Uncommon Arkansans: Ouachita’s Ben Elrod
Editor’s Note: Ben Elrod died Aug. 7, 2018. The following article, originally published in 2017, is part of a series highlighting Arkansas Baptists who have made a lasting impact in furthering the cause of Jesus Christ.
Arkansas Baptist News
SHERWOOD – There are countless stories of men who had no intention of becoming a pastor, but did so against their own will in response to a call of God. There are also cases of men who felt called to the pastorate only to backslide and fall away from God and the church. However, there are not many times that God calls a man to preach before transitioning his call away from the pulpit while maintaining its deep spiritual and generational significance.
Ben Elrod’s story represents the latter.
Born in Rison in 1930, during the Great Depression, Elrod grew up around a caring family. Elrod’s parents each played an enormous role in shaping the man he would eventually become.
Following a time working as a federal land appraiser, in which he traveled often and was away from home most weeks, Elrod’s father bought a portable sawmill and started a business that, by the 1950s, employed around 300 people, or around one third of Rison’s population at that time, according to “Giving Until It Feels Good,” a biography of Elrod’s life published in 2016.
Elrod’s mother stood less than five feet tall and nearly died during the birth of John, Elrod’s older brother. Advised by her doctor to have an abortion, while pregnant with Ben, due to previous complications during childbirth, she refused, telling Elrod’s father, “We’re going to have this baby.”
Life was not easy during the Depression, and the Elrods were not immune. Sundays were a refuge for the family. They attended the local Baptist church.
At age 12, Elrod made a profession of faith in Christ during a revival.
In high school Elrod got the opportunity to serve as a page for the U.S. House of Representatives. He fondly recalls the experience and said it played an integral role in shaping his views on leadership.
Elrod envisioned himself becoming a doctor for his profession, and his father had hopes of him entering the family sawmill business with him and John. Realizing he was not interested in medicine – accompanied by a long night of prayer asking God for direction – Elrod sensed God calling him to become a minister at 16 while in Washington.
In 1948, Elrod enrolled at Ouachita Baptist University (then Ouachita Baptist College), where he majored in history, minored in political science and served as president of the student government as a senior.
Elrod married his wife, Betty, in the summer following their junior year at Ouachita.
In Elrod’s senior year in 1951, the famed Battle of the Ravine football game between Ouachita and Henderson State University (then Henderson State Teachers College) was canceled due to the amount of vandalism and violence it incited among the rival schools. The contest was eventually reinstated in 1963.
After serving as pastor of multiple churches in Arkansas as a college student and in the years after graduating from Ouachita, Elrod enrolled at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He continued to pastor churches in Texas and Oklahoma during seminary.
Following seminary, Elrod accepted a call to serve as pastor of South Side Baptist Church, Pine Bluff. During his time there, Elrod became a member of Ouachita’s board of trustees. Board members had many discussions about things that needed to be done and the lack of financial ability of the school to do them. During Elrod’s second year on the board, Ouachita’s President Ralph Phelps began forwarding the idea of him joining the school’s staff in the role of vice president for development.
“I had interpreted my call to be a call to the pastorate, and it was very difficult for me to think about doing anything else. … I loved the pastorate. But he (Phelps) was pretty insistent on this,” Elrod said in the book, “Giving Until It Feels Good.”
“One of my problems was that when he talked about fundraising, I sort of equated that to riverboat gamblers. The only fundraisers I had ever seen were people who came down South and fleeced other people. But I had this pressure of seeing the needs of Ouachita from the inside as a member of the board,” he wrote.
Serving 12 years as a pastor in local Southern Baptist churches, Elrod followed God’s call away from the pulpit and into Baptist higher education in 1963. In a speech he gave 25 years after he accepted the job at Ouachita, Elrod said, “When anyone asked why, I found myself telling the same story over again. … In brief, it was the story of a boy remade by the transforming grace of God through a Christian institution.”
