Westmont Magazine The Builders of Wesmtont
Over 61 years, Christians have come together to build Westmont. Their roles have varied—teacher, administrator, trustee, donor—but their vision and purpose have been the same. With books and bricks they have created a curriculum, campus, and community that all hold Christ preeminent.
By sharing their lives in service and their resources in support, these faithful individuals have established a tradition of giving. With-out their many contributions, the college could not have thrived. Their stories tell the Westmont story; their history is our heritage.
In this issue, the Westmont magazine introduces a few of these people and begins a two-year series of honoring them. Research by Paul Wilt, a professor emeritus of history who is studying the early years of the college, has laid the foundation for this article.
Ruth and Bill Kerr
Celebrated as Westmont’s principal founder, Ruth Kerr conceived the vision for the college. For 30 years, she served as a trustee and the college’s chief benefactor.
This remarkable woman graduated from business school and worked as a secretary-bookkeeper for Alexander H. Kerr, who owned Kerr Glass Manufacturing Company. After acquiring a patent, he had perfected the canning jar that bears his name. The two married in 1913 and produced six children.
Mr. Kerr embraced Christianity at a D. L. Moody crusade and believed fervently in tithing, a practice he promoted in two tracts. He enclosed these pamphlets in every case of canning jars and distributed them widely to ministers and Sunday school superintendents.
His financial success enabled him to support many charities, including churches, missionary projects, needy families, and Jewish-Christian missions. He donated his Portland, Ore., home to care for abandoned or orphaned infants. It became the Albertina Kerr Nursery Home in honor of his deceased wife. While collecting money for Community Chest in 1925, he contracted pneumonia and died.
Left with six young children, Mrs. Kerr continued both her husband’s business and charitable work. She assumed the presidency of the company in 1930 and became well-known for her philanthropy.
Interested in preparing young men and women for full-time Christian service, she wanted to start an affordable Bible institute that didn’t charge the usual $150 deposit. Three nationally known Bible teachers from Biola agreed to join the new school, and the Bible Missionary Institute opened in Los Angeles in 1937.
The vision for Westmont continued to grow, and in 1939, the board added a junior college curriculum and changed the name to Western Bible College. According to Mrs. Kerr, they then decided to found a “four-year liberal arts college built on a sound Christian basis, God having given us a vision for this larger work.”
In 1939, she purchased the Westlake School for Girls in Los Angeles and donated it as a memorial to her late husband, naming the main building Kerrwood Hall in his honor. Westmont College began offering a liberal arts curriculum in the fall of 1940.
Despite the war, enrollment grew, and five years later, the college sought larger facilities. Once again, Mrs. Kerr helped Westmont acquire a campus. After driving onto the grounds of the former Dwight Murphy estate in Santa Barbara, she was convinced God had chosen it as a site for the college.
She supported the college until her death in 1967 and was particularly interested in providing scholarships to students with need.
Her son, Bill, became a trustee in 1973, and he has continued his parents’ tradition of service and giving. He ran the Kerr Glass Manufacturing Company until he retired and the family sold their interest in the business. Through the Alexander H. Kerr Benevolent Association (later known as the A. H. Kerr Foundation), he gave $1 million to renovate the Ruth Kerr memorial Student Center in 1982 and $1 million for the Whittier Science Building in 1985. Bill remains an important and valued member of the board, and he shares his mother’s interest in providing financial aid to worthy students.
An accomplished linguist and specialist in biblical languages, Dr. Elbert McCreery joined Mrs. Kerr and Rev. Leland Entrekin as the incorporators of the college. He became dean, a position he had held at Biola.
His career began in Africa as a pioneer missionary in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Long before the work of Wycliffe Bible Translators began, he reduced the native languages Nuer and Shulla to writing and translated the Gospel of John into Shulla. He later served as field secretary for the Layman’s Missionary Movement, pastored several Presbyterian churches, and taught at Moody Bible Institute.
Dr. McCreery helped to establish high academic standards and acted as interim president in 1946. He retired the next year.
The memory of John Page lives on in the name of Westmont’s first residence hall. A much-loved Bible teacher and conference speaker, he joined the faculty in 1937. With his experience as a Congregational pastor and years of teaching at Moody Bible Institute and Biola, he was an unforgettable and inspiring professor. Wheaton recognized him with an honorary doctorate in 1926.
