Alumna’s farm focuses on earth-friendly food

Wiepie and Cody Cross with one of their Nubian milk goats at Little Acorn Farm.

Wiepie and Cody Cross with one of their Nubian milk goats at Little Acorn Farm.

Earth Week is a great time to appreciate the planet we call home, and one ACU alumna is using the skills she honed as an agricultural and environmental sciences major to provide chemical-free produce and meat from her Little Acorn Farm near Abilene.

Wiepie (Rojas ’13) Cross, who spent 10 months as a Fulbright Scholar in Malaysia, has returned to West Texas to make her home. Her husband, Cody, a Texas A&M University graduate, is a fourth-generation farmer in the Jim Ned Valley.

Here’s how Cross describes her farm:

Nestled in the Jim Ned Valley sits a little yellow farmhouse on the Little Acorn, a diversified and traditional farm on 100 acres that grows food for quality and taste, not quantity and appearance. We started the farm because we wanted direct access to REAL food. We love to cook, love to eat and enjoy working with our hands, so it seemed like a perfect fit.

Running a farm is a challenge, but it’s also a good way to slow down and to get to experience creation in a way most people never do. I’m always learning new things about myself – mostly about my patience!

The great thing about farming is that there is always something new to experiment with. We currently have lamb, comical Nubian dairy goats, a flock of fussy red hens for eggs, seasonal produce (think: juicy, perfectly ripe heirloom tomatoes), grass-fed beef cattle, and some value-added products like sourdough bread, and canned goods. We also grow some of our own livestock feed like wheat and milo.

We believe in stewarding the land God has given us in the way it was intended. Our farm uses no chemicals and practices herbal techniques for animal health. It’s not perfect. We run into plenty of problems, squish lots of bugs, and pray often about growing enough grass for our animals, but we do our best to hold true to our convictions.

Cross, who earned a degree in environmental sciences from ACU, is now working on certification with the Nutritional Therapy Association, which addresses nutrition from a holistic perspective teaching practitioners to assess the body’s nutritional deficiencies and address those weaknesses through diet, supplements and lifestyle changes.

Produce grown at Little Acorn Farm

Produce grown at Little Acorn Farm

“As a nutritional therapy student, I thought that to give clients solid recommendations for healthy food choices, there needed to be farms in the area to provide that food,” she said. “I believe the root of our health comes from the soil and thus our connection with farms is essential. When it comes to food, you pay for what you get, and while we’ve been trained to hunt for deals, I’d encourage everyone to invest heavily in what you put in your body because it pays dividends. Support local farms and get excited about getting back in the kitchen!”

Here’s one of her favorite seasonal menus:

Krisp Kale Salad:

1 bunch of fresh kale leaves

1 block of goat/sheep feta cheese

2 tablespoons high-quality olive oil

1 teaspoon pink Himalayan Salt

1 clove chopped garlic

1 small purple onion, chopped

1 lime, squeezed

Toss ingredients together.

Blue Cheese and Pecan Roasted Beets

2 medium beets (any color: pink, red, orange, white)

2 tablespoons butter, melted

Blue cheese or gorgonzola

½ cup pecans or pecan pieces

1 teaspoon salt

Cube beets into small squares and season with salt. Add into melted butter in a casserole dish. Chop and stir in pecans. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until beets are tender. Sprinkle cheese on top and put dish back in oven for five minutes.

Roasted Lamb Shank with Vegetable Chutney

2 pounds lamb shanks

2 cups red wine

2 tablespoons unrefined palm oil

Chutney: cooked carrot, celery, onion

2 cloves garlic

Sear lamb shanks in oil at high heat in a skillet for five minutes per side, then set aside. Cook chutney with diced garlic at high heat in the same pan until it starts to stick, to cook it down. Combine all ingredients in a dutch oven. Add red wine and two cups water with all the ingredients, and cook at 275 degrees for two hours.


ACU Remembers: Ted Sitton

Sitton's offensive schemes for the Wildcats set records and developed many players for the NFL.

Sitton’s offensive schemes for the Wildcats set records and prepared many ACU players for professional football.

Charles Ted Sitton (’54), an Abilene Christian University football hero as a student-athlete and later, innovative architect of some of the Wildcats’ top offensive performances as a coach, died April 15, 2016, in Abilene at age 84 following a long illness.

