Remembering W. Richard Lesher
Fourth President of Andrews University. 1924-2017
William Richard Lesher was born on November 14, 1924, to Luther and Lavern Lesher of Carlisle, Pennsylvania. His sister Jean was five years younger than Richard, as his family always called him when he was young. The children were born into a Seventh-day Adventist family, a circumstance that shaped Richard Lesher’s life from his earliest childhood until the day he died. On his mother’s side he was a third generation Adventist; his maternal grandmother came into the faith along with her sister, who had bought an Adventist book from a colporteur. Richard’s father, Luther, first heard about Adventism inadvertently and through the Sabbath School quarterly. Two elderly Adventist women in the row house next door would sit in their back yard and faithfully study their Sabbath School lesson every day. One of the women was somewhat deaf, and their reading carried conveniently to Luther’s back yard, where he began to sit every day to hear the lesson until he finally asked for Bible studies. When he became an Adventist, Luther, who was a barber, closed his shop on Saturdays, every barber’s big day; his business began to decline. After he sold his barber shop, Luther did some colporteuring, among other things. For many of Richard’s growing up years, the family lived with his maternal grandparents, Daisie and Levi Adams.
Five-year-old Richard, who grew up in the very small Carlisle Seventh-day Adventist church, made the decision that he would become a minister, as he looked up to the leaders of this congregation. His committed parents saw to it that Richard and Jean received an Adventist education at the church school of 17 to 20 students in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, often driving Richard the 20 miles to school each way. At other times he took the train to Harrisburg, where the teacher met him at the train station.
Richard started working early in life, helping his family in their home bakery business. His mother and grandmother would get up early in the morning to make bread, dinner rolls, cinnamon rolls and the like. Richard was the salesman and delivery man. He would go to work sites and sell the sweet rolls to the laborers for their breakfast and lunch breaks.
When it came time for secondary school in 1939, Richard went to Shenandoah Valley Academy in Virginia, about a hundred miles from home. Throughout his academy years he hitchhiked back and forth between school and home to save money. At Shenandoah Valley Academy Richard met a man who was to become very influential in his life’s course: Robert Reynolds, who was his boys’ dean. The year that Richard graduated from SVA, Reynolds received an invitation to Atlantic Union College in South Lancaster, Massachusetts. He persuaded Richard to “go along” and spend his college years at AUC, which he did from 1943 to 1946, when he graduated. It was at college that Richard came to be known as Dick to his friends and classmates.
Since the age of 5, Dick had been committed to the ministry, and now at AUC he declared a theology major. He matriculated straight through from September of ’43 to August of ’46, with no time off in the summers so that he would not lose his ministerial deferment in the midst of World War II. It was hard to find a newspaper on campus and there was only one radio in the parlor of the men’s dormitory, so war news was hard to get. But on the day the war ended, Dick and a friend went to Boston to witness the wild celebrations in the streets.
Devoted Husband and Father
In the fall of 1944, while Dick was standing by the front steps of the AUC administration building with his roommate, a young woman came along who was also from his roommate’s hometown of Corning, New York. So Dick’s roommate introduced him to Veda Van Etten. Then they sat next to each other in their Health Principles class. Then there was a weekend trip to New York City for Ingathering; Dick and Veda were both signed up to go. Ingathering in the city was hard, but on the last day, before heading back to school, the group decided to go sightseeing. Through one circumstance and another, however, with no collusion on their part, Dick and Veda found that the rest of the group had evaporated and they were on their own in New York City with no chaperone and no fellow students! They walked around town and took the ferry to the Statue of Liberty. It was their first, unplanned, definitely unofficial date. Eight or nine months later, Dick asked Veda if she “wanted to be a minister’s wife.” They married on June 16, 1946. Dick still had to finish the summer term to complete his degree, and they both worked to support themselves—Veda in the bindery and Dick carrying the brick hods on a construction crew that was building some faculty homes.
After Dick finished his degree the Leshers took a bus to Rutland, Vermont, to Dick’s first pastoral assignment with the Northern New England Conference as assistant to the district pastor, who was in charge of five churches. They had made careful arrangements, writing to the pastor to let him know the date of their arrival and to the conference to ask for an advance of $50 that would be mailed to the pastor for when they got there. When they arrived, there was no pastor and, consequently, no money. He had left on vacation before their letter arrived. There they were, at their first ministerial assignment, with very little money and no place to stay. A church member saw to it that they were housed in a “tourist home” until the pastor returned.