Elrod served in development at Ouachita for five years before leaving to pursue a doctorate in educational administration from Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind. During his time there, he served as president of Oakland City College, a small General Baptist institution.
Soon after, William Jewell College in Missouri contacted Elrod regarding its presidency; Elrod was also contacted by Dan Grant, the newly elected Ouachita president. Grant was the son of J.R. Grant, former president of Ouachita, who had recruited Elrod to come to school when he was in high school. After much heartfelt discernment, Elrod returned to Ouachita to once again serve as the school’s vice president for development.
In the years that followed, Elrod led Ouachita through one of the school’s most prolific eras of development. An endowment and endowed chairs for instruction were established, foreign exchange and honors programs were started and multiple construction projects took place, including: the Evans Student Center (1973), Lile Hall (1973), the Mabee Fine Arts Center (1975), a campus driveway and pedestrian bridge (1976), the Blackmon Field House (1977) and McClellan Hall (1978).
In 1978, Elrod left Ouachita to become president of Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky. After five years at Georgetown, Elrod returned to Arkansas to serve as president of the Independent Colleges of Arkansas (now Arkansas’ Independent Colleges and Universities). Then in 1988, at the age of 57, Elrod returned to Arkadelphia to become president of Ouachita.
Elrod said he first told Ouachita’s search committee to look elsewhere, as he believed they needed a younger man for the job. When they circled around and insisted that he was the man for the job, Elrod obliged.
“Some decisions … make you feel a bit uncomfortable, sort of like a new pair of shoes,” Elrod said of his acceptance of the presidency at Ouachita in “Giving Until It Feels Good.”
“Others feel comfortable from the moment you make them.”
Elrod was Ouachita’s president for nearly a decade. From his time as a student, to his time as president, to his continued work in retirement, few people have devoted as much effort, time and money into making Ouachita the best possible institution it can be as Elrod has over the past seven decades.
Today, Elrod is most likely best known for the fundraising and development work he did during his multiple stints at Ouachita and as the namesake of the Ben M. Elrod Center for Family and Community, which was established in 1998 and for which Elrod provided $500,000 in endowment funds to support.
The preliminary work of what would become the Elrod Center spawned programs, such as Tiger Serve Day, that have grown over the years to become flagships of the university’s commitment to education, its surrounding community and developing its students into servant leaders. A new and improved Elrod Center building was dedicated and opened in 2015.
Revealing his love for the local church, Elrod said that one highlight of his years of ministry was when First Baptist Church, Atkins, called him as pastor.
“That was a complete surprise and a welcome one. … That was a real highlight of my experience while I was at Ouachita,” said Elrod. “They called me in October, before I graduated in May.”
Another fond memory came from Elrod’s first pastorate at Cedar Creek Baptist Church in Waldron. He commuted from Ouachita once per month to preach, as four churches used the same facility.
“That little fourth-time pastorate was very, very good for me. I wanted to preach … and I felt the weight of the pastorate there; I pastored those people. I went up there for a week or ten days and had a revival while I was pastor and lived in their homes. Ate with them and all that.”
“There was a family there named Frost. They frequently asked me to lunch when I was there. And they had a little girl who was about three years old as I remember it. Before very long, when I went there for lunch, she wanted to sit in my lap which pleased me to no end,” said Elrod.
“She was just a little sweetheart, and I loved her,” he said. “Years later at Ouachita, we were having new student reception or something of that sort. And I looked up and there was Charlie Frost, the father of this girl. And I said, ‘Charlie, what are you doing here?’ And he said, ‘I brought my daughter to enroll her. She is going to come to Ouachita.’”
The girl went on to become a missionary.
“Stories like that were plentiful but scarce,” Elrod said. “It was a great moment for me when I looked up and saw him and realized that she was there.”
“God has been so good to me that sometimes I wonder what he expects of me, and it scares me to death,” he said with a smile.
Contact Caleb Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org.