Remembering Jon Wallace

by Nathan Foster

To honor the legacy that Jon Wallace left behind at Azusa Pacific University is to remember the ways in which he impacted the lives of students.

As a reporter for ZU News, APU’s student newspaper, I had the privilege to interview Jon twice. In just two conversations, he made an indelible impact on my life. When I heard of his passing, I thought back to those interviews. During both, it felt as though he was interviewing me instead of the other way around.

As a freshman, I had summoned up all the courage I could muster to ask my former editor-in-chief if I could take the “J. Dubs” story. I was a sports reporter, but I knew I wanted to be more. I remember waking up that morning and chugging two cups of coffee because I didn’t want to look tired in front of the president. Then I got super jittery and began to worry that I wouldn’t be able to sit still for the 30-minute interview. When I first walked into Jon’s office, he shared that he had read some of my work. I was surprised, honored, and relieved all at once, and I forgot my other concerns. Jon had that effect on people. He knew that as a leader, it helps to live like a servant and not be bigger than anyone else in the room.

He broke the tension by making fun of me, a rookie reporter interviewing the most important man on campus.

“So I’ve read some of your articles,” he said. “It looks like you cover mostly sports. They sent the sports guy to interview me, huh?”

“Yes, sir. I do write mostly sports stories. But I also cover hard news and politics and I—”

“Can’t take a joke?” he laughed.

I laughed, too, realizing I had just been roasted by the president of my university. The interview quickly improved as Jon responded enthusiastically to my questions, using the opportunity to encourage students to engage politically.

Jon wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. He joined a number of Christian college presidents who sent a letter to the White House, concerning an executive order on immigration: “Many in our diverse communities come to our campuses on the shoulders of immigrants. Indeed, we all share pages in that American heritage of welcoming the vulnerable, extending hospitality, and inviting participation in the great experiment of these United States. … Scripture calls us to care for the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the refugee. It also urges us that we work with respect for the authorities of our nation with fidelity to our Christian identity. We contend that every person bears the image of God and deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.”

“Students need to express their voice and encourage conversation with their friends around issues that matter,” he said.

During his final years as president, Jon endured multiple bouts of cancer. At the end of the 2017-18 school year, he announced his decision to retire in a morning chapel. Thousands of students and alumni felt the shock of that announcement. Jon had led APU for nearly 20 years as president, and was as enthusiastic as ever when you bumped into him on campus. He still loved talking with students and meeting new friends around Cougar Walk, but after much discussion and contemplation with his wife of 45 years, Gail, and his family, he knew the time was right.

When I heard he was retiring, I wanted the chance to speak with him again. This time I was accompanied by my friend Brandon Rodriguez, the newspaper’s sports editor. Jon welcomed us into his office and proceeded to roast me for the second time in two interviews. As they both laughed at me, I began contemplating angles to take for the story, the biggest of my career.

How do you capture someone’s legacy? Is it the impact they had on an institution? Is it in the memory of the family they are blessed to call their own? Or is it in the advice dispensed from one generation to the next? That day, Jon told me something that had taken his whole life for him to truly learn. He had worked at the university for more than four decades, in a variety of areas, including the cafeteria, campus security, the bookstore, and the print shop. Many career changes led Jon to the position of dean of students and eventually the presidency.

“I stayed at Azusa because I was continuously chosen,” he said. “When you’re chosen, it means that someone believes in you enough to let you fail.”

This stayed with me as I experienced the truth of his words firsthand. Just months later, I was chosen to lead the news staff of ZU News — something that I would fail at time and time again. Each failure was daunting. Each failure was bearable. I knew my faculty advisor still believed in me. I knew my staff wasn’t going to give up on me. I knew this because of what Jon told me.

I bet Jon failed, too. But that didn’t stop him from making an ineffable impression on thousands of students. That didn’t stop him from leading each Candela in the fall and speaking at Chapel each year. That didn’t stop a custodian from becoming president. Talking to Jon was like talking to an old friend. He embodied true servant leadership, a feat most are unable to achieve. You didn’t work beneath him; you worked alongside him. In the interview, Jon talked a lot about his faith, including his life verse, Galatians 2:20 (NRSV): “And it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” It is easy to be lost in sorrow in the wake of his passing, but I find solace in the thought of Jon being up there, making bread and greeting others with his trademark salutation. Shalom, Jon; go with God.

*To honor Jon’s remarkable life, leadership, and contribution to APU, the Wallace family established the Jon R. Wallace Endowed Scholarship with a significant initial gift. Consistent with Jon’s deep commitment to students and their ability to attend APU, this endowment will assist students with financial need who are committed to making a difference in the world through their APU education. The Wallace family requests that financial gifts in Jon’s memory be designated to this scholarship.

Nathan Foster is a freelance writer and teacher living in Nashville, Tennessee. [email protected]