T. C. Mercer, from Bob Jones to Bryan

7 years ago Triangle 0

Alex Green
Assistant Online Editor

The Mercer family poses for a photo at the celebration of T.C. Mercer Day at Bryan in 2005 / Photo courtesy of Bryan.edu

Mercer Hall might have easily remained the Administration Building had Dr. Theodore Mercer not been fired from Bob Jones University in 1953.

Mercer had spent a large portion of his life around the Joneses and their school at that point in ‘53, when he was relieved of his duties as Assistant to the President.

He had grown up in Spring City, Tenn., a small railroad town around 17 miles north of Dayton and the current location of Bryan College.

He was one of many children, but also only one of two shared by his parents. Both of his parents had marriages, and children, prior to the one that resulted in Mercer’s birth, according to Dr. John M. Mercer, the late Bryan president’s son and current Professor of English at Northeastern State University in Tulsa, Okla.

Theodore Mercer was five when the Scopes Trial captured the attention of a nation in the throes of debate about whether evolution could and should be taught in public schools.

The ‘Boy Orator of the South’ William Jennings Bryan represented the State of Tennessee in its case against high school teacher John Scopes, who had agreed to go on trial in order to bring the small town of Dayton national attention – successfully. Five years later, The William Jennings Bryan University was founded in the novel town of Dayton.

Three years after, in 1933, prominent evangelical leader Dr. Bob Jones Sr. moved his college, Bob Jones College, from Panama City, Fla. to Cleveland, Tenn., just east of the Tennessee River from Dayton.

Mercer’s education, career and personal life would be greatly impacted by that school and its patriarch. He graduated from BJC with a bachelor’s degree in Religion and English as well as a master’s degree… in Religion, and he began teaching English for his alma mater afterward.

In the Bob Jones English department, Mercer met the woman who would be his wife when the custodian continually misplaced the department’s trash cans, according to the couple’s son.

John Mercer called his parents’ meeting a “funny story.” His father, he said, was annoyed by finding his trashcan out of place every morning and found the young Alice to be stingy for hoarding them. Little did Mercer know, however, that Alice was not rearranging the department’s trash every night.

Only after finally confronting the assumed thief did Mercer realize that he had assumed falsely. In a twist of irony, however, Alice did end up taking something much more valuable from Mercer than his garbage.

In 1953, Ted Mercer wrote a pamphlet to the Bob Jones University Board of Trustees in which he said the summer prior was “the beginning of the end for me I am convinced in my own mind.”

He says in the literature that he felt choosing off-campus hospital and doctor attention over medical services provided by the BJU infirmary during his wife’s pregnancy would harbor bad feelings from the school.

“Mrs. Mercer and I, knowing Dr. Jones as we did, discussed the possibility of my losing my job for failure to comply, but we decided that the selection of a doctor was the privilege of every American and that if I lost my job over this situation, we would be willing to take the consequences, which we are now taking,” Mercer wrote.

John Mercer confirmed that it was his birth that his father was writing about. Choosing to have children off campus, he said, was equal to disloyalty to the school. His father’s pamphlets confirm the presumption.

“I was called into [Dr. Bob Jones Sr.’s] office on June 9, 1952, and upbraided for disloyalty to him and the institution,” Mercer wrote to the Board of Trustees.

A year later, after accusations of further disloyalty and sexual immorality, Dr. Bob Jones Jr., President of Bob Jones University, fired his assistant Mercer. Mercer was one of a host of BJU staff and faculty that lost their jobs or voluntarily left the school at that time, according to his pamphlets.

John Mercer said that the events of that summer were “very traumatic” for his family, but that “[his father] felt that a huge burden was lifted” after his firing. The sexual accusations against his father’s character were “real ridiculous” and merely attempts at smearing his name, John added.

The incident, however, “was the best thing that could have happened to us. I didn’t want to grow up in that environment,” he said.

“I’m sure he was happy he was no longer in that situation.”

Between 1953 and 1956, Dr. Theodore Mercer worked in public relations for Muskingham College in New Concord, Ohio, while the fallout from the BJU incident faded.

The incident, John said, was on the lips of those at Christian schools around the nation; his mother, he added, speculated that immediately after the incident, her husband would not have been in contention at many Christian schools because of it.

However, in 1956, things seemingly came full circle for Dr. Theodore Mercer. After the Scopes Trial in 1925, Williams Jennings Bryan said that he wished to open a school to forward the Christian message in Dayton.

In 1956, the result of Bryan’s wish, William Jennings Bryan University was operating in Dayton on a tight budget and limited resources. As the president, Dr. Judson Rudd’s health failed, the school began looking for the next president.

Three years after his ugly divorce from BJU, Mercer was offered the position.

He accepted; in 2005, at an honorary naming of Mercer Hall, Bryan alumnus Dr. Ronald Zartman said of the late president, “It was a tough ministry [Dr. Mercer] had. The Administration Building was unfinished; the furnace was coal-driven. Times were tough. There were unpaid food bills he inherited. We needed a gifted man – that’s what we got ” according to an article on Bryan.edu covering the heritage event.

John Mercer recalls that in the early years, one of his father’s primary goals for the school was to attain accreditation, an accomplishment that was reached in 1969.

In those first days of the Bryan, John recalls living with friends in Chattanooga and moving to a small house in Dayton nicknamed “The Crackerbox” a few weeks before the college secured a rental for the family on Bryan Hill.

The house that the Mercer family rented is now the home of Academic Vice President Bradford Sample and his wife, said Mercer. It is also held to be the oldest house in “Hill City,” he said.

Dr. Theodore Mercer’s tenure at Bryan was a successful one. Under his leadership, the school completed the administration building and built several dorms.

Mary Rudd Carlson, daughter of late President Judson A. Rudd, Mercer’s predecessor, said in an email that the decline of her father’s health and presidency was eased by the arrival of Mercer and his “amazing energy.”

As her father’s health declined, Carlson remembers the new president spending one entire night with his papers outside of Rudd’s hospital room. When Rudd passed, Carlson remembers Mercer arriving where she and her mother were staying with all of the funeral details planned and ready for signature.

“This was the way he operated,” she said. “For the next several days, our home was Rhea House where they welcomed all of our Rudd relatives and other close college friends at each mealtime.”

On into the 60s, John Mercer points out that his father also navigated the school through desegregation.

His father, he said, “was a proponent of admitting black students and achieved this goal in a way that caused little stir or objection.”

In 1986, at the age of 66 and after leading then-named William Jennings Bryan College for 25 years, Dr. Theodore C. Mercer died unexpectedly just weeks before he had planned to give his last commencement speech and retire.

19 years later in 2005, Mrs. Alice Mercer was present at a special Heritage Week chapel where the administration building that her husband finished was renamed in his honor. The following January, she too died, at the age of 89.

Bryan College, however, will forever bear the fingerprints of President and Mrs. Theodore Mercer.

Mercer Hall is noted for sharing the dimensions of Noah’s Ark. Perhaps fittingly, the building that bear’s the Mercer name, the building that he was most proud of according to his son, played a similar role in Bryan’s history.