A memorial service will be conducted at 1:30 p.m. today in Abilene’s University Church of Christ (733 E.N. 16th, Abilene, Texas 79601), with arrangements by The Hamil Family Funeral Home.

Sitton quarterbacked the Wildcats to an 11-0 record a bowl game in 1950.

Sitton quarterbacked the Wildcats to an 11-0 record and a bowl game victory in 1950.

Sitton was born Jan. 20, 1932, in Stamford, Texas, graduating from high school there in 1949. He met Gloria Pace (’62) in the third grade and they married July 15, 1951. She died Nov. 24, 2013.

As a sophomore at Abilene Christian in 1950, he quarterbacked the Wildcats to their only undefeated, untied season (11-0 record) and a trip to the Refrigerator Bowl in Evansville, Ind. He also competed in track and field as a student-athlete.

After graduation, he coached at Graham (Texas) High School and Abilene High School before joining the ACU staff in 1967. At AHS, his Eagle team won the state track and field title in 1961.

Sitton was ACU offensive coordinator from 1968-78, 1985-86 and 1993-94, leading his teams to NAIA Division I national championships in 1973 and 1977. He developed high-powered passing offenses, with six of his quarterbacks throwing for at least 2,000 yards in 15 different seasons. He coached ACU’s first 3,000-yard passer, four QBs who won first-team all-conference honors and one named first-team all-America. Sitton was ACU’s head coach from 1979-84, winning Lone Star Conference Coach of the Year honors in 1981.

He worked as the university’s director of quality control and safety from 1987-93, was inducted to the ACU Sports Hall of Fame in 1995 and the Big Country Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.

Preceding him in death were his parents, Pat and Lillian Sitton; a sister, Peggy (Sitton) Hickey; Gloria, his wife of 62 years; and a son, Chuck Sitton (’78).

Among survivors are a son, Gary Sitton (’76); two daughters, Jani Freeman and Cara Sue Sitton (’81); a brother, Phil Sitton; sisters Patsy Bohannon, Carolyn Coggin and Jeanie Williams; six grandchildren; and six great-children.

Memorials may be made online to the Chuck Sitton Memorial Endowed Scholarship Fund (or mailed to Gift Records, ACU Box 29132, Abilene, Texas 79699-9132).

Sitton (No. 10, second from top right) was a member of ACU's only undefeated, untied team in 1950.

Sitton (No. 10, second from top right) was a member in 1950 of ACU’s only undefeated, untied team in history.


ACU Remembers: Harold Christian

Christian was known around the world for his tasty barbeque. (Photo courtesy of Steve Butman)

Harold was known around the world for his tasty barbeque. (Photo courtesy of Steve Butman)

One of the best profiles we’ve read of the late Harold Christian was published in the March 13, 1991, issue of The Optimist student newspaper by the late Don T. Morris (’91).

A former Abilene Christian University director of public relations and grandson of seventh president Dr. Don H. Morris (’24), Don painted a colorful picture of the beloved Abilenian whose restaurant – Harold’s World Famous Bar-B-Q – was a landmark in ACU’s hometown for years.

Christian died April 3, 2016, at age 71.

A memorial service for him will be held Saturday at 11 a.m. at King Solomon Baptist Church (1050 Minda Street, Abilene, Texas 79602). Burial will follow in the Abilene Municipal Cemetery. Visitation is 6-8 p.m. Friday at the Northwest Church of Christ (1141 N Willis St., Abilene, Texas 79603), directed by Abilene Funeral Home.

Morris’ story, titled “Harold: Man, myth, barbecue visionary”:

Whack – the meat cleaver crashes onto the greasy wooden chopping block. Whack, whack, whack – today is a bad day to be sausage.

“What y’all gonna have to eat,” growls the big man holding the big knife.

First-time customers of Harold’s Bar-B-Q may be tempted to say, “Whatever you want me to eat, sir.”

Just an arm’s reach away, Harold Christian strikes an intimidating stance. He looks more like a prize fighter staring down his opponent than someone about to serve a meal. Sweat beads on his face, giving it a coal-like smile. The black curls of his hair sneak out from under a read Harold’s baseball cap. He wears a matching red apron with enough brisket fragments stuck to it to make a chopped sandwich.

