Dr. J. Richard Chase
1930 - 2010
A nationally recognized educator who guided the course of two of America’s premier Christian colleges for more than a decade each, President J. Richard Chase died at Windsor Park Manor in Carol Stream, Illinois, on August 20, 2010. He was 79 years old.
Perusing Dr. Chase’s long list of leadership roles and awards, one might easily conclude that he must have been detached from student life during his Wheaton years. But throughout his 11-year tenure, President Chase made a point of being accessible and very visible on campus. He had both an open door policy, and with the help of his congenial wife, Mary, an open home. The couple hosted more than 1,200 students, faculty, staff, and other College guests each year. Dr. Chase also enjoyed playing intramural basketball with students, faculty, and staff when time allowed.
“We especially enjoyed having students gather around our fireplace,” notes Mary, who says that the students were her husband’s “bottom line.” She says, “He did everything for the Lord and for the students.”
Over the years, this master of classical rhetoric fulfilled the roles of pastor, professor, administrator, and then president, all the while exemplifying gracious Christian leadership. Faculty and administrators at Wheaton remember him for his eloquence, compassion, and fairness.
Though Dr. Chase served as a college president for 23 years and many years as a professor, a career in academia wasn’t part of the young Chase’s dreams. Born to James Warren Chase and Nina Marie Fiscus Chase on October 7, 1930, J. Richard Chase was the second of four boys. He grew up outside of Oxnard, California, on the Chase Brothers Dairy, still a family-owned business today. As a boy, he imagined that he would follow in his father’s footsteps.
His plans changed over time, beginning during his last two years of high school when he attended Culter Academy. There he met Mary Sutherland, daughter of Dr. Samuel Sutherland, who would later become president of Biola College. The two began dating at 16, and married four years later, while both were students at Biola. During his undergraduate years at Biola, Dr. Chase felt the Lord was calling him into Christian education. In Dr. Sutherland, he found both a mentor and friend.
Graduating from Biola in 1951 with a bachelor’s degree in theology, Dr. Chase went on to earn a B.A. in speech education and an M.A. in speech at Pepperdine University. After completing his masters’ degree, he worked part-time at Biola and then full-time in the speech department, while also pastoring a small church in Hollywood.
With the encouragement of the Biola trustees, Dr. Chase then took a leave of absence from teaching. He and Mary packed their young family, which by this time included 3-month-old Kenneth, and drove across the country to begin a doctoral program at Cornell University. While in New York, Dr. Chase worked as the youth pastor of a Baptist church in Ithaca and earned his doctorate in rhetoric and public address from Cornell.
Upon the family’s return to Biola, Dr. Chase rejoined the speech department, developing the forensic program, and forming debate teams. He served as chairman of the speech department and chairman of the humanities division during this time, and he and Mary welcomed their second child, Jennifer. He was appointed vice president in 1965, and in 1970, he became the sixth and youngest president of Biola College.
The Presidential Years
During his 12-year term at Biola, an acquisition led to the establishment of the Rosemead School of Psychology, and Dr. Chase’s tenure reached its summit when Biola College became Biola University on July 1, 1981. Described as a “good academic navigator,” Dr. Chase is remembered for developing and maintaining Biola’s twin commitments to academic excellence and Christian teaching.
Dr. Chase then felt God’s call to another Christian college far from balmy Southern California. Despite frigid temperatures on the initial interview trip, in 1982 he accepted the role of president at Wheaton, calling the post “one of the most exciting and demanding jobs in Christian higher education today.”
Under his biblically centered and constructive direction, the academic, financial, and physical dimensions of the College flourished. “Dick Chase has done much to make Wheaton the flagship of the Christian colleges,” said Dr. Kenneth Wessner ’47, trustee emeritus.
With an emphasis on strengthening the breadth of Wheaton’s academics, Dr. Chase encouraged Wheaton’s participation in the Pew Science Program, designed to enrich science educational opportunities and to attract more science students. A partnership with nearby Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) began a five-year program of liberal arts and engineering that still exists today.
