I don’t normally save voicemails, but I kept this one. It was a message from Dr. Ganus. I had spoken in chapel that morning, and though he could not attend, he had watched the service on TV. In that familiar voice that was both deep and soft, he complimented me on my talk and added, “I just wanted to say ‘amen’ and glad you’re with us at Harding.” He signed off with a hope that he would see me soon, “maybe at a basketball game.”
That final part was a nod to the fact that for the last dozen years, Dr. Ganus and I sat in the same section during basketball season — right behind the bench. Every home game, he would climb into the stands, shake my hand, and say with a gleam in his eye, “I’m surprised to see you here.” Long after his knees had given out and he was forced to carry a cane, he still came for both the women’s and men’s games, watching the action with an eagle-eye.
During halftime, someone from the scoring table would bring him a printout with the stats from the first half — not that he needed it. Often, before he had even seen the sheet, he would lean over and say, “We only shot 12% from the three-point line.” As long as he was able, he would get up during the final seconds of the women’s game and make his way to the court to greet the players as they headed out. He knew every Bison and Lady Bison by name.
The most amazing thing is that he was that dedicated to many sports at Harding. He traveled for football games. He braved the afternoon sun during baseball season. Just last winter, he took the women’s softball team out for breakfast at IHOP.
I can’t tell you how hard it is to write about all this in the past tense.
Even someone who didn’t know Dr. Ganus would be amazed at his resume. Twenty-two years as Harding’s president. Twenty-six years as its chancellor. Fifty-four years as an elder at College Church of Christ. Seventy-six years as a loving husband. Ninety-seven years on this Earth. Father to Cliff, Debbie and Charles. Grandfather and great-grandpa many times over. And his passports were filled with stamps from 117 different countries.
Clifton Ganus Jr. came to Harding in 1939 as a freshman from New Orleans. Less than a minute after getting out of the family car, wearing a white suit, he met a fellow student from the small town of Strawberry, Arkansas, named Louise Nicholas. They were married the same day he graduated in 1943. “I got my bachelor’s and lost it the same day,” he often quipped.
After vowing he would never become a teacher, he returned in 1946 to teach Bible and history and never left. As the decades went by, it was stunning to think that he had taken Bible classes from Harding’s first president, J. N. Armstrong. He was a link to our past — he’s been called “the keeper of our story” — but he was just as interested in our present and future.
There are so many things to love about Dr. Ganus. He was an avid — and occasionally aggressive — player on the faculty flag football team. On four occasions, he took a 700-mile boat trip down the Mississippi River in a craft that he piloted himself. He went fishing in Alaska every August. He loved hamburgers, cashews, peanut brittle and catfish. Each year he sold tickets to a pancake supper to benefit the Lions Club, having been a member for 70 years. For over 30 years he spoke at the annual Bible lectureships in the Caribbean. He made frequent trips to Uganda to visit the Harding Christian Academy he helped establish. Well into his 90s he was still in high demand as a public speaker. At 96, he spoke in Dallas at the memorial for Botham Jean.
Harding grew significantly under his watch, and his tenure saw the transition from college to university, the construction of multiple campus buildings and the beginning of many academic programs. Yet no matter how large the school got, Dr. Ganus never lost his personal touch. Long after he had stepped down as president, he did his best to call each faculty and staff member on his or her birthday. Two months before he died, the No. 1 Bison fan called each of Harding’s coaches in to discuss the prospects for the season.
I once heard Dr. Howard Wright, one of the first African-American students at Harding, relate a tense moment on campus after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in 1968. A fight nearly broke out when black students wanted to lower the flag to honor Dr. King, and some white students taunted them. Dr. Wright never forgot what Dr. Ganus did in chapel that day. With gentle firmness, he said, “A great American has died, and we will lower the flag in his honor.”
For all his remarkable accomplishments, he was the least pretentious man you could meet. Humble, kind and unfailingly optimistic, he was devoted to God, to his family, and to the school that he loved. He lived in the same modest home for 58 years, wore old suits and gave money away. Once when he heard that a friend of mine couldn’t afford to travel to the basketball tournament in Oklahoma, a check for $500 appeared in the mailbox.
Dr. Ganus had a great sense of humor. When Dr. Bruce McLarty became Harding’s fifth resident, he asked the third executive what to expect. Dr. Ganus said, “The first year I slept like a baby . . . I woke up every two hours crying.” When he learned that I was related to computer science professor Scott Ragsdale, I jokingly said, “I try not to talk about it.” Without missing a beat, Dr. Ganus responded, “I haven’t heard him mention it, either.”
I don’t think he wasted a single hour of his 97 years. He loved life and lived it with gusto. I have often heard people say that they wanted to be Dr. Ganus when they grew up. You can count me in that group. It is hard to see him go. Dr. McLarty put it well when he said, “We had gotten used to him being invincible.” Fortunately, as Christians we know that he still is.