The soot-covered barbecue pit behind him, which looks like a locomotive fire box, adds to the heat and harshness of the scene. A pile of wood is stacked to the side, waiting to be shoved into the pit’s belly.

Just before the customer fears his life, Harold flashes a saucy grin.

“You want some cornbread,” he asks.

Relieved, the customer takes a down-home plate of barbecue, dripping with dark, mysterious sauce, and finds a seat in cement-block building on the corner of North 13th and Walnut.

The John Henry of a man behind the counter, sweat still on his scowling face from the heat of the pit, turns to the next in line and begins to growl.

“What y’all gonna have to eat?”

Harold Christian, proud owner of Harold’s World Famous Bar-B-Q, is working Friday at lunch; he’s feeding the people.

Two days later and a few blocks away under a small white steeple at North 8th and Treadaway, Harold Christian saunters in with the rest of the choir for the Sunday morning service. He is wearing a crimson and cream robe and a pair of sunglasses. Today he looks less like Sugar Ray Robinson and more like Smokey Robinson.

The whole choir, except Harold, is singing as the procession leads them to the seats behind the pulpit. Out of the group of voices entering the tiny, yet near-empty auditorium, one suddenly booms above the rest. The smooth, deep voice filled the white rock church as a tidal wave would fill a water pail. The voice belongs to Harold.

He sits with the rest of the choir but not for long. The microphone needs adjusting for the first soloist; the soloist needs directing; the choir needs directing; the microphone needs to be adjusted again. Harold spends most of the service in front of the choir, giving directions, shouting encouragement, rhythmically snapping at the piano player for a faster tempo.

With Harold down in front, the choir is singing. “I’ll keep climbing up the mountain. I’ll make it round by round.” The same big hand that gripped the knife is now directing, rhythmically cutting through the air, up and down.

Harold turns to face the congregation for one of his solos and takes a microphone he doesn’t need. From the pews someone should, “I want you to sing it, now.”

Harold complies and fills the little church again with bass. He wipes the sweat from his face and calls for the choir to join him. “Come on choir.” They all are singing now, “I’ll weather the wrath of the storm-tossed sea.”

Harold Christian, proud president of the Mt. Moriah Baptist Choir, is working Sunday morning; he’s feeding the people.

“I like singing in the church because you get more out of it,” says the 45-year-old gospel singer, while taking a break on a slow afternoon at the restaurant. He is sitting on a picnic bench, his huge elbows resting on the white Formica table top, his big hands rubbing smoke-tormented eyes. “It doesn’t feel like you are singing to the rocks outdoors,” he continues. “You’re not just singing to the air or people who just came to see a show. I feel like I’m feeding the people with songs.”

Harold says he enjoys singing more than he does working at his restaurant, but don’t try to tell him that singing isn’t work. “The way I sing it is,” he said. “I sing hard.”

Directing the Mt. Moriah choir is also serious work for Harold. “I’ve been trying to get that choir going,” said the three-year president. “When I came here, all they had was three or four old women. I’m gradually building it up.”

Choirs are no stranger to this man who looks like anything but a choirboy. Twenty-five years ago, at the request of friend Margaret Turnerhill, he joined his first one at the church. “She said, ‘Boy, you’ve got too good a voice not to be singing; you need to get in the choir,’ I joined and have been going ever since.”

Before Mrs. Turnerhill’s influence, young Harold was headed down a different musical path. “I tried my hand at bands, little groups,” he said with a reminiscent gleam. “See, I’m a saxophone player, too.”

After graduating from Abilene’s black Woodson High School in 1963, Harold and some of his former classmates traveled to surrounding towns such as Sweetwater and Stamford to play rock ’n’ roll and blues gigs. “Boop boop, lot of harmony,” he says, describing rock ’n’ roll of the day.

The name of one such traveling band was Big Mac and the Honeydrippers. Although Harold was not big Mac, he said he could drip honey with the best of them.

Often crowded six to a car, the groups would play all night only to arrive home with $3 after paying for supper.

Harold spent time in the early 1970s joining up with various groups who traveled through town in need of a saxophone player. “They needed a horn man; I would play,” he said. It was this freelance period that provided some of the most interesting nights.

