Dear Candler Community,
Media outlets have reminded us in recent weeks of momentous events that occurred fifty years ago in the summer of 1969. I write to remind us all that summer of 1969 was a crucial time in the life of Candler as well.
Many have recently celebrated the July 20 moon landing of Apollo 11, the first of seven. In June, we took stock of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which marked the beginning of the gay rights movement. Meanwhile, 400,000 people gathered in Bethel, New York, in August 1969 for a musical festival called Woodstock, but not before Mohammad Ali, who had been denied status as a conscientious objector, was convicted of evading the Vietnam draft, a conviction that would later be overturned by the Supreme Court. The “Miracle Mets” won the World Series, and one of the largest hurricanes to ever strike the United States, Camille, hit the Gulf Coast very near where I was in high school in Mobile, Alabama.
Candler dean James L. Waits and Emory president James T. Laney stand with United Methodist bishop Earl Hunt, Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, and United Methodist bishop James Armstrong during Ministers’ week in January 1983
In the midst of all these memorable and sometimes tumultuous markers in our country, the summer of 1969 was also an extraordinary time for Candler School of Theology, a time when Candler began its own remarkable transformation. In July 1969, James T. Laney arrived to be the fifth dean of Candler, and he brought James L. Waits with him to be his assistant. At the time, Jim Laney, an assistant professor of Christian ethics at Vanderbilt Divinity School, was 41 and Jim Waits, associate pastor of West End United Methodist Church, was 34.
Each in his own way transformed Candler. In the book marking our centennial, Religion and Reason Joined: Candler at One Hundred, Gary Hauk reports that Jim Laney was the first dean who was not drawn from the Candler faculty. A small group of professors — Hendrickus Boers, Manfred Hoffman, Bill Mallard, Ted Runyon, Ted Weber, and Ted Runyon — worked to persuade Laney to come to Candler despite opposition from one-third of the faculty and some bishops of the Southeastern Jurisdiction. These faculty leaders predicted that those who had opposed Laney’s appointment would change their minds, and history proved them correct. Summarizing the impact of Laney’s term, 1969-1977, Hauk states that “Dean Laney shifted into high gear the engine that Dean [William] Cannon had ignited.” As you are well aware, Laney left Candler to be president of Emory until 1993, when he was appointed ambassador to the Republic of Korea by President Bill Clinton. I encourage you to re-read Jim Laney’s accomplishments at Candler in Hauk’s book. They transformed not only the school but also its broader influence on North American theological education.
James T. Laney and James L. Waits stand among the faculty gathered on the steps of Bishops Hall in 1973
Jim Waits became academic dean at Candler in 1972, when Associate Dean Mack Stokes was elected bishop. Waits served as acting dean when Laney left and became dean in 1978 after a national search. Hauk states that “Along with…traditional advances toward eminence, Dean Waits led Candler in exploring the role of the arts in theology, worship, and religious life” and creatively faced some daunting challenges. Waits left Candler in 1991 “following a remarkable era of vitality in the school” to become the executive director of the Association of Theological Schools.
Hauk credits both men for bringing diversity and inclusion to a school that, until their era, had been virtually all white men in faculty, senior administration, and the student body. The turbulent era of the 1960s and early 1970s held many challenges and opportunities for Candler, some of which are similar to those we face today. The two Jims navigated these to bring acclaim to the institution, most notably through the recruitment of extraordinary faculty. We continue to reap the benefits of many of the initiatives they set in motion.
I have been privileged to spend considerable time with both Jims. They have generously offered their insights, wisdom, good humor, and personal support to me, and I very much look forward to continuing to learn from them. I pray that we faculty and administrators are as faithful in fulfilling the school’s mission in our day as they were in theirs.
With thanksgiving for the lives, witness, and leadership of Jim Laney and Jim Waits,
Mary Lee Hardin Willard Dean
Professor of Christianity and World Politics
Candler School of Theology