored their applause for the president.
Anderson’s appeal resides in his emotional, parable-style preaching, sometimes crying, often laughing. Preaching almost every Friday, Anderson said the weekly intercession is a “beautiful portrayal” of the school. “The Friday prayer time is a puzzle made of many pieces,” Anderson said. “It’s a picture of integration rather than fragmentation.”
And now it is his turn to graduate. On June 1, Anderson will take off the uniform he has worn for 22 years. He and Dianne will travel 1,732 miles to Washington State, where they will quietly retire on a small ranch, surrounded by solitude, nourished by silence. Anderson has no intention to speak, preach or conduct seminars, but he does plan to devote a few hours each day to writing articles on the topics where his intellect and passion collide: Pentecostal theology, revival theology, and the combination of culture and spirituality. He said he does not care if his writings are ever published or read, but rather wants to record what he has learned over the course of 70 years.
In late April, Anderson’s office looks drastically different than it did a month before. The three large nature paintings formerly adorning the west wall now hold empty space. The shelves of the three looming bookshelves are nearly empty, a stark contrast from the surfaces that teemed with pages a month ago. “It doesn’t feel like my space anymore,” Anderson said with reminiscence, “but that’s how it should be. It’s time to move on.”
Come May’s end, Anderson will officially pass the university headship to Scott Hagan, current pastor of Real Life Church, a multi-campus church in northern California.
In retirement, Anderson said he looks forward to simply being an authentic follower of Christ.
“Dianne and I want to see if we can be really good Christians when we’re not getting paid to do it,” Anderson laughed, repeating the mantra he has said from the pulpit. “We’re going to see if I can do all the things I’ve been telling other people they should be doing for 50 years.”