Donor Stories

Uncommon good: Remembering Esther and Carl Robinson

Carl and Esther Robinson shared an unshakable commitment to justice, peace, the integrity of persons, and the well-being of society. Born in Iowa, Esther Lhamon and Carl Robinson were married in 1942 before Carl enrolled in the University of Chicago Divinity School through the Disciples Divinity House. At that time, neither women nor married men were eligible for House scholarships. However, Dean Ames granted a provisional scholarship to Carl, which was later extended. Mr. Robinson completed the three-year BD degree in 27 months. In 1949, they returned to Iowa, where Carl ministered in Red Oak and Des Moines. Esther drew on her background in music and business in the decades of leadership in the church that followed.

The Robinsons shared an unshakable commitment to justice, peace, the integrity of persons, and the well-being of society. Their commitments came to exemplary expression in Fresno, where they moved in 1962. Some observed Esther as being more low-key and patient than Carl, who pushed for immediate, concrete results – though both preferred to call attention to the challenges at hand rather than to themselves.

The Robinsons marched with Martin Luther King Jr and organized for low-income housing. Some leaders of the congregation Carl was serving became unhappy with his involvement in the community and fired him. The Robinsons then joined with others to start the Fresno House Church (Disciples of Christ). In 1970, they were founding members of the Fresno Metro Ministry. They each worked with area peace and justice groups and were pioneers in interfaith work. Esther also worked with the League of Women Voters, Church Women United, and the regional Christian Women’s Fellowship.

In 2005, Fresno Metro Ministry, together with the Interfaith Alliance of Central California and the Fresno Ministerial Association, established the Carl and Esther Robinson Award for the Common Good. In 2009, the Robinsons were named the third recipients of the Northern California/Nevada region’s Martin Luther King Jr Award in recognition of their lifelong work for justice and reconciliation.

Esther and Carl shared 71 years of marriage before Carl's death in 2013.  Esther died in August, 2019, just shy of her 101st birthday. They raised two daughters, Jo Ann and Jean, who survive them.

Esther and Carl Robinson were faithful to the House in small and large ways. They planned for a bequest from their estate – “not to pay a debt, but to ensure a future,” as they explained. Their final gift totaled over $41,000. During their long lives, they kept their eyes on the future. They were uncommon agents for the common good of all.

Edward H. and Mary Ruth Judd Kolbe Fund

The Edward H. and Mary Ruth Judd Kolbe Fund has been created to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Disciples Divinity House, and as an 85th birthday celebration of Ed Kolbe.

In the fall of 1956, after graduating from the University of Houston, Ed Kolbe entered the University of Chicago as a Disciples House Scholar. “I was the last Disciples student of Dr. W.E. Garrison while he was teaching religion and philosophy at the University of Houston,” Mr. Kolbe reflects. “This was the catalyst for a lifetime of influence of Disciples House in my life.” W.E. Garrison had served as the second dean of Disciples Divinity House from 1921-28.

After receiving his BD degree, Mr. Kolbe began forty years of congregational ministry, primarily in university towns including Lincoln, Nebraska, and Seattle, Washington. In 1977, he earned a DMin degree from Christian Theological Seminary. He retired in 2000 from Saint Andrew Christian Church in Arlington, Texas. He served interims in Texas, Missouri, and Kentucky.

Mary Ruth Judd Kolbe received a Bachelor’s degree in nursing from Indiana University, and a Master’s degree in nursing from the University of Nebraska. She taught nursing on the community college and university level in Indianapolis, Indiana; Warrensburg, Missouri; Lincoln, Nebraska; Corvallis, Oregon; and retired from Tarrant County College in 2002. She also worked as a director of nurses in nursing homes. She died on March 27, 2016 in Arlington, Texas. She was 79.

The Kolbes, who were married for 55 years, led educational tours to Israel and Europe, and volunteered in many clubs and organizations. They supported the mission of the Disciples Divinity House, and encouraged many prospective students, including Amy Artman and Vy Nguyen, to consider DDH. Mr. Kolbe served three terms on the Alumni/ae Council.

Gifts from the Kolbes’ three adult children, Ruth, Charles, and Tom, and their families on the occasion of their father’s 85th birthday in June combined with a generous gift in memory of Mary Ruth Kolbe to create the fund.

