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From Cornfield to Community: MNU & Olathe Grow a Lasting Partnership

From Cornfield to Community: MNU & Olathe Grow a Lasting Partnership

By Melinda Ablard Smith ('90)

Before the first clump of dirt was turned in a cornfield outside Kansas City, no one could have imagined what would someday be built there. 

That was before anyone cruised the “Fe” or even before some streets in Olathe were paved. That was before the first students at what would become MidAmerica Nazarene University walked on planks across the sidewalk-sparse campus to keep from getting muddy when it rained. That was before the sprawling College Church—with its three soaring steeples—even had one.

That was long before anyone realized the impact a small liberal arts college would have on the community beyond its uniform red brick colonial buildings.

Now nearly 50 years since a handful of university legends ceremoniously broke ground in that cornfield, both a university and a city have grown up there hand in hand.

Sowing in a Field of Dreams 

Very little has taken root in the Kansas plains without a struggle. The state motto “Ad astra per aspera”—to the stars through difficulties—testifies to that. And the pioneering town of Olathe is no different.

It first incorporated in 1857 near the Santa Fe, California and Oregon trails and then after some governance issues reincorporated a year later, adding 341 residents by 1860. By the end of the Civil War, Olathe had survived a violent raid, an unstable city government, and the loss or relocation of half its buildings. 

One hundred years later and nearly 2,000 miles away, delegates opposed to building more Nazarene colleges staged a fierce debate at the 1964 General Assembly in Portland, Oregon. 

The outcome: The general church would build another college—the first in 50 years. And although other midwestern locales were considered, the school would end up in Olathe. This was due to the leadership of founding President Dr. R. Curtis Smith and the faith, persistence and advocacy of Dr. Paul Cunningham, pastor of what would become College Church of the Nazarene. Smith’s push for a Nazarene college in the Kansas City area and Cunningham’s tireless work to bring it to Olathe encouraged the city and its leaders to enthusiastically embrace the dream. 

“R. R. Osborne, Olathe civic leader and banker, offered the site and other incentives to the church leaders that were too good to refuse,” says campus architect Dr. Ray Bowman. “The location in proximity to the church headquarters, Nazarene Theological Seminary, potential for student employment, and central in relationship to the churches of the new educational zone, made this the best choice of the several possible locations.”

So in 1968 when Interstate 35 at Olathe was 7 years old and the city’s population was nearing 13,000, Mid-America Nazarene College welcomed its Pioneer class of 263 students to the five-building campus.

The college that had sprung up from a cornfield was poised to influence every aspect of life in Olathe.

Growing Strong Leaders

In 1980, a young man from Los Angeles County headed to Kansas with one thing on his mind: football. 

“I grew up in southern California, and Point Loma didn’t have football, so I came to MidAmerica on a scholarship,” he says. “It was really something coming from a county at that time of 7 million to a town of 35,000.”

Like so many of his friends and classmates, he fell in love with Olathe and stayed. That young man was Michael Copeland (’84), Olathe’s longest-serving mayor, now in his fourth term.

But Copeland isn’t the only city leader today to have emerged from the Pioneer family. Four of the city’s seven council members also are in Olathe because of MNU. Fire Chief and Director of Emergency Services Jeff DeGraffenreid (’90, MED ’99) and Chief of Police Steven Menke (’01) both are alums. And one of the city’s largest private employers Garmin International is headed by President and CEO Clifton Pemble, class of 1986

“MidAmerica has helped set the tone for our quality of life in Olathe,” Copeland says of the city that now numbers nearly 130,000. “Alumni are serving in the school district, the hospital and at a number of organizations. From a practical business perspective, that pipeline of well-educated talent grounded in strong moral ethics—kids graduating with a Christian worldview—helps our organizations thrive and helps our community thrive.”

It is not unlike what Dr. Donald Metz, the school’s first academic dean, envisioned in the early days when he prayed among the cornstalks: MidAmerica graduates preaching, teaching, building businesses and creating Christian homes. 

Cultivating Community Cooperation

From the beginning, MidAmerica has enjoyed a friendly, mutually beneficial relationship with the community beyond its walls.

“Service projects and support of local charities have been extremely important, as well as support for growth and development of the community through active involvement with the Chamber of Commerce, service organizations and churches,” says President David Spittal, who also serves on the Olathe Chamber’s Council of Advisors. “The idea that ‘together we can make a difference’ is a reality for the university and community relationship.”  

MNU itself employs more than 250 individuals and contributes $44.6 million to the state’s economy, according to a 2012-2013 economic impact study. At least $3 million of that funnels into the local economy just from out-of-region students, says Casey Wilhm, director of business retention and expansion for the Chamber.

“MNU’s influence on the local economy is certainly significant,” Wilhm says. “Each of these dollars generated as a result of the university helps keep local businesses in business, helps keep taxes in check, and helps keep our schools strong.”

Although MNU’s financial impact on Olathe is easier to calculate, its spiritual influence has been no less significant. Deeply rooted in the Nazarene tradition, the university has held fast to its evangelical holiness message and missional focus. 

“As a Christ-centered university, in addition to our commitment to academic excellence, we are committed to live out our lives in the image and likeness of Jesus Christ,” Spittal says. “That is a high calling and one that requires trust and a passion to serve as Christ would serve.”

Plowing a Path to the Future

So what lies ahead for the city born on the plains and the university planted in a cornfield? 

Continued cooperation, according to both Olathe and MNU leaders.

“The relationship between town and gown requires constant work,” Copeland says. “And it’s incumbent upon all of us, including the graduates coming out of MidAmerica who are settling in Olathe, to get plugged into the community in a meaningful way. It’s important; we can’t just leave it to those who have gone before us.”


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