Bethel College scholarship honors legacy of community leader

A new scholarship program at Bethel College will honor the life and legacy of the late Rev. William Wilton "Billy" Kirk, a respected minister and advocate for racial harmony who served the Michiana community for a half- century.

The Billy Kirk Leadership Award recognizes Rev. Kirk's lifelong commitment to faith, education and diversity by providing scholarships to minority students who exemplify these ideals.

"Rev. Kirk was a respected community leader," said Dennis Engbrecht, senior vice president of Bethel College. "He rallied the community against bigotry and hate crimes. His legacy lives on through his many lifelong investments."

Rev. Kirk's service to Michiana began more than 50 years ago when he became pastor of Layman Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church in South Bend in 1953. He enrolled in Bethel the same year, becoming one of the first students of color to attend the college.

In 1969, Rev. Kirk became pastor of the St. Paul CME Church in Benton Harbor, Mich., where he served until he retired in 1977. His retirement was short-lived, however, as he returned to South Bend as pastor of the St. John Missionary Baptist Church in 1981. He served the congregation until his death in May 2002 at age 77.

In addition to being one of the community's most steadfast religious leaders, Rev. Kirk was instrumental in improving race relations. In 1997, he co-founded the CommUnity Religious Effort (CURE), an organization dedicated to promoting racial harmony and decreasing violence.

"He wanted all people to be equal," said daughter Pamela Kirk-Lee.

The Kirk family believes the scholarship will help make this dream a reality. "It is our family's hope that it will not only help provide Bethel College students with the resources needed to continue their education, we hope that it will also help Daddy's spirit of love, respect and compassion for all people as well," said Eric Kirk about the tribute to his grandfather's legacy.

This is not the first time that Bethel has formally recognized the contributions of this esteemed alumnus. Rev. Kirk received an honorary doctorate of divinity from his alma mater in 2000.

Engbrecht, who worked with Rev. Kirk through CURE, said the Billy Kirk Leadership Award represents Bethel's commitment to biblically‚ÄĒcentered ethnic diversity and will help bring up leaders from the minority community.

The first scholarships will be awarded to incoming minority freshman for the 2005-06 academic year. Recipients of the renewable award will be selected on the basis of financial need, academic achievement, leadership ability and community service.

For more information about scholarship eligibility and admission to Bethel College, contact Eon Johnson, coordinator for minority recruitment, at 574-257-3339 or e-mail