Chattanooga History Column: Southern Adventist University

The Southern Adventist University campus in Collegedale, Tenn.

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Dedication, sacrifice and vision mark the beginnings of what is now Southern Adventist University. With nearly 3,000 students, this institution, located in Collegedale, Tenn., is a far cry from its humble beginnings. Established in 1892, the school was founded in Graysville, Tenn., by George W. Colcord.

With the dream of offering quality Christian education to the Southeast, Colcord was committed to the school's success, using his own money to rent a temporary classroom on the second floor of J.W. Clouse's General Store at the corner of Dayton Avenue and Shelton Street. Initially, 23 students attended his classes.

Though small, the school prepared its students to have a positive impact on the world for decades to come. One of the early graduates, Rochelle Kilgore, was born on a cotton plantation in Reynolds, Ga., in 1887. Shortly after graduating in 1904, Kilgore began a teaching career that would span 75 years, mostly spent in higher education. Instructing young people was more than an occupation for Kilgore.

Through the years she invited 94 students to live in her home and corresponded with hundreds of American service members around the world. When she died at the age of 105, she was remembered as an inspirational figure.

Moving the College to the Dale

By 1916, after many rocky years in Graysville - culminating in a fire that demolished the women's dorm - the decision was made to relocate the school to what is now Collegedale. Then known as Thatcher Switch, the site offered a lovely setting but very little infrastructure. However, administrators had a vision of what Southern could become, and, not to be discouraged, they loaded everyone into wagons and made the move.

For the first few years in Collegedale, students lived in tents, and early accounts use terms such as "spartan" and "primitive" to describe life on campus. Visiting missionaries even expressed that the conditions at the school were worse than in the mission field.

Still, the little school persisted. Various accounts from the time say students complained very little about the rough conditions. According to A.N. Atteberry, then principal of the school, "The pioneer spirit was dominant. The young men and women felt they were experiencing some of the conditions our missionaries often endure and also that they were building for those who would come later."

That indomitable spirit carried on through the years as the campus and student body grew. By the 1940s, World War II loomed on the horizon, and Southern's faculty foresaw a need for preparation in order to best serve their country.

As an institution of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which has a long tradition of pacifism, Southern took part in a program called Medical Cadet Corps, training young men to save lives rather than to kill and preparing them for the military's medical service. By the end of the war, 171 Southern students had served in the U.S. armed forces, with eight making the ultimate sacrifice.

The philosophies of saving lives and serving the community are woven throughout Southern's history. In the early years, the school operated a sanitarium to meet the community's health needs, and in 1956, Southern debuted a new program: nursing. It quickly became the most popular major on campus, and by 1973, Southern had the largest nursing school in Tennessee.

Graduates of the program have gone on to provide quality health care around the globe, including Heather Magee, who received the 2016 Nurse Excellence Award from Erlanger Health System.

From its infancy in Graysville to a thriving university in Collegedale, Southern has trained young people to positively impact their world. For example, Southern has marked Martin Luther King Day for the last 24 years by helping many service agencies and programs in the Chattanooga community, with about 1,100 students participating this year.

Beyond graduation, alumni have gone on to work at Google, Pixar and the United Nations. They have become filmmakers, senators and missionaries. One helped update the Hubble Space Telescope, another started the American Birding Association, and it all began 125 years ago on the second floor of a tiny store in Southeast Tennessee.

David Smith is the 26th president of Southern Adventist University. After teaching in Southern's English department for 17 years, Smith became president of Union College in Nebraska. In 2011, he returned to Collegedale as senior pastor of the Collegedale Church of Seventh-day Adventists and accepted the position of university president in 2016.

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