The Edward H. and Mary Ruth Judd Kolbe Fund will provide income to support the work of the House and its scholars for years to come. In addition, the fund will bear witness to Ed and Mary Ruth Kolbe’s service and leadership, and thereby encourage and embolden future Disciples House Scholars in the pursuit of their vocations.

Remembering the saints: Jean and Don Ervin

A new fund honors Jean L. and F. McDonald Ervin. Pillars of University Church and agents of change in the Hyde Park and Woodlawn communities, Jean and Don were also longtime friends of the House.

Prior to coming to Chicago, both studied at the University of Michigan. Jean completed Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Education. Don, a veteran of World War II, pursued a Bachelor’s in Geology, supported by the G.I. Bill. After discovering a deep interest in social dynamics, he later completed a Master’s degree in Social Psychology at Michigan, and went on to pursue doctoral studies at Northwestern University. They met in the Disciples and Congregational student ministry, Guild House, led by DDH alumnus H.L. Pickerill.

Upon arriving in Chicago in 1951, the couple took seriously their wedding vows to be a special partnership, ever seeking to expand the Kingdom of God by pursuing lives of public and community service. They were involved in many community organizations including the Hyde Park Co-op, the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference, and Woodlawn Development Association. Jean taught in Chicago public schools on the South Side, and participated in the movement to desegregate the schools in the early 1960s. Don worked in public administration and was very active in the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club, which focused on anti-discrimination and racial integration efforts.

Don and Jean became lay leaders of University Church, where fellow Guilders and House alumni Russell and Barbara Fuller were then serving on staff. Jean served at University Church as a board chair, Sunday School superintendent, and coffee hour hostess. Don served as board and social action chair, and was particularly passionate about housing issues. They were founding members of University Church’s Covenantal Community in Woodlawn.

Over the years, a number of House Scholars served as youth ministers at University Church or directors of CYF summer conferences and worked closely with Don and Jean’s three children Bruce, Rosemary, and Thomas. These young ministers’ commitment to youth and to racial and social justice impressed Don and Jean, inspiring them to become more involved with the House.

In retirement, they would become regular attendees at Monday Night Dinners and enthusiastic supporters of Disciples Divinity House scholars. Their warm-hearted and compassionate natures were felt throughout the House. “When they were present,” said Dean Kris Culp, “we felt the saints of the church were with us.” The gift establishing this fund is a bequest from their estate and will be used to support future generations of students.

Jean and Don Ervin’s relationship to the House continues through their son, Bruce Ervin, a Disciples minister. Mr. Ervin spent a six week sabbatical at the House in 2008, and he recently organized a reunion at DDH to mark the 50th anniversary of a Chicago Disciples Union Chi Rho Camp and the lifelong friendships that were formed there—alumnus Ruben Cruz and trustee Claudia Highbaugh had served as counselors. Bruce Ervin organized this gift in late 2017 on behalf of his beloved parents.

Looking back and planning ahead: Grace Lord Williams and John Norton Williams

The John Norton and Grace Lord Williams Fund, planned for at the time of DDH’s Centennial through provisions from their estate, came to fruition through a gift from the estate of Mrs. Williams after her death in 2017 at the age of 98. It totalled $21,568.

Grace Lord Williams and John Norton Williams, a member of the Disciples Divinity House entering class of 1971 and a leading Disciples minister, had married in 1971. They enjoyed 25 years together before his death in 1996.

Mr. Williams served churches in Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio, and with the Arkansas Council of Churches and the Christian Church in Indiana. His BD dissertation, Some Problems Concerning the Doctrine of the Church for the Disciples of Christ, later became a resource during the 1968 Restructure.

While serving as executive director of the Arkansas Council in the 1960s, he was honored by Senator J. William Fulbright, who published his position paper, “Moral Implications concerning America’s Involvement in the Vietnam War,” in the Congressional Record. He was honored by the Little Rock community when he was included as the only white representative on the platform for its Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial service in 1968.

Grace Elizabeth Lord Williams was born in Malden, Massachusetts, and raised in New Castle, Indiana. Mrs. Williams worked at the Chrysler Corporation during WWII and later at the IRC&D Motor Freight Co. in Indiana until her retirement. At the time of her death, she was living in Florida.

