Last August, Eric Turner stood next to Southwest Baptist University President C. Pat Taylor, as the two waited to enter Pike Auditorium for the university’s fall convocation ceremony.
Turner, the university’s president-elect, had been unanimously selected by the university’s board of trustees one month before.
Taylor, SBU’s 24th president, had agreed to remain on the job through Aug. 31.
That month, the two held offices in adjacent rooms with clearly set, differential roles.
“We’d made it a point to be separate,” Turner recalls as he sits for an interview Wednesday with the BH-FP, nearly one year to the day after he was announced as the university's 25th president on July 20, 2018.
But on that August 2018 day outside the auditorium, standing next to his predecessor, Turner says the circumstances that brought the two together found them unsure of their order of entrance.
“At any processional at SBU, the president files in last,” Turner explains. “He was technically the president, but I was the president-elect.”
Taylor, who’d held the role for 22 years, looked at Turner, his successor and friend, and asked “Who’s going last?”
“I told him, ‘let’s walk side by side,’” Turner says.
Taylor and Turner entered the building together, agents, respectively, of the university’s past successes and future dreams.
Sitting in his office Wednesday, sunlight from a large, floor-to-ceiling window shines in on Turner.
At his desk are three computer screens. He’ll joke that he’s the first SBU president to have a computer at his desk, let alone three. On either side and above Turner’s workspace are antique office supplies, something he says he’s maintained a lifelong fascination with since accompanying his father to buy church office supplies as a young boy.
“He would go on hospital visits, but we would always stop at the office supply store while we were out,” Turner says. “This is before Staples and before Office Depot, and I just loved the smells of the paper rolls and the pens and I’ve just had this fascination with durable machinery.”
Turner’s collection includes a typewriter, staplers and a checkwriter, which companies used to imprint checks as protection against alterations.
Near the door are a series of black and white photos and prints. One, a photo from the University of Virginia campus. Turner doesn’t have a connection to the school, he says. He just likes the photo. A reprint of a map shows the French empire.
Turner, who has an undergraduate and graduate degrees in history, said it’s one of the first maps he ever bought.
Other items have a deeper connections.
In one photo, two oxen — Turner says their names were Rye and Rock — wait outside a store in Randolph County, Arkansas, owned by Turner’s great grandfather.
Others show historic bridges in Randolph County. Turner claims Pocahontas, the Randolph County seat, as his hometown.
His parents were high school sweethearts, he says, and his father, a pastor, led churches in southeast and southwest Missouri. The family moved in and out of Pocahontas, with Turner never spending more than one year in the same school system, he says. He finished high school in Oregon, where his father was planting a church.
It was back in third grade, though, where Turner says he first sensed a call to vocational ministry.
“Dad was a pastor, and I didn’t think, growing up, that pastoring was going to be it,” he says, “but that’s what I saw. I saw pastors, missionaries, ministers of music, those sorts of things. I didn’t think that was the fit for me, but I didn’t know what it was going to be.”
Calls, both divine and human
Turner says that clarity came during his sophomore year at Williams Baptist University in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas. He went on to earn a graduate degree in history at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro and entered the classroom as a teaching assistant. Still, though, he said, internally, he was conflicted about where he belonged.
“I was wrestling with that,” he says. “I understood I’d felt a call over here, but now this doesn’t seem to be a good fit for me. I just didn’t enjoy it.”
While he tried to interpret his own callings, Turner says he took a literal call from a former adviser at Williams Baptist.
“He said, ‘Eric we have an entry level fundraising job at Williams. You should consider it,’” Turner says.
He took the job.
“I describe it as administration found me,” he says. “I found that I really liked it. I loved it and still love it.”
That was in 1997. The same year, Turner says he visited Bolivar for the first time, touring the SBU campus with his vice president en route to a fundraising conference in Kansas City.
“I thought it was a really nice campus, even 22 years ago,” he says. “It was a little smaller, but it's amazing, over 22 years, how it’s changed for the positive.”
That year would have been Taylor’s first on campus. A few years later, the two developed a friendship. They spoke over the phone regularly, Turner says.
Turner spent 15 years in fundraising, rising into the position of vice president at Williams Baptist. Nearby, Black River Technical College offered him the position of president.
He took it, and, over four years, worked to rectify budgeting and accreditation issues, he says.
“We really enjoyed our time at BRTC,” Turner said of his family, “but we really sensed, even when we got to Black River, that, one day, we’d be back in the context of Christian higher ed.
“So we prayed as a family, ‘Lord, if you see fit, on your timeline, we’d like to be back in that context that we know and love.’”
Becoming No. 25
And in October 2017, Taylor gave Turner a call about the SBU presidency.
“He said, ‘Eric, I’m retiring and I cannot help you in this search but this is a place you should look at.’”
With that, Turner and his family pivoted from offering up what he called the “scary prayer” — “Lord, we’ll go wherever you send us” — to “Lord, please send us to SBU.”
According to a previous SBU news release, the trustees’ nationwide search turned up 25 candidates.
After prayerful and strategic consideration of 17 qualified applicants, four semifinalists were selected for in-person interviews, the release said.
A single finalist, Turner, was brought to campus July 16-17 and then recommended to and approved July 20.
Turner says his first day on the job — Aug. 6 — had been a blur of photos and handshakes. His formal inauguration came Friday, April 26. Taking the reins from Taylor is a meaningful transition, and Turner said he sees the significance.
“I’ve followed presidents that I didn’t really know, and now I’ve followed a president that I knew fairly well,” he says. “I would say one should be careful to respect their forebears and have an appreciation for what Dr. Taylor accomplished while he was here, but also, we don’t want to dwell on the past. We want to think toward the future.”