Dr. Page made sports history by playing in the first basketball game in Springfield, Mass., in 1892. At Westmont’s Homecoming game with Long Beach State in 1952, he threw the ball in as a special guest and the last living member of that very first team.
Few people have influenced the mission of Westmont more than its first president, Dr. Wallace Emerson. His goal was establishing a Christian institution that rivaled the best secular colleges and universities—a vision that still guides the college today.
Professor Payton Yoder described him as “a very dynamic kind of person with a lot of vision.” Margaret Jacobsen Voskuyl, another early faculty member, recalls that Dr. Emerson wanted “a school that would combine faith and academic excellence for our generation
. . . . a Christian college to develop Christian leaders.” Integrating his faith and scholarly pursuits became a lifelong passion.
He agreed to serve as president only of a liberal arts college, which definitively decided the curriculum. After earning a master’s from Stanford and a doctorate from the University of Southern California, he taught at several Southern California colleges, including Occidental, before becoming dean of students and professor of psychology at Wheaton.
Working to build a strong faculty, library, and curriculum, Dr. Emerson applied for accreditation in 1943. But Westmont fell short in these areas as well as in fiscal management. Faculty got paid only when money was available, and Dr. Emerson once sold his car to meet the payroll. “He drew us all to himself,” Dr. Yoder remembered. “We became very loyal to him. I think this is the principal explanation for many of us staying more than that first year.”
His health broke under the strain of leading the new college, and Dr. Emerson resigned in 1946. Later, he joined the faculty at Biola, where he chaired the division of education and psychology.
President Voskuyl came to Westmont from Wheaton, as Dr. Emerson had done. A group leader for the Manhattan Project during World War II, he earned a doctorate in chemistry at Harvard. Like his predecessor, he had a vision for high quality Christian education.
During Dr. Voskuyl’s 18-year tenure, Westmont grew in size, standing, and stability. His wise leadership set a steady course, and he accomplished most of Dr. Emerson’s goals, including accreditation. Archival photos of Dr. Voskuyl with a shovel in the ground attest to his role as a builder. For more information about his contributions, see page 19.
A Trio of Trustees
Many board members deserve recognition for building Westmont. The longest-serving trustee in Westmont history, Bruce Bare helped to lead the college for 49 years. He served as both chair and vice chair of the board and provided important leadership during the difficult early years. At the same time, he built one of the largest insurance firms in the nation. He and his wife, Adaline, fund the annual Teacher of the Year and Employee of the Year awards. Westmont gave him an honorary doctorate in 1971.
More than any other trustee, Rolf Jacobsen guarded the heritage of the college. According to longtime Professor Ken Monroe, “Rolf always considered Westmont in terms of the founders.” He asked how each decision affected the direction of the college and played a crucial role in keeping Westmont true to its original vision. The president of Standard Transmission Equipment Company and Reserve Invest-ment Company in Pasadena, Calif., he served on the board for 27 years.
Roy Johnston chaired the board for 18 years, providing stability during the frequent changes of administration in the early 1970s and leadership for two essential capital campaigns. A civil engineer specializing in earthquake resistance, he did the structural design for many major Los Angeles buildings.
Everett and Eleanor Armington
The first people to make a million-dollar gift to Westmont, Everett and Eleanor Armington learned about the college from a staff member who attended their church. When President Voskuyl’s daughter, Nancy, died in a car accident, they sent a gift in her memory, perhaps because they had lost two daughters. Then a Westmont basketball player helped them fix their car after it broke down, and their interest in the college grew.
Their first major contribution of $30,000 funded a badly needed new sewer system. They next built something above ground by donating one-third of the cost of the new “Armington Library,” but decided at the last minute to name it after President Voskuyl. A $1 million gift helped construct the residence hall that bears their name. They loved the outdoors, played golf at public courses, and never missed a Westmont basketball game.
The Armingtons had retired to a ranch in Summer-land after selling their Ohio-based company, Euclid Machinery, to General Motors. They later gave this property to the college in exchange for a lifetime annuity.
