A man of mission

Compiled by Tom Buterbaugh | Photography by Jeff Montgomery |

Dr. Bruce McLarty’s inaugural address theme “A Community of Mission” will forever be part of the legacy our fifth president leaves at the University, saying that it is what we are and what we aspire to be. His love for his alma mater was clear in that speech and also in his daily life as he fulfilled the duties of president.

Toward the end of his 2010 book Embracing the Mission, McLarty wrote, “Working at Harding is so much more than a job; it is being part of a Christian community.” It was always visible how well he embraced this community, whether it was stopping by an office to say hello or fellowshipping with students on the sidewalk.

So when the announcement of his retirement at the end of November 2020 came from the board, our magazine staff felt the only fitting way to pay tribute to the man was by using his own words and the words of those who knew and loved him best as well as through his communication on social media.

Dr. McLarty’s thoughts shared with the Harding community in an email from the board Oct. 30, 2020

I am deeply grateful to the Harding University Board of Trustees for giving me the opportunity to serve as Harding’s president for the past seven and one-half years. The University has had a profound impact for good on everyone in my family, and I owe it a debt of gratitude I will never be able to repay. 

When I was preparing for my inaugural address at the beginning of this journey, I identified two words that, for me, capture the heart of what makes Harding so special: mission and community. Mission describes the longing that so many of us have had as we came to Harding with the hunger to build our lives upon the person and teachings of Jesus. 

Community describes the deep relationships we developed as we grew alongside others who had that same heart of purpose. That is why, for the time I was privileged to serve as president, we described Harding University as “A Community of Mission.” I have experienced that as both a present reality and an aspiration for the future. As we have said for years, “It’s GREAT to be at Harding!” 

Now as I retire from the University, I am reminded of Robert Frost’s line, “and miles to go before I sleep.” There is so much I want to do. I am a preacher at heart, and I look forward to using my new freedom to teach, preach, encourage and write. I have been so blessed to have this time at Harding, and I am excited to find out what God may yet have in store for Ann and me.  

Excerpts from Dr. McLarty’s letter to the student body published in the Nov. 20, 2020, edition of The Bison

Dear Harding students: 

There is so much that I would like to say to you, but the next 500 words are what my heart most wants to share about why I love you and am so inspired by you. 

First of all, I have always seen myself in you. The world was very different when I arrived on campus as a freshman in the fall of 1975, but so much about being a Harding student has not changed. On that Sunday afternoon after my parents dropped me off on campus, I remember walking by Graduate Hall and being almost overwhelmed by a sense of a new beginning. Few people on campus knew if I had been good or bad, kind or cruel, sincere or hypocritical, intelligent or not-so-smart. I sensed that, more than ever before, I was in charge of the person I would become. I think the memory of that moment is the lens through which my heart has viewed Harding students all these years. Every one of us comes here in the process of becoming. In the hands of God, this is called “sanctification,” and we can all be changed for the better during our time here. That is why I see in you a reflection of my 1970s self. It makes me nostalgic and helps me to pass along to you some of the grace that I so much needed and so freely received in my own days as a student. And it reminds me of how important it is to choose life, to seek first the kingdom of God, to find the straight gate and the narrow way, and to respond with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength when Jesus calls to us, “Follow me.” Incredible life-altering choices continue to be made every day on the Harding University campus. This is why my experience more than 40 years ago has much more in common with your experience today than you might at first imagine. 

In Proverbs 31, scripture tells about the noble virtues of Lady Wisdom. She lives with tremendous character and, as a result, she “laughs at the time to come.” You probably have not realized it, but you have often filled my heart with laughter during these past seven and one-half years. Your compassion for people in all kinds of need, your joy in discovering the deepest fellowship you have ever experienced, your openness and transparency about the broken road you have traveled to get here and even the battles you currently face, your commitment to Jesus, and your willingness to follow him wherever he may lead you — these are the ways you inspire me and cause me to laugh at the time to come. As people age, we tend to become negative and grow cynical about the generations that are coming along behind us, but you have helped me to stay young. I have seen the future, and it is in good hands. You continue to be a source of hope and comfort to me. 

Thank you for all you have done for me and for all you will yet do to the glory of God. I love you, and I pray that God will bless you richly on your journey through life. 

