A Hard Beginning
Born during the Depression and struggling for life during World War II, Westmont faced an uncertain future during the 1940s. How did it survive with no endowment, a small enrollment, and inadequate facilities? The answer lies in the faith and commitment of a special group of people – and in the grace of God.
The vision for Westmont began with Ruth Kerr, an unusual woman for her time. Her husband, Alexander, died in 1925, and she assumed his position as president of the Kerr Glass Manufacturing Company in 1930 even though she had six children.
Convinced of the need for a Bible institute that didn’t require the usual $150 deposit, Mrs. Kerr decided to start one herself. “In August of 1937, God awakened this Christian woman out of a sound sleep one night, and the still, small voice said, ‘Now is the time to open the school.’”
The next morning, the Reverend Leland Entrekin shared a similar burden with Mrs. Kerr. Then three nationally known Bible teachers who had left Biola offered to teach at the new school: Dr. Elbert McCreery, Dr. John Page, and Mrs. Anna Dennis.
The Bible Missionary Institute opened in the fall of 1937 at the First Fundamental Church (later Westlake Calvary) with 72 students and 16 faculty and staff. Many students, like Margaret Fraser Anderson ’40, transferred from Biola. She values the Bible teaching she received at the Institute.
“Mrs. Anna Dennis was an absolutely marvelous teacher and her dispensational teaching I will never forget…[John Page] was just a wonderful teacher… he was funny… And he loved students…[Dr. McCreery] made a tremendous impact on my life, not just as a teacher, but as my personal friend…He would make doctrine understandable by breaking it down into individual doctrines in the Bible.”
Margaret met her husband, Burns ’40, when Dr. Page “put them together” over the kitchen sink after a choir performance. The Institute changed Burns’ perspective. “It was broadening to find out that there was a bigger church out there in the world….school was a completely soul-changing experience for me. I woke up to the fact that you didn’t have to belong to a certain little group of people….But anyone who acknowledged Jesus Christ as Lord could be my brother.”
The school struggled financially, and the founders began to wonder if Los Angeles needed two Bible institutes. In January, 1939, they added a junior college curriculum and changed the name to Western Bible College.
Then, in Mrs. Kerr’s words, “In May, 1939, we were led of the Lord to contact Dr. Wallace L. Emerson, dean of students at Wheaton College, to come to us as president of a proposed four-year liberal arts college built on a sound Christian basis, God having given us the vision for this larger work.”
That summer, Mrs. Kerr purchased the campus of the Westlake School for Girls on South Westmoreland Avenue in Los Angeles and gave it to the College as a memorial to her late husband. The property included six buildings and four and one-half acres.
In the spring of 1940, Dr. Emerson accepted Mrs. Kerr’s offer. He later explained, “I agreed to come on her request with a proviso that I would have the hiring and the firing of the faculty and nothing was to interfere with that….I told Mrs. Kerr that I was in no way interested in anything but a liberal arts college.”
So Western Bible College became Westmont College. Why “Westmont”? Dr. Emerson had suggested “Trinity,” but students didn’t like the name. He recalled that someone on the board coined “Westmont.” “Well it’s out West and it’s in the mountains….Westmont became the name for no rhyme nor reason except that it was a name that sounded all right and had a little significance as far as location was concerned.”
Classes began in the fall of 1940 with 33 faculty and 85 students. Dr. W. W. Catherwood, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Riverside, became the first president of the board, a position he held for six years. Mrs. Kerr served as the secretary-treasurer.
Paton Yoder, a history professor during the 1940s, came with “a lot of uneasiness and also a lot of expectancy, and we found that same spirit at the College – a great spirit of expectancy but also a concern for the future….”
Margaret Bailey Jacobsen Voskuyl, another professor, remembers meeting Westmont Trustee Dr. John Bunyan Smith. “[He] grabbed my hand and he held it tight, and he said to me, ‘Young lady, do you subscribe to the doctrinal statement of Westmont College?’ It made me realize how deeply some of those people felt…[about] what they were founding.”
Dr. Emerson brought a tremendous vision to the new college. He wanted to establish a Christian institution that rivaled the best secular colleges and universities in the country.
Margaret Voskuyl remembers how Dr. Emerson presented Westmont. “This was to be a school that would combine faith and academic excellence for our generation. It was to be a school, not a Bible school, not a seminary, but a Christian college to develop Christian leaders, and it was a joy to be a part of something that had so much basic vision.”
