How Southwestern Saved My Life

How Southwestern Saved My Life

Frank Knittel in 1944

I did not first come to the Southwestern campus as a willing student.  In fact, I was defiant in my insistence that I not come here and secretly planned to sneak away some dark night and go elsewhere.  Providence ruled otherwise. I was barely into my teens when I came to Southwestern Junior College in order to finish high school.One morning a friend of ours who was a sales representative for the Southwestern Junior College broom factory came by our house and offered to take me to Keene within the hour. He and my father—who knew my desire to come to this campus was right up there with swallowing a sword—had designed this immediate destiny for me.

So here I came together with a large box holding my few belongings. And when our dean of men Ivan Crowder assigned me to my room and informed me I would have to sleep in the same bed with a roommate, my desolation turned to pure horror.

I was barely a teenager, so was far too young—according to governmental regulations—to be assigned a job in any industry, so my fate was to work on the farm, a position even more horrendous than sleeping with a bed partner.  Put it all together, in my mind, my life had taken one more gigantic negative turn.

A Skewed View of Ellen White

You see, up to that point my life had been thoroughly dredged with my mother’s view of Ellen White. By Mother’s version of Ellen White’s standards I was obviously a lost soul. The best which could have been said for me was that I kept my turmoil within myself and dreamed of the day when I could be a normal human being who certainly believed in God despite my obviously iniquitous bent.

I wrestled with the great mystery of 1844, that year which, according to Mother, was the beginning of the process when living souls were being judged, and hosts of people subsequently were already doomed to perdition because their probation had already been closed, and God would no longer enter their lives. This was all mixed up with the Lisbon earthquake, the Falling of the Stars, and the imminent passage of Sunday laws under the influence of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The summer I turned twelve, my parents offered to give me a dollar for every book I read cover to cover written by Ellen White. I was an extremely rapid reader and yearned for every penny I could get. Therefore, within the previous summer prior to my coming to Keene I had read all of the Testimonies and all the Conflict of the Ages series. The strange but decided fact was that what I read was totally unlike what I had been led to believe about that woman. I read about a woman of compassion and reason. Within my heart there surged the determination to find God in that  reasonable fashion, and I felt that coming to this school would only be a replay of what I come to abhor.

I go into this bit of my history, because it is germane to what is happening today. I want you to know that given the social, political, and religious turmoil in our world today—in our nation, if you please—many young people coming to this campus from religiously oriented homes have some or all of the turmoil which surged in my soul when I landed here.

The Turners

My first day on the job, the farm manager Joshua Turner assigned me to clean the Johnson grass out of the little college vineyard.  The heat was beastly, and a couple of hours later Mr. Turner came by.

“Do you like farm work?”  he asked.

“No, I don’t.”

He looked at me sharply and then abruptly commanded, “Well, then follow me.”

I knew, of course, I would be fired.  He led me to the Turner home a block or so away, ushered me into the house where his wife sat sewing, and said, “Mother, here is a boy who would like a piece of your apple pie with ice cream on top.”

I was stupefied, especially when for the next hour they both talked to me—an utter stranger—about my goals, aspirations, and my feeling about God.

That was the beginning of a change. No teacher had ever reached into my soul like Joshua and Winnie Turner did until the end of their lives. But more surprises were yet to come.

Setting the Preacher Straight

Shortly after the school year began, we had the fall week of prayer. A highly distinguished man of our church was the speaker for the week. In the first of his daily chapel presentations he portrayed the sad lot of all the people all around us who daily had come up for judgment after 1844 and whose probation had already closed.  And many of those doomed people did not know it.

One could almost feel the electricity crackling among the students, especially when we were reminded that “not one in twenty” of our church was ready to face God. I was shattered. My worst fears about the school had just been ratified. I surreptitiously looked around the auditorium and wondered just who the doomed students were.  Maybe some were faculty!

Our Bible Doctrines class came immediately after chapel, and a more somber and anxious group could not have been found. The teacher, Ivan Crowder, faced a barrage of questions. He did not try to answer the questions at first.  Rather, he listened and then turned and looked out the window and stood there silent for a long time, while we silently waited expectantly for his response. Then he faced us again, and with tears streaming down his face, said firmly, “I don’t believe one single word of it.”

And the change in my heart which had begun with a piece of apple pie topped with ice cream—but was almost killed by a misdirected chapel talk—was resurrected by a man with a soul; a man, who together with the whole school made a change in my life.

The remainder of the week of prayer talks that fall took a decided change.  The rumor was that President H.H. Hamilton had a decisive talk with our week of prayer guest and threatened to stop the session unless the tone was totally averted. Despite the poor start of the week, I learned much which stirred my heart.

The Great Fire of 1944

Then, the men’s residence hall burned down on January 3, 1944 and took with it every square inch of everything I owned. I was one of only a dozen boys who had stayed on campus during the Christmas break.