With love and gratitude, 

Bruce

Selections from the more than 475 comments and posts received

“Thank you for your time of service Dr. McLarty. During our time at Harding it was always clear how you loved us as students and how your greatest wish was for us to know Jesus.” —Emma Peyton

“We love you, Bruce. You led Harding with such grace and humility. The way you cared for the student body and your Christ-like spirit will be missed.” —Allie Griffith

“Dr. McLarty, you have made such an impact in my life and the lives of Harding students the past 7 1/2 years. You created personal relationships and challenged us in ways unimaginable. Thank you for your service, leadership and wisdom. We will miss you! God bless.” —Hannah Jones Ferguson

“Thank you for having such a positive presence among the student body during your time as president! I will miss being connected to Har­ding through your Instagram posts!” —Lani Pruett

“You are indeed a spiritual leader, thank you for inspiring our generations.” —Michael Soto 

“Your attitude has been that of Christ which is why you are going to be missed. Prayers and blessings for you and our beloved Harding.” —Vicki P. Wallace

“Thanks Dr. McLarty for being so personal and bringing a sense of community to Har­ding while I was a student! I am very appreciative of my time at Harding and so many fond memories.” —Kylie Deann Womble

“Thank you Dr. McLarty for everything you have done for Harding and us students! You are an amazing man, president and disciple for Christ.” —Britain bossier

“Thank you Dr. McLarty! It was wonderful having you as a president during my time at Harding. You made the students feel valued and loved.” —Molly Gammon

“I remember at the lighting ceremony last year when I showed you the sticker of your face that I had on my water bottle, and you thought it was hilarious. You’ve always been so upbeat and caring about the whole Har­ding community, and I’ll miss seeing you around campus and saying hi.” —Ashley Mooney

“@brucemclarty you are a true servant leader. Thank you for leading our Harding community. You trained us in character. I will always appreciate the impact that you have made on my life and the lives of many others. Best wishes to you and Ann both.” —Perry Patton

“God bless you for sharing yourself and your family for so many years. You have and will continue to be a mentor to me for living and applying Jesus’ love.”—BJ Austin 

“Bruce, I’ve been so honored to have you as my president. Eating breakfast with you freshman year, bumping into you on front lawn walks, and even being featured on your Instagram have proven again and again what a kind, joyful, funny, real and servant-hearted man of God you are. Thank you for loving us deeply and unconditionally. You care, and you make that known.”—Victoria Langley

“You reached out to me personally when I suddenly lost my brother last year … I didn’t think the president of my University would be so in tune with his students’ lives, but you were. I appreciate the energy, spirit and compassion you brought to Harding. Thank you.” —Brielle Hetherington

“Dr. McLarty, being a freshman with you was such an honor! I always appreciated your care for the student body. When we grieved, you grieved. When we celebrated, you celebrated. Your ability to connect with us on a personal level went above and beyond, and I appreciate you encouraging us to always keep our feet firmly planted on the Gospel and Good News. I am sad for what Harding is losing in your retirement, but I am praying that the Lord blesses you and keeps you wherever you go next!” —Esther Davenport 

“As president of Harding, you made us proud. I go way back to Dr. Benson’s days. Never have I seen a president so involved with the students and so approachable for visitors and families. You nailed it!!! Thank you for all you have done and best wishes in the future. The best is yet to come.” —Susan Simmons

“The most Christ-like president Harding may ever see. Thank you for your daily example. God bless.” —Haley DeLynn Taylor

“Thank you for all you’ve done for our university and for me! I remember you coming up to me in my chapel seat on my first day freshman year. That set the tone for the rest of my time at Harding. Your engagement with students is unmatched anywhere, and I appreciate so deeply how you have impacted my time at Harding. Harding is better because of all that you’ve done, and there is no one who I would have rather had as my president for the last 3 1/2 years. Blessings for you and Mrs. McLarty.” —Chris Kelly

“The Harding family is the blessed one to have had you at the helm! Our family is very thankful for the way you have loved the school and loved the students so very well. Harding is better because of you and Mrs. Ann!” —Michelle Williams Tillman 

“Thank you for your incredible leadership and influence. You have impacted more lives than you’ll ever know. We love you!” —Lauren Burcham 

“You are the reason I sent my children to Harding. I heard your “why Christian education” speech, and I knew you would take care of them. God bless you and keep you. If we don’t meet again on Earth, I will hug you in Heaven.” —Angela Sheffield

“Thanks for remembering my aunts from Wilson Elementary and reconnecting with them and my family. That spoke volumes! I know you didn’t do it for notoriety, but I have to share. Dr. McLarty remembered my two twin aunts who integrated Wilson Elementary in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the early ’60s. He found them about two years ago and took them and about six other family members to dinner. Class act, sir!!!” —Corey Littrell

