Presidents of Bethel College
When the doors to Bethel College opened in the fall of 1947, twenty-seven-year-old Woodrow I. Goodman, M.A. (Wheaton College), was the youngest college president in the United States. Under his watch, enrollment grew from 93 to 329 students. One of his priorities was the establishment of a department of education, and he also worked with the United Missionary Church to facilitate a campus development program that reached $1 million by 1959. Construction projects during his tenure included the all-purpose Huffman Administration building, an early Science Hall, the Helm, a gymnasium-auditorium (later named for him), and Shupe Residence Hall. Goodman was honored for his pioneering leadership by Taylor University (D.D., 1952), Houghton College (Lit.D., 1956), and Wheaton College. He later accepted the presidency of Marion College (today Indiana Wesleyan University), serving 1960-1976. Goodman was known by Bethel students in the 50's as "The Working President" since he worked alongside of students in the construction of a number of campus projects. His memoirs were published in 1992 as Bridge over the Valley. He was 86 when he died in Upland, California.
The Rev. Ray P. Pannabecker became the second president of Bethel College. A former pastor, he began at Bethel as its first business manager, while also teaching Bible, public speaking, and social studies. Before he took on the role as president in 1959, he served as a Missionary Church's district superintendent and editor of the denomination's publication, The Gospel Banner. As president, Pannabecker acquired 27 additional acres and built the Middleton Hall of Science, the Oakwood-Slater Residence Hall, and a maintenance building. Pannabecker also ushered in Bethel's intercollegiate athletic programs. In 1970, a revival sparked by the Holy Spirit moved students to pray in the auditorium for hours. The next year the college achieved full accreditation by the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. Pannabecker handed out 1,201 diplomas to graduates during his tenure. A friend to all on campus and many across Michiana, he visited Missionary Church congregations frequently with student Gospel Teams. Asbury Theological Seminary awarded him the Doctor of Divinity in 1964. Upon leaving office, he was named president emeritus; he then became the first director of services at the Missionary Church Headquarters in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He was also instrumental in the founding and development of Hubbard Hill Retirement Community and became its chaplain. He died in Elkhart, Indiana, at age 87.
The Rev. Albert J. Beutler, Ph.D. (Michigan State University), was the first alumnus to serve as president of Bethel College. Beutler came to campus in 1947 with the inaugural freshman class and graduated in 1951 with a degree in Biblical Literature and Psychology. Immediately following graduation, he became dean of students and dean of men, then also the school's first men's basketball coach in 1958. In 1966, he became Bethel's first Alumnus of the Year after leaving Bethel to become the dean of student services at Indiana University in South Bend. He would later return to Bethel to serve as the third president. Beutler is credited with constructing the Dining Commons and the Eastwood Apartments. In addition, he is responsible for eliminating operational debt, increasing assets by 60 percent, creating an associate's degree with 11 concentration areas and a master's degree in Christian education, as well as continuing Bethel's good rapport with the broader community. His doctoral dissertation recounts the early years of the school: "The Founding and History of Bethel College of Indiana." Beutler was twice named "Sagamore of the Wabash," first by Indiana governor Otis R. Bowen in 1979 and then by governor Robert D. Orr in 1985; he later became an administrator at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan.
James Allen Bennett, Ph.D. (Walden University), was Bethel's fourth president, serving the school faithfully for six years during a particularly challenging era. A 1961 graduate of Bethel with a degree in Theology, Bennett was a member of Bethel's board of directors from 1975 to 1980, serving as chair the last two. Then he was hired as Bethel's director of institutional advancement in 1980. As president, Bennett brought a number of changes to Bethel's campus, and the Otis and Elizabeth Bowen Library was built under his leadership, the first building in what became a distinctive new architectural style. He also enlarged the scope of the academic programs to meet the changing needs of the church and community, initiating a nursing, the Master of Ministries, and the Adult College programs for returning students. In 1986, the baseball team won the NCCAA I tournament, the first in a flood of national titles for Bethel College sports teams. After leaving the presidency, Bennett re-entered the pastoral ministry and helped further develop Prairie Camp.
A banker by profession, Walt L. Weldy gave invaluable guidance to Bethel as an interim president for one year during a period of financial duress. He had previously served on the Bethel board of directors in the early 1970s and also as the board treasurer. While serving as president, he maintained his private business and financial consulting firm in Wakarusa. Weldy was a firm believer that Bethel's central purpose was to teach, train, promote, and protect time-tested values such as faith in God and commitment to family, community, church, and country. His first action was to move the college toward a more solid financial foundation. In addition, he made sure the school's business and administrative obligations were met until a new president could be found.
Norman V. Bridges, Ph.D. (University of Michigan), guided Bethel College from a well-kept secret to national recognition during his presidency. He had graduated from Bethel with a B.A. in English Education magna cum laude in 1960, returning next to serve variously as dean of students, professor of history and education, and as vice president for administration (1966-1976). He was named Alumnus of the Year in 1975. As president, Bridges increased the annual operating budget from under $3 million to approximately $30 million. The school more than tripled in enrollment to some 1,850 students. More than 40 academic programs were added, with innovative majors such as sign language interpreting. The rising academic reputation boosted Bethel from fourth to first-tier rankings in U.S. News & World Report. Lasting changes occurred during periods of intense revival in 1991 and 1994. Landmark building projects included Founders Village, the Davidhizar Nursing Wing, the Dining Commons addition, the Everest-Rohrer Chapel/Fine Arts Center, the Taylor Memorial Chapel, the Shiloh Prayer Chapel, the Wiekamp Athletic Center, the Sailor Residential Center, the Miller/Moore Academic Center, the Jenkins Baseball Stadium, the Morey Soccer Field, and the Bethel Bookstore. Upon retiring from Bethel, Bridges was cascaded with honors, from the first Festschrift ever compiled for a Bethel academic, to "Sagamore of the Wabash" by Governor Joe Kernan of Indiana, to president emeritus of Bethel. He passed away at the age of 72 in Mishawaka, Indiana.
Steven R. Cramer, Ph.D. (Indiana State University), was inaugurated as Bethel's sixth president in 2004. A 1975 Bethel graduate in Music and its 2002 Alumnus of the Year, he worked for Bethel in admissions from 1973-1975 and church relations from 1982-1985 and then returned once more in 1987 as Bethel's vice president for institutional advancement. He would serve 17 years in that role, designing and implementing five fundraising campaigns totaling more than $50 million. During his presidency enrollment continued to climb to more than 2,100 students, as Bethel continued to rise in its ranking of the Midwest's Best Baccalaureate Colleges by U.S. News & World Report. Bethel study abroad offerings were expanded; the music department received NASM accreditation; and the campus became more intentional in its multi-ethnic programming. Cramer worked to secure the long-term financial future of Bethel during a period of national economic crisis. Despite the economic upheaval, the college was able to move forward with multiple building projects, including the Pannabecker Math and Science Laboratories, a new west campus entrance and a renovated Helm, Bridges Residence Hall, a renovated Dining Commons, and an enlarged College Bookstore/ Coffee shop. The campus borders were also expanded with the purchase of approximately 13 acres to the south. There were several firsts during this time, such as the appointment of the first two female vice presidents, the launch of online degree programs, the visit from a sitting U.S. President (George W. Bush), and hosting the Missionary Church General Conference. In February of 2011, the campus was once again touched by a profound spiritual revival.