A couple of days before Christmas vacation was to start, a boy came down with scarlet fever and thus had to go home. The dorm had been largely evacuated two or three days early for Christmas break. This ill boy’s room was adjacent to mine on the second floor.  The Friday before the Sunday fire the rooms on either side of the ill boy’s room were fumigated, and this meant I had to leave everything I owned in my room while I spent Friday and Saturday nights in the room of a boy downstairs. I was even wearing his borrowed clothing.

My own upstairs room was six feet from the trash chute through which the flames roared from the ceiling, so I had no chance to save anything. I don’t remember where we slept Sunday night; my guess is the college library. I did manage to hurriedly drag out much of the clothing in the room where I slept, but had nothing of my own. I could not even get up the stairs to my room.

What astounded me was the massive emptying of a large campus building which I believe had once been a dorm but had been turned into an apartment building for campus employees such as unmarried teachers and other workers. Those great people rallied around us boys, and within a couple of days had evacuated their tiny apartments and moved to where I know not.  What I do know is that within two or three days I learned more about human compassion than I ever knew before.

My total assets consisted of one toothbrush and one tube of toothpaste, which I had with me in the temporary room. Standing there Sunday morning in the darkness and rain, I decided to borrow some clothes for three weeks, finish the semester, take my exams, and leave. I would go to Texas Tech near our home and start over. Suddenly Marie Anderson was at my side.

“I desperately need you!” she exclaimed. What she needed was someone to help her get the library reorganized as an open study hall for the boys the rest of the year. Out in the rain she and President Hamilton had already made that decision. During that first semester, I had taken a class from Marie Anderson in library science, and she wanted me to be the library study hall monitor.  My taking the job would constitute my final examination in the class and would finalize my A. Her benevolence saved me from disaster.

She was my salvation. The evening study hall was a paying job. I could study while I monitored, and that extra income was my redemption for the rest of the year. Moreover, the school did the unthinkable and advanced me five dollars cash for absolute necessities.  Marie Anderson and all those others of her character will throughout eternity be in my revered hall of fame.

Help at Graduation Time

When graduation time came, I received a college statement revealing I owed some money. That meant I could graduate, but could not participate in the marching or the formal graduation exercises. That was a blow, since I was the class president and was scheduled to make a little speech. Then three days before graduation Mr. Robinson, the college accountant, came to my room and informed me there had been a correction, and my account had been cleared.  I later came to understand some of my teachers had a part in all of that.

I had two years of college here before going to Union for my junior and senior years.  After graduation from Union College I applied for admission to the graduate school of the University of Minnesota. I imagined I would rate low on the qualifying exam since my college background represented two small colleges. To my astonishment I was informed that on the basis of the examination, I was advised to bypass the M.A. and go directly into the Ph.D. program.  Moreover, the graduate school awarded me two hours of doctoral credit in my major without my attending a class or paying for that credit.

I came to this campus disillusioned, angry, and spiritually adrift. I submit that hosts of students just like I was still come here. I also suggest that many parents have no inkling of the confusion of their own children. But I further know that the eager caring of those who staff this university today parallels all that I encountered on these premises many years ago.  This school with its caretakers of all kinds is a symbol of the divine.  It rests in the hands of God, despite what some may occasionally label as lapses or errors.

Most faculty and staff would not be at Southwestern or have any connection with the church were it not for days and years spent here or in like schools of all grade levels. Holding this school in your hearts is the surety of life now and hereafter for hosts of tremulous students and parents.


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  1. Diane Cotton
    May 25, 20:50 Reply
    Frank, It was so good to hear your story and know that you are well. I remember my Granny and "Dadow" speaking highly of you and what a treat it was when we went to visit Aunt Orene and you were visiting also. Even greater was the visits when your family would come to our house in Plainview. You were one of the role models held up to me as I was growing up. I did go on to get my college education and even a Masters in Education. Thank you for your influence in my life.
  2. Eric Michaelson
    May 26, 00:19 Reply
    This a a great story and I am currently a student at Southwestern and can say that the faculty and staff members are very great and helpful just like Frank had mentioned in this article!
  3. Eddie Burnett
    June 22, 19:41 Reply
    Francis, what a pleasant surprise to know you are alive and kicking and able to produce such a warm, "real", article. From a friend of long ago who was right with you when this all happened. Warmly, Eddie
  4. Andre Reis
    November 08, 04:40 Reply
    Dear Dr. Knittel, I read an old article of yours in Spectrum Magazine about the Great Controversy Billboards in the 90's in Florida. In the last page you say: "Even that oft-quoted passage on page 588 - that in the time of the end apostate Protestantism would grasp the hand of spiritualism... - was first penned by someone else." I would like to know if you have the reference from the other author who first wrote this. I've been searching about this for a long time ever since I read your article. Thanks for any help you may give. My email is areis74 at gmail . com.

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