“I cannot imagine during these trying times having anyone more faithful, more prayerful, more loyal to the University, leaning into him for direction and guidance running Harding University.” —Holly Rachels Hook

“Thank you for being there as my daughters grew into adulthood helping to guide their paths of service and giving them encouragement and God’s love. You inspired them to care. One is now an MD fighting COVID-19 on the front lines for all of us in Christ’s name, and one is a great elementary school teacher and mother of almost two. Bless you, bless you, bless you.” —Richard Bullough 

“Such class and sophistication. Harding was blessed to have him and his wife on campus.” —Sandy Malsom

“Your interest and care for us at all times felt that they truly came from the heart of a humble, prayerful man. In my first weeks as a transfer student, which was also your first year, you declared the focus of the campus to be “Mission.” It affirmed the reasons I chose Harding, and I felt that it spoke to so much of what I was looking for in my Christian education. Following this theme, you and the rest of the faculty guided students to see their time at the University as preparation for mission in every profession and area of our lives. The following spring, you joined my group at HULA and we Hulagans were always delighted when you wore your llama tie to chapel! Thank you for such wonderful memories and a beloved legacy! You will be missed greatly!” —Catherine Wamack Lowe

“Dr. McLarty, my name is Sydney Reynolds, and I am a freshman this year. I just wanted to let you know that you had a huge positive impact on me during this semester. During the first week of this semester, I had emergent brain surgery for a problem that I didn’t know I had lived with my entire life. Because of this, I had to be online this semester while recovering. It has been a physically and mentally painful time, and there were many times when I felt that I would not be able to complete the semester. I felt hopeless. However, something that played a big part in keeping me going was seeing your positivity and enthusiasm each day while watching chapel. I just want to thank you for, unknowingly, helping me complete this term despite my brain surgery and the trouble that came along with it. I truly appreciate it. Thank you.”  —Sydney Reynolds  

“Thank you for all the great things you have done as president. As an alumnus, Harding is such a special place and one that lives in my heart. Some of the most special days in my life were there, and I will always love the great Christian education that I received there. Thanks again, and I wish you and your family the very best.” —Randy Verdell 

“I have never been a Harding student, but I have visited the University. I went to chapel every day during my one month stay in Searcy. Such a warm, welcoming environment. I was honored to get to meet Dr. Bruce McLarty — well-respected man. He will be missed … ” —Arjan Muca

“Bruce, you are truly a class act. Your message was grace-filled. Thank you for loving our Harding community so well. May the Lord bless you and keep you.” —Buffy Manning Lynn

“ … I first visited Harding when I was a junior in high school. In the very first session of that Friday, you spoke about the mission of Harding and the importance of what you learn, who you learn with, and who you learn from. You have always put the Christian mission of Harding front and center. Until I visited Harding, I didn’t know colleges could have such a foundational identity. It is a mission that has already greatly changed my life for the better. Now you carry this identity, which you have so embodied and championed, into the next stage of your life. As a college sophomore, I wish you and your wife, Ann, all the very best. You have built your house on the rock, and though the rains may fall and the floods come and the winds blow, the Lord will bless you and keep you in this time of transition. I know you have always rooted hard for us students. We’re pulling for you, too, wherever God may take you next. ” —Johnny Galloway

“ Your humility showed greatly my whole time at Harding and your steadiness, dedication and leadership gave me and so many others that extra little boost we needed in tough times making it through the crazy world of college. Simply put, you were such a big part of my Harding experience, which I absolutely loved! Thank you, Dr. McLarty. BRUUUUUUUUCE!” —Philip Warren

“I was with a group of friends delivering Christmas cookies to Dr. McLarty during my freshman year. We thought it was going to be a drop-and-go situation, but then he invites us into his office and gives us a tour of the place, including the legendary ‘shrine’ to William Wilberforce. It’s the little things that count, and it was so meaningful for us to get to experience such a warm, personal moment with this celebrity of a president. Dr. McLarty is truly a man of grace, joy, class and love, in both the big and the little things in life.”  —John Lim

“Many conversations were had at our house regarding things going on at Harding, and many times my kids would say, ‘Well Dr. McLarty says … ‘ I want you to know they were listening, and they were observing. They watched you treat people with kindness and understanding. They watched you deal with adversity like no other Harding president has had to deal with. And they saw in you an example of a leader who could be kind, yet stand for what he believed in and serve God — all at the same time. As a parent, there is no greater gift you could have given my children.”  —Lisa Jarnagin 