Looking back over his career, John Norton Williams observed, “I feel that I owe much of my success in Christian ministry to years of association at the House and the Divinity School.” In planning for the gift from their estate, they said they felt “both grateful and privileged to be able to stand among that great ‘circle of friends and visionaries’ committed to continuing the excellent ministry and mission of his alma mater in perpetuity.”

Ellen and Clyde Curry Smith: The "immigrants' daughter" and an astonishing gift

On April 16, 2016, Ellen Marie Christine Gormsen Smith’s friends, colleagues, and family—husband Clyde Curry Smith, children Harald and Karen and their spouses, seven grandchildren, and extended family—gathered from far and near to celebrate her life and what would have been her eighty-fifth birthday. There was an abundance to celebrate: friendships and family, to be sure, and also gifts of teaching and service, faithfulness, Danish heritage, and generosity to the Disciples Divinity House.

Ellen Marie Christine Gormsen was born on April 16, 1931, in Lakewood, Ohio, to a Danish immigrant family within a Danish Brotherhood Community primarily established by her great-uncle, Jens (James) Gormsen. Her father, Henry Emil Gormsen, had joined his uncle’s world in 1922; her mother, Louise Marie Jensen, came from Denmark to be his wife in 1929. More than did her younger sister, Anna Margaret, she experienced the ambivalence of being the 'immigrants’ daughter.' “Ellen’s whole adult life was marked by her work for the common good,” observed William E. Crowl, DDH alumnus and former Associate Dean, who gave the eulogy at her memorial service. “Her family—parents, husband, and children—were central in her labors. But so, too, were the unnamed and unknown she encountered wherever she lived and worked.”

Ellen was educated at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, receiving the Bachelor of Science in Education degree in 1953. On June 13 that same year, she married Clyde Curry Smith of Hamilton, Ohio, then a Disciples Divinity House Scholar who would receive the BD (1954), AM (1961), and PhD (1968) degrees from the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. After their Chicago years, they moved to Winnipeg, Canada, where their two children were born. In 1965, they moved to River Falls, Wisconsin, where Mr. Smith joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin—River Falls, and Mrs. Smith’s career eventually led to extensive public service.

When Ellen Smith retired in 1988, she was serving as Assistant to the Chancellor for Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity, University of Wisconsin-River Falls. In 1995, she became a member of the Planning Commission of the City of River Falls, Wisconsin. Her extensive community and civic contributions also included service with the Wisconsin Counties Association, the Pierce County Board, and numerous boards and councils in the hospital and health planning field. She served on the Governor's Health Planning Council from 1976-78. In 1983, she received the Harold Ristow Award for Outstanding Volunteer on Western Wisconsin Health Systems Agency Board. Her work with that agency included two years as its president.

Clyde Smith was a Phi Beta Kappa, cum laude graduate of Miami University of Ohio. He earned his A.B. in Honors Physics in 1951 and, in August of that same year, his M.S. in Mathematical Physics. That fall, upon arriving at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago to begin work on his B.D., he learned about the Disciples Divinity House. He became a House Scholar and subsequently earned the B.D. (1954) , A.M. (1961) , and Ph.D. (1968) degrees. He was ordained in 1954. While serving as Executive Assistant to Dean Blakemore during the 1956-57 academic year, Mr. Smith edited the first ever alumni directory. He later served on the Alumni/ae Council.

Mr. Smith began his teaching career at St. John's College in Canada and then moved to Brandeis University. He joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls in 1965, and was promoted to full professor in 1972. He retired in 1990. Smith, an expert in ancient history and a scholar of the Old Testament and Semitics by training, served as an NEH fellow at the University of California-Santa Barbara and a visiting research fellow at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. After retirement, he was a visiting professor at Culver-Stockton College and at The University, Newcastle upon Tyne, England. In 1999, he received an honorary doctorate from Fairfax University. Clyde Curry Smith died August 5, 2016.