“That’s been a long time ago,” Harold said as the memory wheels began to turn. “We went to Loraine [Texas], man, and we played and played. We was playing blues that night. And these old people, they had gotten drunk, were jumping up, throwing things at us. These old women would be grabbing on you, pulling on you, ‘Play boy,’ ” he says, imitating a woman’s voice. “They would come up and grab you and kiss you. I never experienced anything like that before.”

The women, however, were the least of the band’s problems that night. The men in the audience were throwing beer cans. “No glass or anything,” Harold says, qualifying the degree of danger. “Duck ’em and keep playing; that’s part of the gig. We might miss a few notes, but not many. It was during the wintertime, no heat, we had to play with our coats on, and we had to dodge beer cans and women. Played all night and the guy gave us five dollars.”

The pay, or lack of it, was a key in Harold’s decision in 1975 to sing gospel music exclusively.

“I felt like if I was going to play or sing all night with no pay, I might as well do it for the Lord, if there wasn’t going to be any money in it,” he said. “I don’t enjoy that other stuff; I just love to sing gospel music.”

The blues made Harold sad, but gospel music lifts him up.

“That’s the way I’m able to go on,” he says. “Lose your mother or father, but life goes on. Somebody makes me do it. I’m not doing it on my own.”

Harold is referring to God.

“He’s had a lot to do with this thing,” Harold says. “Yip. He’s been real good to us.”

Limiting performances to gospel music has not diminished Harold’s musical opportunities. He has performed for an Abilene taping of the nationwide Bobby Jones Gospel Show from Tennessee. He sang the national anthem at ACU’s only victorious football game in 1990; many fans told Harold he was the reason the team won.

He has sung in the middle of a field for drug awareness, at Abilene’s All-America City banquet, for senior citizens at the Taylor County Coliseum, and in front of the county court house for the troops in the Persian Gulf. He has sung at churches, banquets, weddings and citywide gospel programs.

“I’ve probable forgotten half of the places I’ve sung,” he said. “When I go catering I sing, sing in here all the time, especially during Sing Song and Lectureship; I just get up and sing. I don’t have to have nothing special to sing.”

The singing ability comes from Harold’s mother, Mattie, and her side of the family. The cooking ability clearly comes from his father, Toby, and his side of the family.

From the time Harold was born in the East Texas town of Winnsboro in Wood County, Toby, a railroad cook, sold barbecue form the side of the Christian’s house. Harold’s grandfather ran a cafe in Winnsboro, and he taught the cooking trade to Toby. The Christians later moved to Taylor, near Austin, and sold barbecue there.

In July of 1956, when Harold was 11, the family moved to Abilene because an entrepreneur had set Toby up in the barbecue business. A building was erected, the same one Harold operates in today, and Toby’s Pit Bar-B-Q opened for business.

Five years later, Toby bought the business for himself. Two years later, when Harold was 13, he ran the family business by himself for the first time. Toby announced one morning on his way out the door that he was going on a baseball road trip.

“He’d just walk out and leave me here.” Harold said proudly. Because Harold was such a familiar face behind the counter, he had no problem that first day.

The baseball trip that caused Toby to leave town was one of many. From 1960 until 1984, when he died from complications from a pituitary gland tumor, Toby coached the Abilene sports, a semi-pro baseball team, and traveled throughout Texas to tournaments and games.

Toby’s interest in baseball began as a player at the age of 8 in East Texas. As was the custom, teams were rounded up for big picnic celebrations on the 19th of June. Toby Christian, as his son indicates, was a fine player.

Trophies and team pictures crowd a mantle along the wall of the restaurant. Harold is quick to say the collection of trophies is but a fragment of the many won during Toby’s 24-year coaching career. “We threw a lot of ’em away,” Harold says, indicating his father’s coaching success.

He is also quick with names of the teams’ best players. Harold speaks proudest of Toby’s involvement with a young Abilene pitcher named Bill Gilbreth (’69), ACU baseball coach. “Daddy helped Bill get his start in the pros.”

Toby allowed Gilbreth to play at an early age, giving him added experience.

Gilbreth and the other players on those teams were honorary pallbearers at Toby’s funeral.

