“Student Power for a Library” was first published in The Way We Are (1992).
It is rare for news from a small liberal arts college to make the national wire services. In 1969, positive news from a campus was even more phenomenal. Across the country, campus disruptions protesting President Nixon’s continued involvement in Vietnam blazed in the headlines. But at EMC, early in December, another kind of “student power” let loose. A mobilized student body brought in $111,000 in four days to launch a building that is now the Sadie Hartzler Library.
A sense of crisis precipitated a weekend drive. EMC needed a new library. Only a fifth of the students could elbow into the existing one, and the overflow volumes were stashed in eight different centers in five buildings on campus.
But a lack of funds threatened the project. Receiving a $388,500 federal grant hinged on matching it by December 11. A year before, the trustees had wisely stipulated that $400,000 cash be kept on hand to supplement the grant before the $1.4 million contract would be signed.
Bruce A. Yoder (C72), then SGA President, recalls that on the morning of Thursday, December 4, the new library was fast disappearing, but a Spirit-led strategy fell into place when the deep faith of Campus Pastor, Truman Brunk, met the determination of Everett Ressler (HS64, C70), student leader of Campus Church, and fired the commitment of Beth Eby (C71) Weber and the media acumen of Stuart Showalter (C67), public relations director. Late Thursday, after meetings with the administration, faculty and student resident assistants, plans were laid for a last-ditch, all-out drive, climaxing in a Monday night auction.
At the close of a Friday chapel, shared by two firebrands of service, Orie O. Miller and Paul Erb, Pastor Brunk challenged students to continue their dedication by raising as much as they could in three days. “We need to put our faith into action. I have the faith to believe that God is going to give us this $111,000 by Monday night.” Bruce Yoder announced that already 2,400 meals were being skipped to redirect meal money to the cause, and that students were being excused from classes to seek funds. This kick-off lit the students’ fire.
After chapel, the dozens of ideas presented started crackling into action. Some students headed home for money from family and friends. Many called and asked their pastors to take an offering on Sunday. Others set up baking teams at faculty homes. Every dorm oven baked continuously. Students solicited door to door, and two music groups, “The Optimists” and “Rebirth,” sang downtown for contributions. A Saturday morning article in the local press, written in faith by Showalter when plans were still ideas, alerted the community to the bake sale, an auction and a telethon.
At a receiving station set up in the lobby of the Administration Building, a large crepe paper thermometer tracked donations. Beginning with $9,000 on Friday evening, the red chalk line moved upward with Christmas bulbs lighting up the latest total. One hundred fifty students brought in money during the Saturday work day. After its basketball game, EMHS donated the gate receipts, and a college chorale concert dumped its offering into the coffers.
While students ingeniously raised money, even charging admission to the bathroom, faculty mimicked G. Irvin Lehman’s (HS 33, TY 35) offer to search his attic for treasures to donate to the auction. By 10:10 p.m. Saturday, contributions topped $25,000 with the largest, $5,000, coming from Orie Miller, who had witnessed the initial student enthusiasm in chapel.
Sunday, responses poured in from churches. AP and UPI stories flashed the word as far away as Japan while Ressler and Showalter fed reporters updates. Hundreds of sacrificial decisions slowly raised the Christmas lights to ladder-height. At midnight, students cheered when the thermometer hit the $50,000 mark.
On Monday at 6 p.m., a crowd of 4,000 gathered in the gym to bid on the 2,000 donated items that students had gathered and tagged for a marathon auction. Antiques, guitars, motorcycles and souvenirs from world-wide trips were snapped up by buyers. Students bid competitively for their friends’ possessions, often against borrowed funds. Some secretly pooled their money to buy an 1893 cello that had been donated by Professor John Horst (C60). They then surprised the owner by returning it.
A carload of students had brought 200 pounds of Swiss cheese and $200 worth of ham from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where they had also collected $2,700 in less than 18 hours. For more than seven hours, the students bid, dug deeper and cheered. Whenever another $1,000 was added to the fund, they rang a dinner bell that had been brought to be auctioned. The audience rallied in applause.
At close to 2 a.m., President Augsburger excitedly put the bell on the auction block. Bidding for students who had agreed to buy it for the school, Everett Ressler took the price to $800, the needed amount to surpass the $111,000 goal. When the president cried, “Sold!” the walls almost came down with frenzied cheers. Now an international consultant on emergency assistance, Ressler points out that “no one orchestrated the weekend. It was a massive movement, a community action that has been added to so many times since by continuous giving.”
When the Board of Trustees met on Tuesday, the total had reached $1,067,000. Checks had arrived from people who first learned of EMC through the weekend news blitz. One person gave five $400 checks, perhaps because five different students asked for a donation. At the signing of the library contract in chapel, Sam Shrum of the Nielsen Construction Company proffered a $1,000 check if someone would wash his dirty car. A student piped up, “Not only a wash but a wax job as well.” As events were shared and efforts praised, applause broke out 38 times. Most moving was the standing ovation that the board of trustees on the platform gave the student body.
In the president’s closing prayer he took the experience beyond fund-raising, asking that it be “a symbol to a society caught in tensions, that we can help one another become a better people, that we live unselfishly.” Singing “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow” celebrated God’s pivotal place in the marathon fund-raiser.
On this one occasion in the college’s 75 years, all America glimpsed the inspiring spirit of Eastern Mennonite. More than a hundred newspapers in 32 states and many TV and radio stations covered the event. Two papers called the weekend phenomenon “refreshing campus furor” and “happy campus uproar.” The mayor of Harrisonburg awarded the students a citation for “their industry and ingenuity, their creative and constructive conduct and their high spirit and noble purpose …” The event appeared in a subsequent National Geographic article on the valley. Ressler credits the chemistry of those five day to “the feeling in the Seventies that things could be done if we put our shoulders to the wheel.”