The Smiths had met at a church conference for college students in Ohio and served together as staff at Camp Christian. They were married in her home congregation, the Lakewood Christian Church. Those connections in the Disciples of Christ grew deeper over the years. In 2002, the Smiths called Bill Crowl to inquire about making a gift to the Divinity House. Mrs. Smith had received one-half of her parents’ estate. While profoundly appreciative for that, the Smiths said they “did not need the money.” Instead, they decided to create a charitable gift annuity with the Christian Church Foundation that could provide income in retirement for Ellen with the residual ultimately benefiting the Disciples Divinity House. Bill Crowl, together with Gary Kidwell of the Foundation, worked with them to make that possible.

Ellen Smith's family legacy, combined with the Smiths’ shared commitment to the Disciples of Christ and the Disciples Divinity House, provided for a significant gift to the Divinity House. They shepherded and shielded that gift, including reducing the payout of the annuity in 2009 after the economic decline. After Mrs. Smith's death, Mr. Smith decided to terminate the gift annuity so that the residual could be distributed during his lifetime. The Disciples Divinity House received a check from the Christian Church Foundation for $329,380.37.

This astonishing gift, provided by “the immigrants’ daughter,” is among the very largest that the Divinity House has ever received. The gift was fashioned from the fullness and faithfulness of the lives of Ellen Marie Gormsen Smith and Clyde Curry Smith. It was made all the more remarkable in that Clyde Smith made it possible for the Disciples Divinity House to receive the full fruition of their plans during his own lifetime.

Woody Wasson and "the tissue of human living"

A quest for larger truths and religious integrity first led Woodrow W. Wasson to the Disciples Divinity House and the University of Chicago in 1940. That quest, together with his experience at Chicago, would orient his long career as a historian and sociologist and his life partnership with Marie Tallmon Wasson, a scientist and educator.

The Wassons had extraordinary regard for the importance of education and exemplary commitment to it. In July, the Disciples Divinity House received a gift of nearly $107,000 from the estate of Mr. Wasson. Earnings from the gift will help provide for the education of future students.

Woody Wasson was raised in Tennessee and first educated at David Lipscomb College and Vanderbilt University before earning BD and PhD degrees at Chicago in 1943 and 1947. Woody and Marie Wasson met when they were both students at Vanderbilt. After their marriage in 1944, she studied medical sciences at the University of Chicago. He continued PhD studies at the Divinity School with historian Sidney Mead and wrote a dissertation on President James A. Garfield, which was later published.

Mr. Wasson became the founding dean of the Christian College at the University of Georgia, University archivist at Vanderbilt, and a professor of sociology and religion at Middle Tennessee State University. He died in December 2013 at age 97. Marie Wasson became an instructor in the Department of Pathology at the Vanderbilt University Medical School. They shared 58 years of marriage until her death in 2002.

In a sermon that was broadcast on a Chicago radio station in June 1944, two days before D-Day, Mr. Wasson spoke about faith, hope, and love as the fullest and simplest expression of the Christian life. “These three great words,” he said, “… are not theological words to be confined to any system of religious thought or to any dogmatic creed. They best express an attitude. When they are thought of as expressing an attitude, they then become part of the tissue of human living, rather than divorced from the tissue of human life.”

"The Wassons have become part of 'the tissue of human living' that is the Disciples Divinity House," Dean Kris Culp commented. "We are grateful for their lives and for their generosity."

Extending a legacy: Crowl Fund established

When Bill Crowl retired (again) after serving a two-year interim ministry at the Arlington Heights Christian Church, the congregation wanted to do something special. Because they knew about the Crowls' devotion to the Disciples Divinity House and its students, the elders decided to make a gift to the scholarship endowment in their honor. “We hope that these funds can be utilized in the training of future ministers as a legacy to Bill and Patty.”

With that gift and another gift from a church leader, the William E. and Patricia V. Crowl Fund was launched. The Crowls themselves were caught up in the idea of extending their care to future ministers and leaders. They brought the fund to $10,000.

And, what a legacy. Fifty-one years ago, while he was still a Disciples House Scholar, Bill Crowl became the founding pastor of the First Christian Church of Downers Grove, Illinois. Fifty years ago this July, Bill and Patty married. They raised three daughters while also nurturing friends, colleagues, congregations, and regions: Downers Grove, First Christian Baltimore, Northwest Christian Church in Columbus, and the Central Rocky Mountain Region as well as Cherry Log and Arlington Heights.