Ironically, baseball was a source of conflict for Harold and his father. “I played under him for a while, but I quit. I didn’t last long,” he says.

Like many baseball-coach fathers, Toby was too tough on his own son. “He expected me to do too good,” Harold said. “When I’d make a mistake, he’d jump all over me. I couldn’t take it, so I let him have it, you know. I quit.”

Although Gilbreth’s relationship with Toby was always good, he said Toby did expect a lot from his players, and he was even tougher on Harold.

“Toby would fight for his boys, though,” Gilbreth said. “He’d get thrown out of games.” Once, because he thought his team was being taken advantage of, Toby went and got a gun and confronted the umpire, Gilbreth said.

“He’d protect his guys,” Gilbreth said. One night in Arlington, when Gilbreth was pitching, Toby argued a bad call with the umpire. “If that was a ball,” Toby yelled, “I’m a Chinaman.”

Toby carried this same fighting attitude into the restaurant.

“He didn’t take any slack from the customers either,” Gilbreth said. “And they would love it.”

Although a softer and smoother version, Harold is certainly his father’s son. His gruff sound is as much a part of Harold’s Bar-B-Q as the family sauce that has been passed down.

“I’m not going to cater to anyone,” Harold says.

Black or white, rich or poor, Harold says he calls ’em as he sees ’em. Honoring all men but none too much is a priority.

Despite the attitude, Harold is a lover of people, says his wife, Drucilla. He loves to cut up with them.

“I ain’t ever lost for words,” he says. “And I don’t care about what I say. Some people say, ‘Ooh, I wish I wouldn’t have said that.’ Not me, sometimes it doesn’t come out right, but what is said is said.”

Fortunately for barbecue-lovers in Abilene, Toby’s criticisms affected Harold’s cooking differently than they did his ball playing.

“He was real tough in the barbecue business,” Harold said. “But by him being tough, it made me work that much harder. I was really trying to prove that I could. Even after he died, I still felt like there was some proving to be done.”

Harold took over the restaurant in 1971 when Toby’s health became poor. Harold had been working as a diesel mechanic, overhauling engines. Not only has he continued the tradition of tasty barbecue in the little red building, but the lunch-time crowd that packs Harold’s each week agrees he has improved it.

“Most kids that take the business over from their parents let it go down. But my business hasn’t gone down, I’ve kept the quality of the food up as far as I know. See daddy, I ain’t lost any customers,” he says, describing his inner drive.

Harold's was an inauspicious but wildly popular hangout for ACU students, faculty, staff and alumni.

Harold’s was a humble-looking eatery but wildly popular hangout for ACU students, faculty, staff and alumni. (Photo courtesy of Steve Butman)

A quick look around the restaurant shows how important family is to Harold. A large portrait of Toby and Mattie, Harold’s mother, hangs on one wall. On the opposite wall are pictures of son Andrei in an Army uniform; son Russell with Nolan Ryan in the restaurant; daughter Vanessa in a tutu; and another of Toby wearing a barbecue apron in the restaurant. The staff at Harold’s is all family.

The most famous exception to family employees and family pictures is John Stewart, a former Hardin-Simmons University student. He is better known by the words underneath his picture, “The only white boy to ever work at the pit.”

“He took it on himself to put that picture up,” Harold says, as he chuckles, and then admits he is not an equal opportunity employer.

The legacy of Christian barbecue seems safe. Russell, works alongside his dad.

“I love it,” Russell says. “It’s a lot of fun – some of the time.”

And is Harold as tough on Russell as Toby was on Harold?

“He’s rough. Everybody says he is, and it’s true,” Russell says.

Although not as much as she once did because of illness, Mattie works occasionally at the restaurant. The much talked about hot-water cornbread is her creation.

Drucilla also works at the restaurant. The two high school sweethearts have been married 28 years. Drucilla, a drum major at Woodson, caught Harold’s eye one day as she practiced her routine in front of her house.

“She was on the front porch, twirling her baton,” Harold said. “She had her shorts on; ummm, you know how that is.”

The relationship might have never materialized, Drucilla said, if she had not asked shy Harold to a dance.

Nowadays, they are in the big kitchen behind the restaurant with too much work and not enough time. Harold has sweat on his face, and his words are tight Thursday afternoon as 5 o’clock draws near. Friday is the restaurant’s busiest day. Harold also has two parties to cater during the weekend, one for 50 people, the other for 200.

