Mormon university causes a stir

The Virginian-Pilot, Dec. 8, 2002
By EARL SWIFT, The Virginian-Pilot

It seemed a partnership forged in heaven: An old boom town, its prosperity fled, and a private college with big dreams and a niche that all but guaranteed its success.

The school bought up the campus of a failed women’s college on the city’s edge, and six years later has survived a hand-to-mouth infancy to earn preaccreditation. Its athletic teams have snared several national championships. Its students eat at the town’s restaurants, rent rooms by the score from local landlords, fill the streets with youthful vigor.

But amid all this success, relations between Southern Virginia University and Buena Vista, population 6,350, are uneasy.

Neighbors worry that maybe the school is getting too big, that its plans to double in size in the coming years might overwhelm Byoona Vista, as Virginians pronounce it, and fill it with traffic and bustle and noise.

Some worry that so many outsiders might disrupt the character of what’s always been a quiet, hard-working community of blue-collar “born-heres,” wedged between the Maury River and the Blue Ridge.

And some fret that more’s at stake, that the school is out to steal the soul of God-fearing Rockbridge County.

See, Southern Virginia University operates by the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Its owners, most of its teachers and the vast majority of its students are Mormon.

And they’ve put down roots in about as Protestant a place as you’ll find.

Southern Virginia is hardly a den of iniquity.

Its students are uniformly clean-cut. They are subject to an honor code that prohibits not only premarital sex, but “necking, petting and prolonged kissing.” They swear off illegal drugs and alcohol. They can’t smoke. They don’t drink coffee or tea.

Men can’t wear beards, goatees, long hair, muscle shirts or earrings. The student handbook says women’s clothing can’t be “backless, revealing, sleeveless, strapless, tight” nor show any thigh. Bikinis are outlawed. Sunbathing, too.

The few non-Mormons on campus must abide by the same code, or face an Honor Council disinclined to cut them slack. Just 18 days into the current semester, the council booted one student and put another on probation for “failure to lead a chaste and virtuous life.”

Every SVU student is obligated to complete four courses in community service, and most complete theirs right in town. In 2002, the school estimates, that service will have totaled 12,458 hours, and will have served more than 2,000 people in Buena Vista.

Still, some smell a threat. J.A. “Art” Brumit, the pastor of Blue Ridge Baptist Church, believes the few hundred Mormons on campus today are the vanguard of an approaching army.

“I have been told that they want to make this the Salt Lake City of the East,” he said. “Suspicions run rampant that they’re trying to dominate the whole community, the political life, the social life, every aspect of the community. A lot of people are suspicious of that, and I am one of them.”

Pastor Robert McCoy, whose Stone Church of the Brethren stands within sight of the campus, said he’s come to view Buena Vista as a spiritual battleground. “We’ve got to get our message out while they get their message out, and we’ve got to show the community that we love our neighbors more than they love their neighbors,” he said. “A lot will depend on whether we can organize and effectively evangelize the community on behalf of Jesus Christ.

“If we cannot, the Mormons are going to succeed. They’ll go around the perimeter and get the weak ones first.”

Folks will tell you that most of Buena Vista doesn’t feel that way, that it’s the prospect of change, not Mormonism, that’s made the locals skittish.

“Things hummed along here for a long time a certain way,” said Scott Dadson, the city manager. “I think that has more to do with it than the group that runs the school.”

“By and large, most people are happy about the college,” said Tracey D. Shiflett, Buena Vista’s chief planner. “Is there anti-Mormonism? Oh, yeah. And if they were Catholics, there’d be anti-Catholic talk.

“Change is scary. That’s the real issue.”

No question, change is coming: SVU expects to grow from its current 489 students to 1,200 or 1,300 in the next five to seven years. It will burst beyond its snug, hilltop campus, already too small to house the student body, and grow eastward, through or around the leafy neighborhood next door, to a wooded ridge known as “The Dinky.” The university owns the woods. Dormitories may sprout there, alongside baseball diamonds cut from the trees.

To the north, more development may occur beside U.S. 60. The students will bring cars, which will make issues of parking and traffic. A good many will live off campus, and might make some noise.

Even SVU’s fans in town acknowledge that the coming years will require patience. “If the school can grow, and I really hope it will,” said Mary Shewey, who lives just yards away, “Buena Vista will have a lot of adjusting to do.”