All the while, Bill Crowl lent his leadership to DDH: as member and president of the Alumni/ae Council, as member and president of the Board of Trustees, and as Associate Dean. In 2013, he was the recipient of the Distinguished Alumnus Award.

Thank you, Arlington Heights and Bill and Patty Crowl, for extending a legacy of leadership and ministry.

Rolland and Leverne Pfile honored

On October 7, 2012, at Downey Avenue Christian Church in Indianapolis, Angela Pfile and Dean Kris Culp, joined with Senior Minister Sue Shadburne Call and the congregation to honor Rolland and Leverne Pfile. The recognition had been set in motion a year before. Angela Pfile and Doug Job, who had met at the Disciples Divinity House when they were both Scholars and married in the Chapel of the Holy Grail, decided to establish a fund in her parents’ names at the Disciples Divinity House. (Mr. Job, who is starting a new congregation in Athens, Georgia, Evergreen Christian Church, was not able to join the October celebration.)

Leverne Barlow and Rolland Pfile likewise met at the University of Chicago Divinity School when they were both graduate students there. Rolland, who earned his B.D. in 1964, was a Disciples Divinity House Scholar; Leverne was not—at that time, women were not admitted to DDH or eligible for its scholarships. Throughout his ministry and during an era of significant social change in church and society, Rolland G. Pfile provided prophetic leadership and critical support for other prophets. After serving congregations in Pennsylvania, he was called to be Executive Secretary of the Department of Church in Society of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), where he served from 1974-91. Under his leadership and with a remarkable staff, Church in Society helped Disciples to address racial and economic justice, peace, refugee resettlement, divestment in South Africa, and other issues. Later, Mr. Pfile held several interim ministries. From 1993-95, he was the convener of DDH’s centennial celebration and campaign committee.

Leverne B. Pfile was elected to the DDH Board of Trustees in the mid-1970s—about the time that women became eligible to be Disciples House Scholars. For over 20 years, until 1999, she gave crucial leadership including as Vice President and on two dean search committees. She helped to shape both what the Board did and how it did its work. Women who were Scholars during those years remember her presence, leadership, and advocacy as vitally important. In 1985, Ms. Pfile earned a M.S. in counseling and, in partnership with Downey Avenue Christian Church, opened Hope Counseling. In her practice, she has assisted persons in establishing sustaining patterns of relationship and interdependence.

Reeve Gift caps a lifetime of stewardship

In the summer of 1944, a tall lanky seminarian named Jack Reeve met a petite but forceful recent graduate of the University of Colorado named June Varner. He was a native of Des Moines, Iowa, a graduate of Drake University, and a Disciples Divinity House Scholar; she was from Wichita, Kansas. The next summer, after he graduated from the University of Chicago, they were married. During the next sixty-two years, they would share many things: ministry in several places, the birth of four children and the tragic loss of one, commitment to family and to church, travel and service, and a love of music.

Stewardship was integral to how they understood the Christian faith and how they lived their lives. In 1958 Jack Reeve was called from congregational ministry and extensive work with youth conferences to the national staff as stewardship secretary. He continued to emphasize stewardship when he was called to regional ministry in the Christian Church in Illinois and Wisconsin in 1968 and, beginning in 1978, as Professor of the Practice of Ministry at Lexington Theological Seminary.

In 1968 he was elected to the Board of Trustees of the Disciples Divinity House. As its president from 1990-92 and as a longtime member of its development committee, Mr. Reeve provided both encouragement about and an example of generous giving. (Then, too, Board members knew how many Habitat for Humanity homes he helped to construct after “retirement”—so many that the Lexington paper dubbed him Habitat’s “energizer bunny.”) In 2005, Mr. Reeve was elected an Honorary Trustee for Life.

June Reeve worked side by side with her husband in these years of ministry and often attended Board of Trustee meetings with him. She was the first woman to be elected elder at First Christian Church in Bloomington, Illinois, and served for several years on the board of the Barton W. Stone Christian Home. She was an active member of the Christian Women’s Fellowship and attended all of the CWF quadrennial assemblies from 1957-2006.