From Rutland the Leshers kept moving north in the Northern New England Conference to new pastorates. At the end of the war, cars were scarce, but they acquired a 1937 Studebaker that made it easier to travel within their church districts. The next stop was Burlington, Vermont, where Dick pastored three churches. That was also where the Leshers’ first daughter, Eileen, was born. Then the little family moved on to Morrisville, Vermont, still further north, where daughter Martha was born, just two years after her sister. And from there they went to Bangor, Maine. All together the Leshers spent about ten years pastoring in New England.
Then in 1956 came the call that Dick had also been dreaming of since childhood: the call to go overseas, the call to mission work. The Leshers’ call was to the Middle East. But things were unstable in the Middle East. The Leshers were originally called to the British protectorate of Aden, but visa issues became complicated. Then the Suez Crisis broke. The General Conference decided to send the family to Beirut to await assignment. Always eager for an opportunity to learn more, Dick made good use of the waiting periods on both sides of the ocean. In Washington D.C., while waiting to sort out visas and travel plans, Dick requested to be allowed to take classes at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, then located in Takoma Park. Although the brethren were not enthusiastic, his line of reasoning finally won the day, and he took one term of courses, sitting for final exams on the day they left for Beirut. When they got to Beirut and were waiting yet again for an assignment and visas, Dick studied Arabic, taking a taxi every day to meet his tutor. He also joined the Seminary tour that had come to the Middle East, traveling with them through the Bible lands until they got to Jordan and he could go no further without his visa for Egypt.
Finally the visas came and the Leshers sailed for Egypt, to Alexandria, where Dick was pastor of the church and mission director for the Delta Section of Egypt. When the principal of Nile Union Academy returned home on furlough, Dick had his first taste of educational work, filling in as interim principal for the small secondary school of about 50 students and learning all the educational terminology in Arabic. The school was located in a suburb of Cairo, right next to the desert. Among the Leshers’ strongest memories of their experience there was the overwhelming heat and the sand that would blow into the house through every crack during the spring season. Dick felt that one of the best achievements during his tenure at the academy was that they built a new building to satisfy the law that boys and girls must study in separate classrooms. The new building made it possible for girls to study at the Academy.
The Leshers’ own furlough came up quickly, and it was during their time back in the States in 1962 that Dick continued to pursue his master’s degree. The classes that he took in Washington were the beginning; now he studied in Berrien Springs, the new home of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. Just before returning overseas, at the General Conference session in San Francisco, Dick learned that he had been appointed Division Secretary and Educational Secretary for the Middle East Division, a post he held until 1964. In that capacity, he was involved in the educational work from a new angle; headquartered in Beirut, he visited schools in Iran, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan as well as Lebanon.
The Leshers returned to the United States in 1964, and finally Dick had the prospect to immerse himself in an academic environment. He had come to think that he would very much like to teach; he had developed an appreciation for the ministry of teaching and its opportunities for in-depth interaction and discussion. Upon his return from the Middle East, among the several calls Dick received was one from AUC, his alma mater. Bob Reynolds, his former dean, was now AUC’s president. Would he like to teach religion at AUC? Dick accepted the call. He would teach there for seven years. He also took the occasion to study further, completing his doctorate in religious education at New York University and graduating in 1970.
General Conference Administrator
In 1971 Dick Lesher received a call to the General Conference as associate director of the Sabbath School Department and became the editor of the adult Sabbath School lessons. It was a particularly meaningful appointment for both Dick and his father, Luther, who had been converted to the church those many years ago by listening to his neighbors read the Sabbath School lessons. In 1979 Dick was appointed director of the Biblical Research Institute. One of the aspects of his new job that he especially relished was that the scholarly work at BRI brought him again into closer contact with the Seventh-day Adventist academic institutions. In 1981 Dick was appointed General Conference vice president, while continuing his work at BRI.
President of Andrews University
When the discussion began about a new president for Andrews University, and Dick heard that his name had come up in the discussion, he didn’t take it very seriously. He felt settled in his work and in Washington. But the search process brought the board closer and closer to Lesher’s name. He got the news while traveling on church business in Cyprus. The board had voted to appoint him president of Andrews University. He would be the 20th president of the institution since its founding as Battle Creek College and the fourth president of Andrews University.