Ernest and Gertrude Gieser
Although they donated money for a new residence hall, Ernest and Gertrude Gieser decided not to put their name on it. Instead, they drew on her maiden name: Deborah Gertrude Clark. Mr. Gieser called her “Pat.”
Their first contact with the college came when Mr. Gieser sent a letter asking about annuities. A friend had just made a gift to Westmont and encouraged the Giesers to support the school as well. On his first visit, Gordon Caswell, the director of development, asked them to help build a new residence hall, and he returned with $684,000 worth of AT&T stock to fund a trust providing income for life.
Devout Plymouth Brethren, the Giesers supported many missionaries. They invested in Westmont to help develop spiritual and academic growth in Christian young people and prayed for the residents of Clark Halls.
Hugh and Pauline Murchison
A stockbroker and investment banker who succeeded spectacularly in every undertaking, Hugh Murchison worked as hard serving the community as he did in his business. During his 25-year tenure as president of the Union Rescue Mission, it became the largest such organization in the country, and he gained a national reputation as an authority on skid row rehabilitation. He also built a Los Angeles radio station, KPOL, into one of the most powerful voices in the region.
His connection with the college began when he asked Dr. Voskuyl to speak at the Rescue Mission. The Westmont president then invited him to campus and later to a retreat with the basketball team. Impressed with the commitment and maturity of these young men, Mr. Murchison became a trustee in 1964. Through two charitable trusts, he gave $800,000 for the Murchison Athletic Complex, but died in 1967 before it was finished.
William and Ellen Porter
As president, Dr. Voskuyl often heard about the problems people had with Westmont. In 1960, William Porter visited his office and announced that he had a problem: he believed in Christian education and wanted to put a building on the campus but didn’t know what it should be! Dr. Voskuyl suggested a fine arts facility, and Mr. Porter readily agreed, noting that his wife was interested in art and music. He named the building, which houses Westmont’s theatre, in her honor.
After his death, Mrs. Porter returned the favor and gave the money for Porter Center, originally the health center. The couple also funded the new entrance to the campus, outdoor lighting, and scholarships.
The Porters met as students at Santa Barbara High School and married in 1913. He went to Stanford and excelled as an athlete and debater. After serving in the Navy during World War I, he began a career in title insurance and developed the certificate of title method still used today. For 30 years he led Security Title Insurance and supported community organizations such as the Boy Scouts and the YMCA. Mrs. Porter was a talented artist and singer who delighted audiences with her lovely contralto voice.
Donald W. Whittier
The son of pioneer California oilman Mericos H. Whittier, who co-founded Belridge Oil, Don Whittier lived in Santa Barbara. Committed to supporting activities in the local area, he became involved with the Boy’s Club and A Child’s Estate, now known as the Santa Barbara Zoological Gardens. He also served on the board of the Santa Barbara Foundation.
His father had set an example of service by supporting many organizations in the Los Angeles area, including the Red Cross, the Boy Scouts, and the YMCA. When Mr. Whittier’s ongoing concern for young people led him to give $1 million to Westmont to fund a new science building, he chose to name the facility in honor of his father. Unfortunately, he died before seeing the completed building.
As Westmont’s longest serving president, David Winter has accomplished a great deal during the past 22 years. Increasing enrollment to 1,200, building four new facilities and 20 faculty homes, and gaining greater national recognition for Westmont are just the highlights. The quality of both the faculty and the student body has increased significantly as well. He has led numerous higher education organizations, and he chaired the senior commission of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the regional accreditation association, for three years.
David and Helene Winter’s friendships and involvement in the Santa Barbara community have increased visibility and respect for Westmont and led to gifts from local residents like Mr. Whittier and the couple who recently donated $5 million.
Looking to the future, President Winter continues to build on the vision of his predecessors. His goal is completing the campus to provide the facilities needed to increase Westmont’s national stature. Under his leadership, the college has developed an updated master plan that locates necessary new buildings in the best possible places. “By providing adequate academic facilities, a new residence hall, and other important buildings, the quality of the campus will finally begin to match the high caliber of our faculty, students, and program,” he explains. “As the founders envisioned, the college can then continue its commitment to excellence.”
—Nancy Favor Phinney ’74