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Jan 16

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Rethinking the Lon Morris Service of Remembrance

LMC Sign

Next weekend, Lon Morris College alumni plan to gather to say farewell to their alma mater. After nearly 150 years, the school closed its doors in August 2012 due to financial insolvency.

I began receiving word of a “final homecoming” shortly after Thanksgiving and almost immediately my friends and I began making plans to attend. The way we understood it, the “homecoming” weekend would be built around a ceremony held at a local church, which we figured would involve alumni and faculty paying tribute to the school, a perfect way to say goodbye to a place that had such a tremendous impact on our lives.

This morning I read a press release from the The Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church regarding the weekend that makes me question whether or not organizers planned this event for alums, or rather as a final P.R. opportunity for the Conference.

For those of you not familiar with the politics, the Texas Annual Conference acquired the College in 1875, when it was still known as Alexander Collegiate Institute, and claimed ownership of the College until the doors closed in August. Though not solely responsible, the Conference proved both apathetic and negligent in dealing with the College’s financial troubles and played a major part in the school’s ultimate demise.

Long touted as “an institution of the United Methodist Church,” the Conference began distancing itself from the school once bankruptcy proceedings began.

On September 27, 2012, the Longview News-Journal published, as a part of a Q&A series, a question from a reader regarding the relationship of Lon Morris and the Conference. As part of their response, the Journal provides quotes from Paula Arnold, a “spokesperson” for the Conference.

The Texas Annual Conference itself has no owenership,no authority to step in take over,” Arnold told the Journal.

While I’m not a corporate attorney, I am familiar enough with the school (and Methodist church) to know Ms. Arnold’s statements are definitely misleading. We can debate whether or not the Conference had “authority to step in,” but there is absolutely no debate over who owned the College.

In Lon Morris College’s Student Handbook 2010-2011, the publisher states in no uncertain terms, “Owned by the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, Lon Morris College seeks to provide leadership for today’s world.

Student Handbook

More recently, the Conference listed Lon Morris College under “Entities Owned by the Texas Annual Conference,” in the report On Earth as in Heaven: Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church 2012 Pre-Conference Journal:

2012 Pre Conference Journal

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Why then would a Conference spokesperson deny ownership?

It is the most recent in a series of puzzling moves by the Conference in respect to the College.

My first semester at Lon Morris news broke that then College President, Clifford Lee, had “ordered a change in his son’s transcript.” It embarrassed the students and outraged the local community, but Bishop J. Woodrow Hearn, acting as head of the Conference and as a trustee, gave Mr. Lee a vote of confidence. Mr. Lee remained in power and the Conference established a pattern of gross negligence in dealing with the school’s affairs.

Anyone remotely close to Lon Morris from the mid-90′s forward knew of the school’s financial woes, yet the Conference failed to enact any policies that might encourage fiscal restraint. Instead, by their inaction, they endorsed the plans of unsustainable spending and growth promoted by President, Dr. Mile McCall, which eventually led to the closing of the school and auctioning off of the property.

I find it a bit distasteful that the the Conference would hijack this event to use as an opportunity to promote their brand and attempt to restore their image in the East Texas  community. Indeed, inviting the Conference bishop, Ms. Janice Riggle Huie, to speak at the event would be the equivalent of inviting Ken Lay to speak at a gathering of former Enron employees.  Yet in this morning’s press release, I read that she will be presiding over the event.

I write not to dissuade those of you who find this type of service cathartic from attending, but rather to to reach out to the sizable portion of the Lon Morris alumni base that believe Lon Morris to be bigger than any ecclesial body, those of us who remember Lon Morris as a sanctuary we came to partake in the sacraments of college, rather than the sacraments of the Spirit. To you I say there are other ways of remembering and honoring the College than bowing down to kiss the ring of those responsible for her demise.

 

Permanent link to this article: http://geoausch.com/rethinking-the-lon-morris-service-of-remembrance/

8 comments

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  1. Keith Jenkins

    Josh, I admire your courage in speaking so boldly, and I share many of your frustrations with the way LMC was managed through the years, including but not limited to its relationship with the Texas Annual Conference. The truth is, from LMC administrators to LMC trustees to bishops and other Conference leaders, no one is without some share of blame for its demise. It could have continued to be a sanctuary for generations of future students like you, if those responsible for it had taken better care of it.
    I worked there 1990-1994, leaving just two months after Clifford Lee arrived. I started as Chaplain but was selected as Academic Dean in 1993. So I guess I predate your time there…but just barely.
    Anyway, I’m responding to let you know that I have served as a member of the planning group for the Farewell Service (not its official name, but that’s what I call it on the Facebook page I set up for it). While the event has not turned out exactly as I had envisioned it, I think it will still do honor to the memory of Lon Morris College and the memories of those who called it home. There were many different constituencies to be considered, beyond students/alumni and faculty/staff, so we should all expect the service to sound many different notes. But I assure you, it has not been hijacked by the Texas Annual Conference, and it isn’t intended to be a PR event.
    The idea of even having the service in the first place arose in Bishop Huie’s cabinet, and she was involved in efforts at the end to raise funds to pay employees’ unpaid back salaries and provide some kind of safety net for them when they were summarily fired, so naturally, she should have a role in it.
    Dr. John Ross will be involved, representing the faculty, and a recent student body president will also be involved, representing students. Dr. Ted Campbell, LMC alum and SMU/Perkins faculty member will be the main speaker, representing all alumni.
    Many student groups are planning and conducting their own last reunions in conjunction with the service.
    And finally, I am creating a slideshow of Lon Morris Memories with several hundred pictures from across the years, most of them submitted by LMC students, to help everyone remember what was most important about Lon Morris.

