BY EDWIN E. VINEYARD
Perhaps a better title for this would be: “The Oral Roberts I barely knew.” Certainly, I was not a close friend, and really not even a casual acquaintance. But I had contact with him, and I made observations and formed impressions from those contacts. Also, as with many, I knew his public persona.
My earliest impressions of Oral Roberts came in the late 1950’s when his television ministry had come into full swing with his programs being carried by major network stations throughout the country. [At that time there were only three networks plus PBS, each with large audiences.]
Our older son, Louie, whom we lost later, was at times a sickly child. Well do we recall the Oral Roberts program being on television in the den, and our three-year old son watching pretty much alone as we went in and out. We came in at the close of the program when Oral asked members of the television audience in need of healing to put their hand to his on the TV screen in faith to receive it. Louie complied.
That was a touching scene for us. Later, the child remarked that he did what the preacher said, but nothing happened. That bothered me.
Even as a teenager, I had a low regard for so-called “faith-healers,” considering most of them charlatans, although I had actually been to a couple of big tent revivals featuring these. As a young adult with an advanced education and devoted to the scientific method, I still tended to have little positive to say about healers.
Billy Graham broke the ice for me with radio and TV evangelists. The man was magnetic, and his voice was electrifying. We saw Billy Graham up close once – during Oral Roberts inauguration as president of his new university in Tulsa. The man had an unmatched ability to mesmerize and audience. His endorsement was significant.
But on closer contact, I found Oral Roberts to be a special person as well. There was an aura about him that was different.
My contacts with Oral Roberts were several through the years of his involvement with higher education. Like many, I was skeptical of his intentions to build a truly fine, independent liberal arts college. At first, my skepticism seemed justified with the Pentecostal religious requirements being made of faculty. But that changed.
As a conservative president, who was trying to keep a campus under control during a tumultuous period of student and faculty activism and disorder everywhere in higher education, I admired Oral Roberts’ open and upfront statements of what would and would not be tolerated at his college. I envied his position as a private college administrator to do just that and enforce it. Of course, he was taken to court a few times.
I was a visitor at his college several times, officially and unofficially. I represented other state colleges for evaluation and accrediting a time or two. I was very favorably impressed by what I saw. The university had the latest technology and some of the best conditions for teaching that I had seen at the time. It was a real college.
One of my favorite memories of Oral Roberts involved his affinity for our Northern Oklahoma College basketball teams. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s Oral Roberts University hosted our state junior college tournament each year in its gym, even prior to their Mabee Center. Oral liked to sit at the end of the bench with our NOC teams. Strangely, even weirdly, we won every game when he attended and sat on our bench. When he was away on other business, we lost.
My more personal contacts with Oral Roberts came at presidential inaugurations, particularly at the University of Oklahoma with Dr. Bill Banowsky and Dr. Paul Sharp. At that time period, Oral was trying to establish the legitimacy of his university on the state academic scene, and he attended such affairs where we were all invited.
If one has never had the personal experience of donning the formal academic regalia of a doctoral college president, then one has missed a puzzling, perplexing experience. After I had put on all my own regalia, with a little help from a friend, I noticed that Oral was struggling mightily with his and losing the battle. I went over and offered my help, which he gratefully accepted. We repeated that partnership arrangement on later occasions.
Among the presidents, Oral Roberts was a shy, unassuming man. One might guess that perhaps he felt like something of an interloper in the inner sanctum of higher education, not having the same academic credentials and arriving at his position in a nontraditional fashion. Two or three of us made a point of trying to include him and to make him feel comfortable. His manner showed his appreciation.
But, again, there was something special about Oral Roberts. I felt it. Not everybody did. He was a charmer speaking before larger groups, feeling much more at ease than with small groups. I saw him in both situations. I was impressed.
I thought that Oral Roberts had a certain essence that most of us lack. While I have sometimes been teased for speaking up for him, I do not regret doing so. While I may have thought it strange that God told him to build the university, or later the “City of Faith,” I would not want to argue that He did not. Certainly it was a new direction, appropriately recognizing the role of scientific medicine as well as religious faith. That latter project was a wonderful vision, thwarted by forces more at the human level. The university has now been saved from impending disaster.
Only a few have the kind of aura which men like Oral Roberts displayed, and not everyone is sensitive to such qualities. But he impressed me personally as being special.
– Dr. Edwin E. Vineyard lives in Enid, OK and is a regular contributor to The Oklahoma Observer