Mayor Copeland Honors MNU Icons
Olathe mayor and MNU alumnus Michael Copeland (’94) honored icons of MNU history at the recent State of the City luncheon March 7, 2014. Mrs. Marge Smith and the late Dr. R. Curtis Smith, first president of MidAmerica Nazarene College, and Drs. Paul and Connie Cunningham, received the Cathedral Builder Award.
The following are Copeland’s remarks as he bestowed the awards.
"In Olathe, we believe in sacrificing on behalf of others, and dreaming for every resident, because we want to honor the commitment of those who have dreamed and sacrificed for us. Today, with a deep sense of appreciation, I’m honored to present the Cathedral Builder award to recognize several people who have done exactly that.
Throughout Olathe’s 157 year history, there have been singular leaders who have not only shown us the value of having a cathedral builder mindset, but who’ve also been instrumental in actually constructing the foundation on which our great community would grow and thrive. Those beloved leaders are very special and rare, and today we honor four of them, beginning with Dr. Curtis and Marge Smith.
As the late first president of MidAmerica Nazarene College, Dr. Smith and his lovely First Lady, Marge, were truly modern-day pioneers. They came to Olathe in 1966 for the adventure of a lifetime and began the historic work of locating and building a Christian liberal arts college in Olathe.
Side by side, they worked and served faithfully together, watching their dreams unfold and laying the foundation for a great institution that would forever help shape the direction and future of our city.
Olathe was a bustling community of about 11,000 when Curtis was inaugurated as MidAmerica’s first president in 1968. The challenges great that year when the college opened its doors with an enrollment of 263 students. But the deep faith and dreams that would sustain Curtis and Marge throughout their lives kept them focused on their vision. MidAmerica Nazarene College graduated its “Pioneer Class” in 1972 and, in less than 20 years, would become the largest private college in the State of Kansas.
Throughout those miraculous years, the Smiths’ visionary leadership and love for our community guided our hometown university from its humble beginnings on the Olathe prairie to its stature as one of the finest private liberal arts colleges in America.
The growing pains and setbacks of those early days never deterred Curtis or Marge, who was a constant source of support and encouragement to her husband. They were wholly devoted to each other, to their mission and to the students they called family.
Today, MidAmerica Nazarene University’s rich history and proud heritage are woven throughout the very fabric of our city, and the Smiths’ dreams and pioneering spirit live on. Nearly 50 years after its founding, MidAmerica remains committed to excellence in higher education, building upon the Smiths’ great legacy of faith and service to others, here and around the world.
I can think of few people as deserving of the Cathedral Builder Award. What a great honor it is for me to recognize the remarkable lives and many contributions of Dr. Curtis and Marge Smith to MNU and our community.
Please join me in welcoming MidAmerica Nazarene University’s founding First Lady, Marge Smith.
In 1964, a young and passionate seminary graduate by the name of Paul G. Cunningham accepted the call to pastor a Nazarene church in Olathe at the corner of Lee and Wabash. The church was small and struggling, but Paul and his wife, Connie, a nurse and the daughter of missionaries, had strong faith and great dreams in their hearts.
They dreamed of building a liberal arts college in Olathe and a thriving, vibrant church on its campus. And they became a vital part of the team that worked with local banker R. R. Osborne and other community leaders to make that dream a reality. But it was Paul who was that team’s heartbeat and inspired visionary. I ask each of you to think about our community. Think about our schools, our hospital. Think about every corner of Olathe and find something that hasn’t been impacted by our university. MNU simply would not be here without Paul Cunningham’s strength, courage and vision. Those same values are felt through our community today.
Following the International Church of the Nazarene’s approval of plans to build MidAmerica Nazarene College, Paul and Connie’s congregation voted to build at a new location adjoining the college campus. The new church became known as College Church, and was completed in time for the opening of the college in 1968.
Serving together, Paul and Connie watched their congregation and outreach in our community grow, and an additional church sanctuary was added in 1972. A few years later, the church unveiled plans for a new building, and a sanctuary – seating 4,000 – opened in 1981.
I also have to mention the difference Paul made to our police officers while generously serving as a police department chaplain. And working alongside her pastor-husband, Connie served as a gifted speaker and counselor, teaching young married couples and helping equip them for lives of greater purpose and service. The Cunninghams continued to lead College Church until 1993, when Paul was elected to serve as a General Superintendent – the highest elected office in the Church of the Nazarene. Always a team, he and Connie traveled the world as leaders and ambassadors, sharing their message of hope and love with countless people. They retired in 2009 and came home to Olathe.
Paul and Connie, it is with deep admiration and gratitude that I honor you as Olathe Cathedral Builders. Thank you, and congratulations on 50 years of faithful ministry and distinguished service to our community, our university, and the world. The extraordinary legacy you’ve given us will forever inspire all who follow in your footsteps. You are the reason my family, and thousands of others, came to this wonderful place we call Olathe."