“A long time ago he started a tradition that became an adopted tradition in my family. Just before Christmas break on the last Wednesday evening the lights were dimmed in the Benson, and he would read A Cup of Christmas Tea. It was my favorite way to end the semester before Christmas break. My mom and dad bought me a copy of the book and since children I have added other books to our holiday reading, but still my favorite is the book that Dr. McLarty would read to send us off for break. Sometimes it’s one small thing that inspires so much more.” —Debra Bland Lowrie 

“Your service has richly impacted everyone who has walked on this campus. Thank you!” —Makenna Jones 

“Bruce, like you, I was a freshman in the fall of ’75. My life has taken some unexpected turns, but one of the constants has been Harding. It was special then and is special now. Thank you for your service to this great University. You have done a great job leading these past seven years. Blessings to you and Ann in your next endeavor. May our Father light your path.”  —Dalton Sullivan

“The joy on your face is truly and honestly what sealed the deal for me coming to Harding. You talked so joyfully, lovingly and fondly of this place — this community. I knew after meeting you that first time that Harding is where I wanted to be. The following four years were the best of my life. … Hearing in chapel nearly every day about this wonderful community of mission was the repetition I needed to build such strong friendships and grow as a Christian.”  —Michaela Woods 

“Dr. McLarty’s Harding is the only Harding I’ve known so far, and it is a Harding that I cherish. His presence is known throughout every aspect of life on campus. Whether it’s in chapel when the auditorium echoes the name “Bruuuuuuce,” in the parking lots where his face is on every car freshener, or the Instagram meme pages named in his honor, it is obvious that Dr. McLarty is adored by the students of Harding. He is welcoming, uplifting and joyful, and he is a friend to everyone he meets. He’s practically a celebrity to me. He has led this school with grace through a turbulent year and is ready to offer an encouraging word during any difficult time — whether that’s during a pandemic or simply during finals week … Thank you, Dr. McLarty, for what you mean to Harding. Thank you for all the love and care you have invested into each and every student. Thank you for making Harding University the beautiful entity it is today.” —Julie Record

“What a blessing to work under your leadership. Thank you for teaching us to love, ask forgiveness for our wrongs, and walk in Jesus’ footsteps. You will be missed!” —Jeanie Smith 

“Dr. McLarty, I once visited your office with another student looking for perspective and understanding surrounding a difficult subject. You welcomed our questions, facilitated warm and honest discussion, and left us with an overwhelming sense of confidence in your leadership. Thank you for serving the Harding community, as a whole and all the way down to individual students such as myself. I wish you all the best in the years to come.” —Kelsey Smith 

“On July 14, 2020, my husband collapsed after our exercise on campus. He died two days later, and I will never know for sure what killed him. The night he collapsed, Bruce McLarty was the first person with me in the ER waiting room. I don’t know that many college presidents would have joined a faculty member in an ER waiting room during a pandemic on the worst night of her life. I will always be thankful for his presence on that night.” —Stacey Rodenbeck 

“Dr. McLarty, thank you so much for the example you were to me and so many of my peers during our time as students at Harding. Your dedication to the Lord and serving him in teaching the truth and serving others was so very evident and an inspiration. Your interest and willingness to be involved in the lives of Harding students … welcoming us to chapel each morning, chatting with those of us at HU16 on Tuesdays, reassuring parents as they are dropping off the next class of students, signing students’` yearbooks, taking the time to listen to those of us in Chi Sigs as we spread Christmas cheer, coming by Dr. James’ devo, and so much more … your kind spirit has been such a blessing. May the Lord bless you and keep you.” —Brandon Emlaw 

“Dr. McLarty, I would just like to thank you for being an outstanding example as both a leader and a Christian. I know you think of yourself as a preacher at heart, but you taught me and so many others valuable lessons through your actions and not just your words at chapel or in faculty meetings. Your genuine concern for others, availability and willingness to listen are unparalleled. You also stood firm and did what you believed was right in spite of undeserved backlash and public pressure. No matter the setting or situation, you are a spiritual fruit bearer and sharer. And what I mean by that is that God permeates his spiritual fruit from you to bring out the spiritual fruit from the others you lead. I’ve watched people become more joyful, patient, gentle, at peace, and so on due to your influence. Thank you also for serving as our president. I believe you have been a wonderful president and that Harding is better because of how God has used you. I’m confident that God will continue to use you to strengthen and grow His kingdom.” —Jake Brownfield 

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