As their children grew up and established their own lives and families, the Reeves reviewed their estate plan. They decided to think of sharing their accumulated resources in four equal portions, one for each of their children and another to be divided among two theological education institutions.

June Reeve died on June 20, 2007. As Jack Reeve reviewed his situation, he realized that he could provide the gift (during his lifetime) that he and June had planned from their estate. And so, in a bold move, Life Trustee Jack V. Reeve has given the Disciples Divinity House $125,000 over the past few months. This gift caps a lifelong commitment to the Disciples Divinity House and a lifetime of generous stewardship. Jack Reeve died on February 25, 2012; he was 93.

“I am giving this gift out of my appreciation of the education received at DDH and the University of Chicago and the contribution it made to my many-faceted ministry,” Jack Reeve explained. “I have received more from DDH than my years on the board or my financial support can repay.”

Sheafor bequest secures a horizon of leadership

Rolland and Laura Frances Sheafor were convinced that “the Disciples House and the University of Chicago are uniquely equipped to provide a horizon and quality of education that can lay the foundation for effective leadership at the local, denominational, and ecumenical levels.” The Sheafors matched their judgment with action. Two gifts from their estate will help ensure that horizon of leadership now and into the future.

Rolland and Laura Frances Sheafor were associated with the Disciples Divinity House for more than seventy years, from 1936 when they were married and Rolland began his studies as a Disciples House Scholar, through his service as a trustee until his death in 1996, to her memorial service in the Chapel of the Holy Grail in May 2008.

Both were native Kansans. They met at Phillips University and planned to marry after graduation. Rolland had a nice fellowship from the Disciples Divinity House to pursue graduate study at the University of Chicago.

There was one big problem, though. Dean Ames would not extend the fellowship to married men (not to mention to any women); he believed they could not devote themselves fully to their studies. Not to be deterred, Rolland and Laura Frances eloped. That first year, she lived with her parents in Kansas and worked. The following year, Dr. Ames relented. The “newlyweds” Sheafor moved into a small walk up apartment near campus.

On Thursday nights, Rolland and the other “men of the House” gathered in the chapel to listen to the organ and then marched downstairs to dinner. Laura Frances took part in the weekly ritual by waiting tables.

The Sheafors developed a deep appreciation for the wisdom and guidance of Edward Scribner Ames as well as for the scholarship support that made their experience possible. When their first child was born, they named him Scribner. Their second child, Margaret, was born after Mr. Sheafor began law school at Ohio Northern University.

The Sheafors knew well what constituted “effective leadership” throughout the church. In the mid-1940s, Mr. Sheafor joined the Board of Church Extension where he shaped innovative investment and mortgage loan options. Named president in 1966, over the next thirteen years he led initiatives in supporting racial-ethnic churches and ecumenical ventures, in advancing technology and sound management practices among the Disciples, and with the New Church Establishment program.

“It is no stretch of the imagination to say that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) would be a far different denomination without Rolland Sheafor’s innovative leadership,” Dean Kris Culp commented. “The church owes a great debt of gratitude to him and to Laura Frances for the partnership that undergirded and guided that work.”

Mrs. Sheafor also knew about leadership from her own work. She pursued graduate studies in education at Butler and Indiana-Purdue University. For twenty-three years she taught in Indianapolis public schools; she was also an adjunct instructor at Indiana University. She was active in Christian religious education at Downey Avenue Christian Church and, when the Eastgate Christian Church was organized, she developed its children’s department.

Finally, the Sheafors knew how to plan for the gift they wanted to make. Understanding how bequests and other planned giving instruments could help individuals and churches further their commitments, Mr. Sheafor had helped to create the Christian Church Foundation. The Sheafors later worked with the CCF to provide their own planned gift.

Initially, Rolland and Laura Frances Sheafor planned for the creation of a scholarship fund through a bequest. In 1995, they discovered a way to increase their commitment. By creating a testamentary family trust, they were able to designate an immediate bequest and also set up a charitable trust with income benefitting their children during their lifetimes. Thereafter, a portion of the trust assets will provide significantly more scholarship funds.

The first Rolland and Laura Frances Sheafor award was granted to House Scholar Kristel Clayville in 2009. The Sheafors’ vision and action now stretch to the far horizon of leadership.