Also during Dr. Chase’s tenure, the Center for Applied Christian Ethics was established and the Leroy H. Pfund Lectureship began. These two programs enriched the College, bringing noteworthy speakers to discuss and debate current issues. With a vision to develop the graduate school, Dr. Chase oversaw the start of the College’s first doctoral program in clinical psychology in 1992.
Strong financial gains fueled the academic growth of this period. The endowment fund grew from $32 million to about $93 million. Such growth was in part due to the successful $36 million Campaign for Wheaton, spearheaded by Dr. Chase.
Significant changes to the campus landscape included the artful restoration of Blanchard Hall and the construction of Anderson Commons’ sun-lit dining spaces.
“The completion of the major renovation of Blanchard Hall will mean a lot to the College. It was done well, was paid for, and it should continue to serve another 100 years. It represents Dick’s approach to things. What he does, he does well,” noted then-chairman of Wheaton’s Board of Trustees Gunther Knoedler.
Dr. Chase was named America’s Outstanding Educator by the Religious Heritage of America Foundation in 1986 and, in the same year, listed among the 100 most effective college presidents in America in a nationwide survey reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education. He also served as the first chairman of the board of the Christian College Coalition.
“He was very much concerned that Wheaton would introduce students to a world-wide perspective,” notes Dr. Alan Johnson, who directed the Center for Applied Christian Ethics. Toward this end, Dr. Chase received some of the country’s most influential leaders to campus including former Presidents George H. W. Bush. and Jimmy Carter, evangelist Billy Graham ’43, former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson.
When Dr. Chase retired, Rev. Billy Graham wrote, “Dr. Chase held the respect of the board of trustees, faculty, staff, and students. His vision for Wheaton has been imparted to alumni, faculty, and students, and Wheaton today is stronger in every area than it was eleven years ago.”
Dr. Chase taught and served on the board at Tyndale Seminary in the Netherlands from 1993 to 2003. He also enjoyed preaching and speaking at his home church, and at Wheaton alumni events around the country and the world. He and Mary continued to enjoy spending time with family and with Wheaton alumni, faculty, and friends at HoneyRock each summer, as his health allowed.
He is survived by his wife, Mary; two children, Dr. Kenneth Chase and Jennifer Chase Barnard; and 7 grandchildren.
His children remember him for his steadiness, wisdom, generosity, and genuine concern for the well-being of others. Dr. Ken Chase, now chair of the communication department at Wheaton, says, “Looking back, our family life was extremely peaceful.” He notes that Dr. Arthur Holmes’ book on the integration of faith and learning was part of what initially drew his father to Wheaton. “Dad always loved new ideas, but tested these through established traditions and his Christian faith.” Ken adds that his father also “loved the activity of college life. I remember his enthusiasm for athletic events and building projects.”
At the core of Dr. Chase’s commitment to Wheaton, and to Christian higher education as a whole, was a profound understanding of the eternal importance of the task. In one of many moving addresses he said, “The technology of our age may soon get the basic message of salvation to our entire world. But a searching society needs the witness of those who can think Christianly. They need the witness and human touch of those who serve them, weep with them, and rejoice with them for no other reason than the compelling love of Christ.”
It is perhaps for his own witness to this love that Dr. Chase will most be remembered.
Leadership positions, Awards, and Affiliations
- Named America’s Outstanding Educator by the Religious Heritage of America, 1986
- Listed among the 100 most effective college presidents in America in a nationwide survey reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, 1986
- Received a Legacy Award from Biola University for “A Distinguished Lifetime of Leadership and Service,” February 2008
- Awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, Pepperdine University, 1987
- Served as first chairman of the board of the Christian College Coalition
- Completed two terms as chairman of the Federation of Independent Illinois Colleges and Universities
- Served on the Executive Committee of the National Association of Evangelicals and the Non-Public Advisory Committee of the Illinois Board of Higher Education
- Led the board of Mission Aviation Fellowship as chairman during the 1970s
He served on the following boards of directors:
- American Association of Presidents of Independent Colleges and Universities
- The Federation of Independent Illinois Colleges and Universities
- The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities
- The Western College Association
- World Christian Training Center
- The American Association of Bible Colleges
- Tyndale Seminary in Badhoevehorp, Netherlands
by Katherine Halberstadt Anderson ’90