Bruce McLarty can still remember his first day on campus as a Harding University student.
It was the fall of 1975. His family drove to Searcy from their home in Memphis in a station wagon, unpacked and left without him.
“The next day, my dad goes to his office and gets out a yellow legal pad and writes me a letter,” McLarty said. “It began, ‘Dearest Son: Yesterday was the day that Hannah took Sammuel to Eli.”
It was the sort of letter that McLarty went back to his room to read.
“That framed my college experience,” McLarty said. “They had raised me those first 18 years; then it was time to trust someone else for the next stage. That’s what Harding was for me.”
Now McLarty has been entrusted with the task of making sure that Harding experience is around for students for decades to come. In June, he will take on the role of president at Harding as current president David B. Burks retires.
Since 2005, McLarty has served as vice president of spiritual life for the university, a role he stepped into after 14 years of preaching at the College Church of Christ in Searcy.
“I wept when I told the church there I was leaving to come over here,” McLarty said. “Fourteen years is a lot of marriages, a lot of funerals, a lot of life.”
McLarty had known he wanted to be a preacher since he was in the fifth grade. As members of the Holmes Road Church of Christ in Memphis, his family was there as often as the church doors were open. McLarty credits several Sunday School teachers and a special preacher who helped him realize his gifts for speaking and for studying the Bible. Upon receiving praise from older church members after speaking to the congregation for the first time at 13, McLarty saw his path grow much clearer.
“There was not one moment in my life where the switch flipped,” McLarty said. “It was more of an awakening into an awareness of this being who I was supposed to be.”
Though he briefly considered studying to become a doctor, by the time McLarty entered Harding as an undergrad, he was a declared Bible major. Though he hadn’t heard much about the university, friends from his church had declared the campus “heaven on Earth.”
McLarty was immediately struck by how many students traveled from all over the country and world to be at Harding. After spending a weekend on a Bible-majors retreat, McLarty wrote his own letter.
“I remember writing my parents, saying, ‘This was the most incredible weekend. This is why I came,’” McLarty said.
The move from Memphis to Searcy didn’t prove to be much of a shock, thanks to the summer weeks McLarty had spent on his grandparents’ farms. He appreciated the “Mayberry” feel of Searcy, walking downtown whenever he’d need a haircut or groceries. McLarty ended up taking a few summer courses and completing his bachelor’s degree in just three years.
“If I were rewriting the story of my life, I’d have slowed down and taken that fourth year,” McLarty said.
After graduation, he headed to Harding Graduate School in Memphis, where he’d spend the next four years working toward a Master of Theology degree. After meeting his wife-to-be, Ann, at Harding in Searcy, the two had a “Highway 64 romance” for two years as she finished her nursing degree. The two married in 1980 and moved to Mississippi, where McLarty preached as he finished his master’s degree.
Once McLarty had finished his studies in Memphis, he took a job back at his old church, Holmes Road Church of Christ, working with singles outreach as the couple and their two young daughters prepared to move to Africa as missionaries.
“Even in our earliest days of dating, Ann and I talked about doing foreign missions,” McLarty said.
On Jan. 31, 1984, the couple left for Kenya with their daughters Charity, 2, and Jessica, 4 months, and planned on spending 10 years in Africa as church planters. The family lived in central Kenya, where they worked with the Meru people. Having arrived during the height of the East African famine, the family never made a trip without sacks of grain or corn with them.
Though they had planned on being in Africa for a decade, McLarty and his family returned to the U.S. after about 15 months.
“It was just too difficult,” McLarty said. “I don’t know that we did much good in
Africa, but God did a lot of good in our lives through the experience.”
McLarty considers the trip his biggest experience in failure and one of the best lessons he has ever learned. With two young children, the separation from family weighed especially heavily on the young couple. The family didn’t have a telephone for the first six months they were in Africa.
“I probably struggled for three years with feeling, ‘I ought to be in Africa,’” McLarty said, “but I finally really made my peace with that.”
After returning from Africa, McLarty took the position of preacher at a church in Cookville, Tenn. The family remained there for six years, always joking that they didn’t plan on going anywhere unless the College Church in Searcy called.
“It was almost a laugh line,” McLarty said. “We had been so influenced by that church in our time that it was the one place that we would be interested in. And they eventually called.”
In 1991 the McLarty clan headed back to Searcy. McLarty was eager to work at the church because of the interesting blend of students passing through during their time at Harding and lifelong members with deep roots in Searcy.
“I felt better and stronger and more in love with what I did every year,” McLarty said.
Although it was tough leaving the congregation in 2005 to work at Harding, McLarty and his wife are still members of the church, and McLarty still preaches regularly around the state.
“Now I get the guilty pleasure of repeating a lesson every now and then,” McLarty said.
While working at Harding, McLarty pursued a doctorate at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, Ohio, his wife’s hometown. Part of his dissertation focused on the way faith-founded schools typically drift from that faith over the years.
“Being aware of that tendency, I wanted to help Harding be connected to its founding mission,” McLarty said.
As vice president of spiritual life, McLarty worked to keep Harding tied to the Churches of Christ that founded Harding by working with the daily chapel, communicating with the College of Bible and directing the university’s annual lectureship.
“Harding is the idea of a Christ-centered higher education,” McLarty said. “We are committed to providing an academic education that is truly excellent. … We hope it is what you would get at a secular school through the lens of a Christian world view.”
Though presidents at Harding typically retire at age 65, David Burks was given a five-year extension in the role. People on staff knew he’d be retiring sometime in 2012 or 2013, and McLarty began wondering if his skills might be a good fit for the role.
“The thing I said within my own heart in the years leading up to this is that I want to be ready if called,” McLarty said.
Burks announced his retirement during homecoming 2011, and McLarty knew it was time to make a decision. The selection process began in June 2012 with online questions and applications, followed by a two-hour interview with the university’s board of directors.
At the end of October, McLarty accepted the position.
“I was ready to accept on the spot because we would not have invested all the time and thought to the job if we were not ready to say yes,” McLarty said.
McLarty will officially take on the title of president in June. Until then, he’s learning all he can from Burks.
“I don’t approach it with a sense of nervousness because I’ve got so many great people around,” McLarty said. “I could not be coming into this position at a more perfect time.”
Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or firstname.lastname@example.org.