He swings open the black doors to the pit and shoves several huge chunks of beef onto a crusty rack. Enough meat is on the rack and in the kitchen to reconstruct a pasture full of cows.

“Somebody turn that pot of beans down low or they are gonna cook too fast,” he barks.

Russell is scurrying about, taking care of customers who straggle in. He has perfected a junior version of the growl.

Drucilla is finishing making a meat pie, Harold’s favorite. She takes the pie, filled with ground beef, cheese and spices, and topped with a thick layer of mashed potatoes, and cuts a big piece for Harold and Russell.

“We can cook anything,” Harold boasts. “I can cook a steak that will make you jump over the river.”

Although Harold is the most famous cook in the family, he admits Drucilla is a better cook. Anyone who has had her meat pie knows he speaks the truth. “But not barbecue, she wouldn’t give it the time like I do,” he says.

Time, Harold says, is the secret to good brisket. “My daddy would say, ‘Don’t put anything on a customer’s plate that you wouldn’t eat yourself, and you will be putting out some pretty good food.” Toby never seems to be far from Harold’s mind.

“I have a dream,” he says, “just like Martin Luther King said. My dream is to patent my barbecue sauce and put it in every store from here to Iraq.”

The creator of this sauce was Mattie’s Uncle Judd. The sauce has been served by Toby and Harold through the years without change.

The dream is no whim. Harold has three concrete reasons why he wants to do it.

First, because it was a dream of Toby’s. “I want to fulfill his dream,” Harold said. “I still want to include my father.”

Second, Harold wants to make his sauce available to friends and customers who no longer live in Abilene.

Third, because the barbecue business is not the most lucrative in the world, Harold would like to make some extra money so he can retire.

Several jars of sauce, covered with a Harold’s World Famous Bar-B-Q label, sit on a counter in the restaurant waiting to be discovered by the world. The sauce comes in two flavors, hot and damn hot.

A little voice keeps urging Harold to do something about the distribution of the sauce.

“Every night,” he says, “I can feel it saying, ‘Harold you need to get that sauce going.”

Chances are, the little voices sounds more like a deep growl.


Five organ donors respond to Alvarez’ need

Abel Alvarez 600x600 96In his spare time, Abel Alvarez (’82) is a mobile-learning consultant who knows well the power of social media. But the minister in McAllen, Texas, is still amazed at the quick response by the Abilene Christian University community to his critical search for a kidney donor.

A mid-day post March 2 on the ACU Today blog described his urgent need to find someone who also shared his O negative blood type – the rarest of all. By that evening he had been contacted by two willing donors, and now has five from across Texas. One is an alumnus and two have ACU students in their household or extended family.

“I can’t thank everyone enough for this quick and generous response,” Alvarez said. “You may have saved my life.”

Alvarez has begun making arrangements with Methodist Speciality and Transplant Hospital in San Antonio for the procedure, which includes medical tests for him and donor prospects to ensure a best-fit match.

He has lived for 29 years with the donated kidney of a sibling, but the organ recently failed. Alvarez is not a good candidate for longterm dialysis treatments, so his future depends on another transplant.

generosity.com page about the ACU trustee has been created so friends can help with the $75,000 tab not covered by Alvarez’ health insurance.

“I would not be alive today without the support years ago of the ACU community when I first needed a transplant. I hope God is not through with me yet, and am praying there are friends in the university network who will once again step up to help.” Alvarez said. “I sincerely appreciate the love, prayers and assistance being offered on my behalf.”


March hoops excitement proves bitter, sweet

Whitney West Swinford scored 12 points against UTEP.

Whitney West Swinford scored 12 points against UTEP.

The craziness of March Madness – the frantic, frustrating and often fabulous time of postseason collegiate basketball – is upon us, and Abilene Christian University earned a taste of it earlier this week.

Three men’s and four women’s teams from the Southland Conference qualified for this month’s national postseason tournaments, including ACU.

Southland Conference MVP Alexis Mason scored 11 points against the Miners.

Southland Conference MVP Alexis Mason scored 11 points against the Miners.

