Reflections from the life of a former head of theology
Reflections from colleagues revealed an often humorous human side to former Avondale theology head Dr Desmond Ford during his memorial service in March.
Former departmental heads Drs Laurie Draper (science) and Trevor Lloyd (education) joined then Theology Department secretary Gwen Maharaj and friend and former Dean of Women Joan Patrick to share stories about their friend.
Moderator Dr Lynden Rogers asked:
Laurie, what are your first memories of Des?
In 1950, the residents of Haskell Hall were rostered to take dormitory worships. Usually they simply read from the daily Morning Watch devotional. But one student was different. He presented biblical concepts I’d never heard before, those of salvation assurance and righteousness by faith. As a young adult, I’d feared the close of probation and the possibility of an unconfessed sin. I thank Des for introducing me to the gospel and, over the next 69 years, extending my love of it.
Gwen, you must be one of few who’ve gone cruising with the Fords. How did this happen?
In January 1961, I boarded the Arcadia in Suva on my way to begin the Bible instructor’s course at Avondale. Who should be on board, in transit back from the United States, but the Ford family. Later, I found myself as the only female among 10 or so young men in a biblical theology class. Des, the lecturer, helped me manage the rather obvious gender imbalance. We all found his classes inspirational and enlightening—they always ended too soon.
Trevor, you came to Avondale soon after Des. Did you find him hard to get to know?
No. In my first year, and within several weeks of lectures beginning, Des invited me to lunch—half way up One-Tree Hill overlooking Cooranbong. He was baching at the time and I was still a bachelor, but the meal was a banquet i have long remembered—wholegrain gems with prunes from a can, followed by fresh Granny Smith apples. On the strength of it, we walked the mountain trails in animated conversation all afternoon.
Joan, Des invited your late husband Arthur to join the Theology Department, and you all forged a strong friendship.
Picnics up in the Watagan mountains on Sabbath helped. As the afternoon wore on, Des would invariably set off for a walk and those who were fit would join him. It always seemed as the walk gained speed, so did the talk.
Trevor, how would you describe Des’ relationship with the student body?
I joined the students on the Jacaranda editorial team as faculty adviser in 1965. They were in no doubt about to whom they should dedicate the yearbook. Of Des they wrote, “A life lived amongst us / As one of us / For all of us.”
Laurie, you lived on Sandy Creek near the Fords and remember Des riding to work along the bush track past your house.
It was usually about 5 am on a bicycle with a very rattly mudguard that badly irritated our little dog, who invariably chased him out of range along the track.
Gwen, what did you learn about Des while working for him?
I made appointments for students who wished to speak with Des. I was told to allow just 15 minutes. Often Des would take the students for a walk and talk. They’d complain about getting breathless keeping up. It may have been one of Des’ ploys to keep appointments short. Des also used to answer questions in Signs of the Times magazine. The editorial team was always pressuring him for an updated photo, and he got sick of it. One day, I was told to cut his photo out of the latest Jacaranda and post that to Warburton.
Trevor, how far beyond Bible classes was Des’ influence felt on campus?
Des played a leading part in the encouragement of a vibrant tone across the college. He enriched our lives with his fine scriptural exegesis and life applications. Students would gather for Friday evening vespers after a tiring week and be exhilarated and spiritually refreshed.
Laurie, there were areas of life in which Des was certainly not an expert.
True. He had little interest in motorcars but was eventually forced to purchase a second-hand one to replace his ageing bicycle. Shortly afterwards, he was asked by some staff members what make of car he’d bought. He said, “I’m not sure—a Ford? No, I’m not sure. What are the names of some others?” And I can’t recall a time when Des expressed any interest in politics. It was a different matter if you mentioned Cyrus or the King of the North.
How would you describe Des’ legacy to Seventh-day Adventism?
There was a real hunger in the church for the “good, glad and merry tidings which make the heart to sing and the feet to dance” and Des’ meetings were invariably packed out. His legacy is a church that now enjoys much more salvation assurance.
Our tributes to Des
Preacher of good news
Des’ focus was always on God’s love and grace, the good news of the gospel. The only sermon I clearly remember from my childhood was by Des when he was still a theology student. He spoke about the book of Esther in which God’s leading and providence pervade the story in dramatic fashion, although God’s name is never mentioned. It still seems to me a metaphor for daily living.—Dr Lyn Behrens, Former President, Loma Linda University
Disciplined but fun
I first met Des as a student in his theology classes. I was awed by his erudition, rapid-fire discourse and disciplined ways. When I later worked with him, Des always treated me as an equal. And he was fun to be with. Des had an unconfined freedom in laughter—replete with much striking of fist in palm and slapping of knee—making it hard to not succumb. Once I sat opposite him in a suburban train and feigned nonchalance while he munched noisily on a bag of carrots—juice flying! Few could match Des’ powers of self-regulation, yet he never made them a rule for others. The grace of God was Des’ ruling theme and controlling purpose.—Pr Ron Allen, Former Pastor, Good News Unlimited
Teacher who made profound, positive impact
When Des preached the gospel, grace broke through like a burst of sunshine on a bleak winter’s day. He was my Bible teacher at Avondale, and subsequently my dear friend for more than 50 years. His teaching on righteous by faith had a profound and positive impact on the thinking of Seventh-day Adventists worldwide. We shall not see his like again.—Pr John Carter, President, The Carter Report
I remember the public banter between Des and Bob Parr, Adventist Record’s ebullient editor, during much of the 1970s. Once Des wrote in, accusing Bob of having mis-spelt “eschatological.” Bob came back next issue in quick riposte. “Well, that will teach Dr Ford not to mumble.”—Dr Lynden Rogers, Head of Science, Avondale College of Higher Education
Des was my husband John’s dearest friend, and Gwen, his first wife, my roommate at Avondale. We shared our early years of ministry and became lifelong friends. Des wrote to John almost every week for the five years of John’s nursing home care, and when he visited he would lie on the bed near John, sharing his pain. Des and John had an agreement: whoever died first would be buried by the other. Des preached his last sermon in Cooranbong at John’s funeral.—Dr Mary Trim, Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Avondale College of Higher Education