The statement of purpose in the first Quarterly Bulletin reflects Dr. Emerson’s views. “In every step which has led up to the present organization of Westmont College, the goal has been careful scholarship, sound doctrine, and consistent Christian living. Westmont College is interdenominational and evangelical, believing that genuine scholarship is not only compatible with, but necessary to, the Christian viewpoint….”
Dr. Emerson believed it necessary to offer as broad a curriculum as possible. Dr. Yoder recalls the development of the catalog. “I sent him quite an extensive list [of courses] and told him I was sure we shouldn’t put all of them in and maybe he would like to use some discretion and decide….He put them all in….So perhaps that…illustrates the anticipation and the vision Dr. Emerson had….”
Another challenge was developing a library. In five years, Elinor Berg, the librarian, collected 19,000 second-hand volumes at a cost of $30,000. Used book dealers agreed to give books to Westmont and receive payment when money became available. Mrs. Berg attended estate auctions where she bid books at a “ridiculously low price,” sometimes paying for them herself. She also taught students to bind magazines. According to Cora Reno, a biology professor, they bought only the test books. “We couldn’t order something…because it appealed. It had to have a high rating.”
Developing a good library and a broad curriculum were necessary for Westmont to receive accreditation. As Margaret Voskuyl recalls, “There was no question in Dr. Emerson’s mind that…they were going to seek accreditation as soon as possible….We weren’t going to fool around and have a non-academic institution now!”
But when he applied for accreditation in 1943, Westmont fell short in four areas: inadequate financing, the “peculiar religious requirements for the faculty and the nature of the financial arrangements with them,” the inability of faculty to teach all the courses in the catalog, and an incomplete library. But Dr. Emerson’s determination to gain accreditation set an important precedent.
Westmont suffered from the lack of financing. Since faculty came on “faith,” the College didn’t guarantee their salaries. Professors got paychecks when funds were available, and wages not paid by the end of the year were cancelled. Few donors supported the College; Mrs. Kerr gave 75% of the gifts received during the early years.
Dr. Yoder remembered “when it was discovered that our first checks wouldn’t be forthcoming….we found for the first eight years we never knew how much of our salary was coming and when it was coming.”
How did faculty survive? Dr. Emerson recalled, “They were beyond all praise….I asked…Jane McNally… ‘Jane, are you getting enough to eat?’ And she said, ‘Well I’m getting one good meal a day.’ I said, ‘Are you sorry you came?’ And she said, ‘No…I’m getting along and I’m in the best company I’ve ever been in.’ That was her attitude. And when Cora Reno was hired….I asked her, ‘What would it take, Cora, to get you out there?’ And she said, ‘A place to stay and three meals a day.’ And that was the spirit of a good many of them.”
Dr. Emerson held them together – he even sold his car to pay faculty salaries. Dr. Yoder found him to be a “very dynamic kind of person with a lot of vision. Some people might call him a dreamer. He drew us all to himself. We became very loyal to him. I think this is the principal explanation for many of us staying more than that first year….”
Prayer also kept them going. Margaret Voskuyl has vivid memories of prayer meetings in Dr. Emerson’s office and one teacher who prayed about a bar and dance hall being built across the street. “[She] would pray concerning that lot, ‘Lord confound their evil schemes.’ Well I had never in my life heard anyone pray like that….and the whole project just came to an end….That corner is now the First Church of the Nazarene.”
Mrs. Kerr recalled that faculty prayed often for the school. “Of their own volition, they met regularly – some days, the entire group – other days in separate, smaller groups, but they all spent much time in prayer on their knees.”
So did students. According to Bob Ross ’48, “One of the vital things that I remember about Westmont is that the leadership did not hesitate to call the school to prayer during times of financial need….and we saw answers to prayer.”
Despite the financial problems and the war, enrollment at Westmont grew, reaching 204 in the fall of 1944. After the war, the student body peaked at 324 in 1946, and then declined to 267 in 1949. It began increasing again in the 1950s.
The stress of starting the new college affected Dr. Emerson’s health, and he resigned in 1946. In 1948, the board called Dr. James Forrester to the presidency. He had taught philosophy and English at Westmont before entering the service, so he knew the College. His goals included relocating the campus in the Los Angeles area, gaining accreditation, and expanding the public relations office. But the board decided to stay in Santa Barbara, and Dr. Forrester resigned in 1950. He later became president of Gordon College in Massachusetts.
At the end of the 1940s, Westmont still had financial problems, but it was established as a college, thanks to the generosity of Mrs. Kerr and the vision of Dr. Emerson. Margaret Voskuyl remembers, “When I think of…the stars we had in our eyes at the establishment of that school and how involved in it we were and how committed to it, what a vision we shared – those were wonderful days, they really were.”