Dr. Thomas E. Corts, the late president of Samford University, combined the traits of faith, Christian commitment, vision and respect for others, according to a panel of essayists on a colloquium dedicating the new book, Thinking Christianly: Christian Higher Education and a Vigorous Life of the Mind. These were among the traits that helped make Dr. Corts an effective university president, they agreed.
The book, subtitled Essays in Memory of Thomas E. Corts, was edited by his brother, Dr. Paul R. Corts, president of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities in Washington, D.C. Published by Sherman Oak Books of Samford University Press, it was unveiled at the colloquium attended by about 200 people Oct. 27 at Samford’s Brock Recital Hall.
Thomas Corts served as president of Samford from 1983 until his retirement in 2006. He died at age 67 in early 2009.
The eight panelists, each of whom wrote a chapter in the book, presented a synopsis of their chapter, then fielded a question from Samford Provost Brad Creed, the moderator, about qualities needed for effective leadership in Christian education, and which qualities Corts possessed.
“First of all, he was a dedicated Christian and he loved people,” said Bill Nunnelley, Samford’s senior editor and director of public relations who wrote a biographical chapter on Corts. “Students were at the core of his life. Plus, he was creative, and he was tireless. He worked hard to make Samford better.”
Corts had a “very affirming opinion” of his faith and could still operate in a world of ambiguity, according to Dr. Wayne Flynt.
Dean Timothy George of Samford’s Beeson Divinity School said Corts’ imagination and participation were the two traits he would offer to explain Corts’ success. “He could envision things that were not there,” said George. “He could see the future.”
Samford President Andrew Westmoreland opened the colloquium by affirming Corts’ service as Samford’s 17th president, saying he had “made the world a better place.” Paul Corts thanked Westmoreland for his “enthusiastic support” of the idea of a book to honor his brother’s ministry in Christian higher education.
In describing his chapter, Nunnelley said Corts brought a fresh vision to Samford when he became president. “But one of the things that struck me about Dr. Corts was his ongoing devotion to the idea of service as a ministry.” Nunnelley said Corts' goal was to make Samford “even better” and “the record shows he accomplished that.”
Roger Lovette, retired pastor, spoke and wrote of the “human side,” of Corts and labeled him Great Tom. “I saw him up close as his pastor and he really was great,” Lovette said.
Dr. Flynt, Auburn University professor emeritus, noted that Corts was “intentionally private,” but was drawn into public discourse by his knowledge of ancient biblical scholars and their pleas for justice, mercy and righteousness. Flynt provided a litany of organizations that Corts worked through to bring more justice to the state, particularly the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, which he started at Samford, and the Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, which he served as founding chairman. “Someday, we will have a new constitution and more justice because of Tom Corts’ life and ministry,” predicted Flynt, a Samford alumnus and former professor at the school.
Retired Beeson professor Fisher Humphreys told of Corts’ aspiration to make Samford more Christian. “I think he would begin every day by asking himself, ‘What can I do today to help Samford be a more Christian university?’” He said he thought Corts was asking how Samford more fully could express respect for students, and that he tried to accomplish this through his high standards, his personal friendship and his integrity.
Another Beeson professor, Lyle Dorsett, Billy Graham Professor of Evangelism, said he and Corts shared a common view that too many Christians who made great contributions to the faith had been overlooked by biographers. For that reason, Dorsett said his chapter in the book dealt with one such individual—William Plummer Jacobs—who started an orphanage that brought up thousands of Civil War orphans in South Carolina. Dorsett likened Jacobs to Corts.
Beeson Dean Timothy George, who had entitled his chapter "The Erasmian Movement," told of Corts’ fascination with books and the intersection of printing and bibliography, particularly words. One of those words, according to George, was “betterment.” Corts felt that Christian education could be better, no matter how “excellent” it was touted to be. “We are a better place because of his investment in this university,” said George.
Eric Motley, a Samford alumnus who is now vice president of the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C., shared that Corts “nurtured me, encouraged my curiosity and taught me to edit the excesses of my life.” He said Corts represented everything he wanted to be, a man who lived by his Christian faith and wanted the world to be a better place, “for God, for learning, forever.”