Stephen F. Austin State University made the most noise, stunning No. 3 seed West Virginia University 70-56 yesterday in the first round of the NCAA men’s East Regional. The No. 14-seeded Lumberjacks, who have won three straight league titles while forging a 53-1 Southland regular-season record, play the University of Notre Dame on Sunday afternoon (1:40 p.m. CST on CBS).

The Wildcats of head coach Julie Goodenough played a heroic game Thursday night in the first round of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament, dropping a 66-62 heartbreaker to The University of Texas at El Paso in front of 4,517 noisy fans in Don Haskins Arena on the UTEP campus.

ACU trailed by as many as nine points before making a 12-0 run in the fourth quarter that gave them a 52-49 lead with 5:18 to play. But the Miners bounced back in the last three minutes, hit seven of eight free throws down the stretch, and advanced to a second-round game tonight with Arkansas State University.

Neither ACU nor UTEP expected to face each other in the WNIT first round. With a 26-4 record, the Miners were the highest-ranked women’s team to not make the NCAA Tournament, having won the Conference USA regular season but losing to Old Dominion University in the C-USA postseason semifinals.

ACU head coach Julie Goodenough signed a four-year contract extension before the WNIT game.

ACU head coach Julie Goodenough signed a four-year contract extension following the Wildcats’ stellar regular season.

UTEP was ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 women’s poll most of the season. ACU won the Southland Conference regular season title but couldn’t participate in the postseason tourney. The WNIT quickly snatched up the Wildcats for its field of 64 teams. ACU owned the best record in the WNIT field; UTEP had the second best.

In its game story, the El Paso Sun Times called ACU “superb” even in defeat, and it’s easy to see why.

What the Wildcats did during the 2015-16 regular season – beating six teams playing last week in national postseason tournaments (University of Central Arkansas, McNeese State University, Northwestern State University, University of Idaho, Eastern Michigan University and Grand Canyon University) – is remarkable, given they are in their third year of a four-year transition to NCAA Division I, as are ACU’s other 15 athletics teams.

Goodenough’s squad will be NCAA Tournament-eligible for the 2017-18 season, and by then will have a wealth of experience and additional talent on which to draw.

The Wildcats lose just two seniors (Whitney West Swinford and Paris Webb) from the 2015-16 team, and for 2016-17 will return four top-drawer juniors in twins Suzy and Lizzy Dimba, Southland Player of the Year Alexis Mason and Sydney Shelstead. A talented group of freshmen will make the roster deeper as well: Dominique Golightly, Pam Herrera, Lexi Kirgan and Brea Wright.


The Hamiltons dig love and biblical history

Hamiltons in JerusalemWhen Old Testament scholar Dr. Mark Hamilton (’90 M.Div.) told me about his upcoming semester in Israel with his wife, Dr. Samjung Kang-Hamilton (’88 M.R.E.), revisiting the place where they first met nearly 30 years earlier, my story-telling wheels began to turn.

Dr. Rob Homsher, a former student of Dr. Mark Hamilton, is carving a notable career in biblical archaeology.

Dr. Rob Homsher, a former student of Dr. Mark Hamilton, is carving a notable career in biblical archaeology.

It will likely embarrass the two Abilene Christian University professors but Hepburn and Olivier in “Love Among the Ruins” came to mind. In the final scene of Katharine and Sir Laurence’s 1975 movie that swept Primetime Emmy Awards, he implores her, “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to come,” a line borrowed from a famous Robert Browning poem.

I envisioned seeing Mark and Samjung walking, arm in arm, down the streets of Old Jerusalem once again. After all, the Hamiltons’ first date in Israel – where they were among 15 students on an ACU semester abroad program in 1987 – was to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Yes, that’s the place where many believe Jesus was buried, but what would you expect from a couple of biblical-scholars-in-the making? As writer Paul A. Anthony (’04) explains in “Holy Lands” in our new issue, the down-to-earth lovebirds explored the sacred site and then went out for some pizza.

They married two years later and the rest is, well, history.

One of Mark’s biggest fans in the story is archaeologist Dr. Rob Homsher (’03), a former student of his who teaches at Harvard University and is assistant director of the Jezreel Valley Historical Project and a staff member of the Megiddo Expedition, one of the most important sites in biblical history.

