Minister to university leads first chapel service of his final year at alma mater
Baldwin City, Kan. — An ordained Methodist minister in the Kansas East Conference of the United Methodist Church since 1971, Ira DeSpain split his career in half, serving churches and a university — his university. He returned to his alma mater in 1992 as Minister to Baker University after being a pastor of churches in rural, urban and suburban settings.
"There were some adjustments," DeSpain recalled of the transitioning 21 years ago to university ministry. "Of course, there are the similarities of experiencing human joy, human misery, helping people in the midst of crisis and leading worship. The difference I noticed the most is that when people go to church it is because of the religious activity. At a school, the central reason students are there is to go to school, and the religious life is an added bonus."
DeSpain's time serving his alma mater is coming to a close. In May DeSpain announced that he would retire at the end of the 2013-2014 academic year. His ties to Baker run deep. Born in nearby Ottawa, Kan., shortly before his parents, Warren and Marion, completed their college education at Baker in the late 1940s, DeSpain graduated in 1970 from Baker. He and his high school sweetheart, Barbara, a 1971 Baker graduate, were married before his senior year. Their children, Jennifer (Class of 1998) and Daniel (Class of 2001), are Baker alumni, and Daniel's wife, Alisha, is a 2001 graduate.
With his 65th birthday approaching this fall and his wife retired as a school counselor, Ira had been planning on 2013-2014 being his final year. His last day will be June 30, 2014.
"It is time for Barb and me to go on to the next phase of our life together," said Ira, who plans to spend a lot of time with his four grandchildren.
Baker's first worship service of the academic year was held earlier today. DeSpain plans to share his top 28 personal messages weekly throughout the year.
Baker President Pat Long, who also will retire in June, will have worked with DeSpain for eight years.
"Ira has impacted countless lives in the churches he has pastored and here at Baker," Baker President Pat Long said. "Baker's United Methodist heritage is paramount to this institution, and he has been a wonderful embodiment of our founders' vision and mission. For years he has filled the beautiful Osborne Chapel and entire University community with love and a faithful spirit."
Counting his four years as a Baker student, DeSpain will have spent 26 years on the Baldwin City campus by the time he leaves on June 30, 2014. He was raised in Chicago, where his father was a Methodist minister, before arriving at Baker as a freshman in the fall of 1966.
"For me as an only child I needed to have some miles between me and my parents," recalled DeSpain, who majored in communication before receiving a master's from the St. Paul School of Theology and a doctorate from Southern Methodist's Perkins School of Theology. "Baker was a good place to achieve that. I had been in church all the time growing up, and I took time off from things religious during college. As it turns out, God's call was persistent and I had a strong urge to be in ministry."
DeSpain is Baker's second campus minister. His predecessor held the position for three years.
"When I arrived there were some discussions as to why this position was necessary," he recalled. "I don't think people question that so much any more. I think we have become part of the fabric of the school."
Before the Osborne Chapel became a part of the campus setting in the mid-1990s, DeSpain led weekly worship services at McKibbin Recital Hall. The story behind the chapel moving stone by stone from the village of Sproxton, England, and the dedication ceremony in October 1996 by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose father had preached in the building, rank among DeSpain's fondest memories in the past two decades.
"I enjoy giving tours, and I love telling the chapel story," he said. "People always seem thankful to hear it. As unique and historic that the chapel is, a job that I hold sacred is to make sure is that it never becomes a museum. It is a living, breathing place of worship, a place for students to clarify their values. It is the central core to my mission."
DeSpain will always remember how the chapel has been a comforting gathering place in times of national tragedy, including the 9-11 attacks, the Matt Shepard beating, Columbine and Virginia Tech, and also after a Baker student has passed away.
"Those have been profound experiences for me," he said. "I will never forget any of those things."
He will also remember the times students, faculty and staff have graciously thanked him for offering words of encouragement and praying together.
"I remember walking into the stadium for a football game, a student tells me her father had a heart attack and she asks, 'Can we pray?'" DeSpain recalled. "We held hands and prayed. For some reason, she felt the connection in a time like that to be important."
Other special memories include annual alternative spring break trips to Gulf Shores, Ala., and directing the Wildcat pep band with his special version of the "YMCA," a Village People classic.
DeSpain also relishes presiding over weddings. He has officiated at hundreds of weddings for Baker alumni as traveled out of state to such locations far away as Greeley, Colo., Cincinnati and San Diego to unite couples.
"Each one of the ceremonies is like a class reunion and never gets old," said DeSpain, who officiated at the ceremonies for both of his children at First United Methodist Church in Baldwin. "I can't describe the feeling of standing a foot from two people when they commit to each other for life. It's deeply moving and very spiritual for me."