    1. Josh H. Ellis

      Keith,

      I understand and agree with a lot of what you say.

      As I mentioned in my post, when we were students at LMC, we knew the school was not being run properly. We tried to bring it to the attention of the administration, student body, Jacksonvile community, and the TAC, but we were young and had probably one high school journalism credit between the lot of us at the time. As a result, we made some mistakes in the way we chose to deal with some of the issues and were not taken seriously by those that mattered.

      Had we been a little more judicious in our approach, I think we could have forced a regime change and made a real, positive difference in the direction of the school.

      I guess that’s me accepting my slice of blame for the downfall of LMC.

      I do appreciate the hard work you’ve done in putting this event together. Also, appreciate your work as Chaplain at the school. I think I may have missed you by one year. My first year at LMC was the Rusty Watkins’ first year at that position. Rusty had a huge impact on every student’s life, including my own.

  2. Brenita Williams Jackson

    There is no telling what really happened at Lon Morris behind closed doors. I was a student from 2003-05 and payed basketball at LMC. I received a great opportunity to fulfill my dreams by starting at Lonnie Mo (as we called it). I also returned back in the fall of 2008 as a basketball coach and teacher. Things were very different then.

    There were a lot of things done without proper research or careful planning. When decisions were made that effected the students and employees, we were lied to. The truth is, we will never know the full story for what all went wrong. All I can say is I pray that God has mercy on the souls responsible for ruining thousands of people’s lives. That is a burden I could not near.

    I talk to several of the displaced students who are frustrated and some even depressed and try to encourage them. I also talk to former Co-workers who are still unemployed or had to take pay cuts just to survive. For me and my basketball program, it was absolutely devastating news especially the inhumane way they promised us we would have school in the fall, then a week later emailed us we were fired!

    It was a learning lesson for me and my husband and God has blessed us to move on and continue doing what we love. Please keep those students and former employees in your prayer that are still struggling. Lon Morris was the beginning for so many good people, so many students had remarkable memories and life changing events there. It was a good place for me and my friends as a student, and for my players that were able to begin fulfilling their dreams at Lon Morris.

    Remember to keep your faith. They took or jobs, our money (still owe us thousands of dollars), and our sense of security, but they couldn’t take our faith!

    1. Josh H. Ellis

      Brenita,

      Thanks for having the courage to share your story.

  3. Aren Cambre

    I am not a lawyer, but it’s my understanding that nobody can really “own” a nonprofit. A nonprofit is operated under the authority of, and ultimately responsible to, a board of trustees or something similar. It does not have shares or other instruments that would indicate ownership.

    For example, it’s said that the South Central Jurisdiction of the UMC “owns” Southern Methodist University. In fact, this “ownership” may be limited to the SCJ’s ability to appoint 21% of SMU’s Board of Trustees (http://smu.edu/trustees/) and veto power on any land acquisition or purchase (http://smu.edu/newsinfo/stories/library-statement-17july2008.asp).

    As Lon Morris College is its own corporate entity (https://ourcpa.cpa.state.tx.us/coa/servlet/cpa.app.coa.CoaGetTp?Pg=tpid&Search_Nm=lon%20morris%20&Button=search&Search_ID=17508006578), I guess that any Texas Annual Conference “ownership” may also be limited. It would be interesting to know what Lon Morris’s “ownership” by TAC really means.

    As a son of a Texas Conference UMC pastor, I remember annual apportionment campaigns, and one of the apportionment designees was Lon Morris College.

    1. Josh H. Ellis

      Thanks for commenting.

      By the strictest legal definition no one can own a non-profit entity. That’s one reason why the TAC was not personally liable for the College’s debt. What’s not debatable is that the Methodist Church acquired LMC in 1875 and served as the chief custodian of the school until its closing. I thought it was cowardly for them to distance from the school in the September press release I referenced.

  4. Aaron

    thanks for the well written opinion josh. it is hard for us all to deal with this, but i certainly appreciate your thoughtful dedication to the truth.

    1. Josh H. Ellis

      Thanks Aaron! I wish you could have made it to the “final homecoming.” Would have loved the chance to catch up with you.

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