Dick Lesher’s commitment to his faith and his church had led him to a philosophy about calls to new positions: “I had usually gone where I was asked to go,” he said. Dick and Veda moved to Berrien Springs and Andrews University with the full belief that the Lord was leading them. Dick finished his long and distinguished years of service for the Seventh-day Adventist Church with ten years as president of Andrews University, 1984 to 1994.
He came to the school in a period of uneasiness and financial challenges for the institution. At the end of the first faculty meeting over which he presided, Dick’s plain speaking and commitment to transparency earned him a standing ovation from the faculty. Under his direction, the University made a plan to retire a $14 million debt and executed it. His presidency saw the completion of the architecture building, the School of Business Administration building—Chan Shun Hall, and the College of Technology—Harrigan Hall. He also initiated and carried through much less glamorous work in improvements to the campus infrastructure, such as the water system. It was this behind-the-scenes effort to upgrade the campus and “just to make things work,” as he said, of which he was perhaps the proudest. He remembered with pleasure some University traditions that were established during his tenure such as the Friday Festival of Faith, a well-attended Friday vespers at Pioneer Memorial Church, and the convocation service at the beginning of each school year, which to this day marks a high moment in the life of Andrews University. Among his colleagues at the University Dick Lesher was known as unpretentious, humble, and as a person who both valued and practiced integrity. He presided over good times and difficult times during his ten years of guiding Andrews, but overall his presidency brought a sense of stability to the University. David Faehner, vice president for University Advancement, who served in Lesher’s administration for nine years, remembers him with words such as “conviction” and “deep belief,” “strong” and “steady.”
When Dick retired in 1994, he had served the church for 48 years. “Everything you do for the Church,” he said, “has its spiritual aspect.” And he felt that he had grown spiritually at every stage of his work along the way. After Dick’s retirement the Leshers chose to stay in Berrien Springs until health issues compelled them to move closer to the rest of their family in California in 2014.
Dick Lesher enjoyed many pursuits beyond his work: travel and photography, camping with his family, gardening, walking and jogging, and reading. Much of Dick’s travel, of course, was connected with his work, but he found pleasure, he said, in learning about new places and cultures. He also enjoyed taking pictures wherever he went. His family figures that they had at least two boxes of slides just of Victoria Falls. When he came home from a trip to a game park in Kenya and discovered he had a whole collection of slides with little indistinguishable dots on the horizon, he decided it was time to buy a powerful zoom lens for his travel photography! During his years at the General Conference, Dick traveled so extensively, as much as six months out of the year, that when he arrived at Andrews University, he was glad to spend more time at home.
When they were in the States, the Lesher family spent many vacations camping—tent camping, with sleeping bags. They camped at many different sites from Baxter State Park in northern Maine to the Skyline Drive in Virginia.
Dick’s love of the outdoors extended to gardening as well. At their home in Maryland he and Veda planted their one-acre yard with more than 25 fruit trees: pear, peach, apple, plum and apricot trees, as well as grapes and blueberry, blackberry and raspberry bushes. They began growing roses in Maryland, where Veda always had a bouquet of fresh roses on her receptionist’s desk at the General Conference. In their new Michigan yard they planted at least 50 rose bushes and delighted in sharing them with others. After their retirement the Leshers’ elder duties for Pioneer Memorial Church focused especially on making visits to the sick, and they often took fresh roses to the patients and people who were housebound.
Dick and Veda Lesher set an impressive example of an active lifestyle. One of the lasting images that many Andrews campus inhabitants will treasure is seeing the Leshers walking and jogging together all over campus, sometimes on the running track where they kept count of laps by moving pennies from one pocket to the other and sometimes on the long stretch of sidewalk along the Grove as they headed for home after their daily quota of five miles, rain or shine. In winter they were easily recognizable in their bright red parkas.
As much as Dick loved the active life, he was also a reader. His favorite genres were history, archaeology, biography and theology. But the book he carried always in his pocket was a small Bible, just in case he had a few minutes to read. He read through the Bible countless times. Whenever he finished, he started again in a different translation.
W. Richard Lesher passed to his rest on August 18, 2017, in Loma Linda, California. He is mourned by many friends and his family. He is survived by his wife Veda; daughters Eileen Lesher and Martha Keough, her husband Alger and their children and grandchildren: Ryan and Wendy Agy Keough and their sons: Joshua, Joseph and Nicholas; Anne Keough; Jeffrey and Jocelyn Seitz Keough and their children: Caroline, Milo and Ellery. He is also survived by his sister Jean Krenrich.