Just the same, not all of the town’s angst is simply born of the college’s growth. “We heard we were building a strip mall up here, and the only ones we were going to let shop in it were Mormons,” SVU President E. Curtis Fawson said, shaking his head. “Then, I was in Lexington the other day, and somebody asked me what we were going to do with the 6,000 students we planned on having up here.

“To suggest to the community that we’ll overpower them is just nonsense, but figures like `6,000 students’ scare them to death,” he said. “Those are the sorts of things that are planted in the community that have hurt us, I think, and it’s really unfortunate. Rumors always travel so much faster than the truth.”

Stand on the school’s front lawn, high above Buena Vista, and you can make out the forces that have charmed and cursed the place for more than a century, there in the silvery crescent of tin roofs and maples below.

On the town’s eastern edge loom mountains rich with the iron ore that drew the money here in the late 1880s, and at the center of town stands the lean old land office, epicenter of the wild building spree that followed.

Beside the curving Maury are weeds where factories sprang up — tanneries, an iron furnace, glassworks, paper and silk mills — and died when the iron played out, and the money with it.

From up here you can see Magnolia Avenue, Buena Vista’s main drag, the busiest half-mile of shopping in Rockbridge County before the Maury jumped its banks in 1969, and again in 1985.

Scattered all about are the houses of the working men and women who have stayed put through a century best summarized by the title of a 1992 history: “Buena Vista: The Bud Not Yet Bloomed.”

The town’s best-known structure, the symbol of its past glory and future possibilities, isn’t down there in the neat grid of streets, but on campus. Main Hall is a riot of Romanesque arches and domed towers and gingerbread porches. Opened as a hotel in 1890, empty soon after, it was sold to a private women’s college for 8 cents on the dollar.

Southern Seminary, or “Southern Sem,” was a blend of finishing school and junior college that catered to young ladies fond of horses; many boarded their own animals in Sem’s stables.

The college kept a list of local boys deemed worthy of its girls; all others were off-limits. “It was like a nunnery,” said Shewey, who arrived from Pennsylvania as a Sem student in 1946, and is now Buena Vista’s registrar. “You went nowhere without your hat, your gloves.”

By the 1990s, demand for a two-year ladies’ college had waned. Sem’s owners renamed it Southern Virginia College and opened the doors to men, but few applied. In 1996 the school foundered. It lost its accreditation. Its enrollment slipped to 60.

Salvation arrived: the Mormons.

Unlike Brigham Young University, Southern Virginia is not owned by the LDS church. A consortium of prominent Mormons took over the school without the approval or help of the church itself. The investors assumed Southern Virginia’s debts, hired a new president, and imported a mostly Mormon faculty committed to operating a school of high morals, as well as brows.

“We really believed in what we were doing,” recalled Robert E. Huch, who headed a Farmville hospital when he was recruited to the school’s management team, and is now an SVU vice president. “We felt we really had a good market, in terms of a school that ascribed to LDS values.”

The math did look good. About 80,000 Mormon kids graduated from American high schools each year. Only a fraction won spots at BYU’s crowded main campus in Provo, Utah, or its satellites in Idaho and Hawaii. No Mormon-based schooling was available east of the Mississippi.

The college reopened that fall with just 76 students. “It was scary,” said Fawson, who arrived as a vice president in 1998. “It was a real challenge. But I saw this as an opportunity to take a university that was just starting, just growing, and shape the foundation of what could become a very fine liberal arts school.”

Many in town encouraged the new owners and found the students a likeable bunch. “There’s just nothing neater than life going on around you, and kids that are happy walking around, and that’s what I see on the hill,” Shewey said. “I’d say for the majority of the people, we’re grateful to see lights on in that building.”

“They pay their rent good, and I have no trouble,” said landlord Robert Davis.

“These kids are very well-behaved,” said Daphne Roberts, who works for an Italian restaurant on Magnolia Avenue. “Those girls, when it was Southern Sem, would party. They’d come into town and cause all sorts of trouble.”

The school’s ownership made some in town nervous right off the bat. Put in simplest terms, the church supplements the Old and New Testaments with the teachings of a series of American prophets, chief among them a 19th-century New Yorker named Joseph Smith Jr. Mormons believe that Smith unearthed a cache of enscribed gold plates near Palmyra, N.Y., and was blessed with the means to translate them.

The resulting Book of Mormon is a foundation of the LDS faith, and a lightning rod for fundamentalists who view Smith as a fake. The church has drawn ire on other counts, too, especially its early and well-publicized reliance on polygamy.

Mormons are accustomed to cool receptions. Church history is rife with them — in Kirtland, Ohio, and Independence and Far West, Mo., all of which they fled, and Nauvoo, Ill., where Joseph Smith was killed by a mob, and his followers launched an exodus over mountain and prairie to the shore of the Great Salt Lake.

“We don’t let it bother us,” Huch said. “It’s part of our heritage.”

Word spread of the “BYU East” taking root in the Virginia mountains. Two years ago enrollment topped 400. A year ago, the campus achieved university status. Today SVU is twice the size Southern Sem achieved in its glory years.

With success have come new tests, however. This is an old campus. Its furniture is worn, its plumbing cranky. Tens of thousands of books can’t be shoehorned into the library. The swimming pool is little bigger than many backyard models.

“We have to grow in order to maintain viability,” Huch said. “That is absolutely clear: Southern Sem closed, really, because it failed to do that.”

City officials soon realized they had no plan for hosting such growth. The need was critical in the neighborhood of modest homes wedged between the present campus and The Dinky, much of it already owned by the university. Without a strategy, city planner Shiflett said, Buena Vista faced “a big nightmare uncontrolled-growth scenario.”

Buena Vista hosted several informal neighborhood meetings. The outcome was a proposal for new zoning on the hilltop. Unlike most, the plan would ride herd on the design of properties, rather than the use to which they are put — affording the university flexibility while ensuring that the character of the area won’t be blotted out by mammoth institutional architecture.

The informal meetings gave way to public hearings, and to new and louder complaints. About taxes, for one thing — SVU property is tax-exempt, by state law — and, inevitably, about the owners.

“People aren’t too smart, at times, and they don’t say very nice stuff, at times,” observed Pastor McCoy, “and I guess some of the meetings have gotten pretty acrimonious.”

Dadson, the city manager, said he doesn’t believe most citizens feel any ill will toward the school, its owners or students. It’s just that “being from here is very important to these folks,” he said.

Indeed, when Barbara A. van Kuiken decided to run for City Council last spring, the assistant professor of chemistry faced one opponent whose platform was that he was born in Buena Vista. He won.

A Sunday night, and most of the student body is crowded into the local Mormon church for a “fireside” with Bishop Richard C. Edgley, who’s been beamed in by satellite from Provo and onto a screen set up near the pulpit.

The students are silent, their attention fixed, as Edgley delivers advice to cheer the heart of any parent. He tells them: “We don’t have to fall into Satan’s trap of immorality, sexual experimentation, inappropriate music, and you know the rest.”

He tells them: “Self-reliance is and always has been a sacred obligation and an important principle of the Gospel.”

He urges that they prepare for a righteous future with a righteous present. “Indeed,” he says, “you stand at a crossroads of eternal consequences.”

When the lights come up, the students dutifully venture into the chilly mountain night for the half-mile hike to campus. Buena Vista slumbers around them, offering no hints of its coming reinvention.

But the next boom may not be far off, now. The City Council held a public hearing on the new zoning on Nov. 14, and is expected to approve the plan, in one form or another, early next year. Once that happens, SVU will be able to draw plans and start raising money for its expansion.

In the meantime, the university has converted Sem’s old riding stables into a fine basketball arena, which will enable it to hold home games and draw fans, mostly Mormon fans, to town. It is launching an intercollegiate football program next year, its teams playing on a discarded high school field beside the Maury. Officials expect the team to boost enrollment and attract crowds.

The growing school will bring new people, and new money — Rockbridge County’s nonstudent Mormon population has roughly doubled since the LDS takeover — and land values, already up 23 percent, will continue to rise.

With the Mormons’ help, Buena Vista’s bud may finally bloom.

Back on campus, the students mill about the Main Hall’s lobby, neatly dressed, chatting quietly beneath old portraits of stern-looking Southern Sem officers.

A gas log burns in the fireplace. Above it, carved into the mantel, is an inscription from the Sem days, one that reads like wishful thinking as Southern Virginia strives to make peace with its neighbors: “God rest you all that linger here.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday December 10, 2002.
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