Jonathan Bloom

Jonathan Bloom

Paul A. Anthony

Paul A. Anthony

Documenting the Hamiltons’ second semester together in that part of the world was a challenge, given its distance (7,100 miles) from Abilene. But thanks to some networking, I was introduced to Jonathan Bloom, a talented photojournalist who lives near Tel Aviv and has done some striking portraiture work for The Jerusalem Post and Yedioth Ahronoth, the city’s largest newspaper, among prominent magazines and other publications.

Bloom spent parts of several days with Hamilton at the Albright Institute for Archaeological Research where Mark lived and studied as the Seymour Gitin Professor, and at several historical sites in the region. His images are stunning, and we feature them prominently in our print edition and also in the companion pages of online-only Bonus Coverage, which is anchored by Mark’s essay about his Fall 2014 experience.

Enjoy the 20 pages of words and images by clicking on the viewer below:


Rain buoys Abilene civic leaders’ water plans

Fort Phantom Hill Reservoir north of Abilene has risen more than 17 feet in the past year.

Lake Fort Phantom Hill north of Abilene has risen more than 17 feet in the past year.

Dr. Norman Archibald’s heart, and hometown lake, are full today.

Archibald stood under a high-and-dry dock in early 2014.

Archibald, with Lake Fort Phantom Hill’s water several hundred yards in the distance, stood under a high-and-dry dock in early 2014.

As of this week, Archibald (’76 M.S.) – Abilene’s current mayor now in his fourth term of office – would need a flotation device or ladder to stand under the same dock where he was pictured for our Spring-Summer 2014 issue. At the time, Abilene Christian University’s hometown was wrestling with a growing water crisis brought on by a long period of sustained drought.

Today, Lake Fort Phantom Hill has filled for the first time since October 2007, a sight celebrated up and down the corridors of City Hall on Walnut Street.

“We are humbled and extraordinarily grateful our prayers for rain have been answered,” said Archibald. “It’s a great day in Abilene when Phantom is full. But we still have other lakes that need water as well, and can’t afford to lose our focus between periods of drought in West Texas.”

Because Abilene’s two other major public water supply lakes – Hubbard Creek Reservoir near Breckenridge (45.7 percent of capacity) and O.H. Ivie Reservoir near Ballinger (12.2 percent of capacity) lag well behind Phantom, the city’s plans to build $240 million Cedar Ridge Reservoir continue unabated. Once approved by state agencies and federal offices, Cedar Ridge would take three years to build and five years to fill, flooding tens of thousands of ranch land 40 miles north of the city.

Midland and San Angelo are allies with Abilene, having formed the West Texas Water Partnership to create synergy and share resources to help ensure water resources for future generations.

Archibald has committed his time as mayor to help Abilene continue to thrive as a West Texas center of higher education, energy exploration and other businesses.

“We’re trying to do what the forward-thinking people who built Phantom and Hubbard Creek did decades ago,” he told us in the 2014 story. “When you see a big city in Texas, it’s because they have a water source to support it.”

Revisit “High Hopes for H2O” in our Spring-Summer 2014 issue, which details the work civic leaders like Archibald are doing to serve citizens of West Texas:


Dillard Hall to house sophomore women

Christian Village Exterior Edit 600x400 96Sophomore women living on campus will soon have a new housing option: Gayle and Max Dillard Hall.

Thanks to a major gift from Gayle (’57) and Max Dillard of Dallas, Texas, Abilene Christian University has purchased the apartment building formerly owned and operated by Christian Village of Abilene and is renovating it as a sophomore women’s residence hall.

The three-story Dillard Hall at 633 E.N. 19th St. will house about 170 students, serving as ACU’s 11th residence hall and providing much-needed living space for its growing enrollment. The university’s 2015-16 freshman class is its largest in three decades.

“Max and Gayle believe strongly in honoring women for the role they play in the development of the faith of their children,” said president Dr. Phil Schubert (’91). “Their gift is a tremendous blessing as it helps provide an important living space for women on this campus.”

Established by University Church of Christ, Christian Village opened in 1986 as a nonprofit independent living facility for seniors. Land for the project was donated by ACU. Residents often were alumni and retired faculty and staff, as were many of Christian Village’s trustees.

Seeing the facility’s future in jeopardy in recent years because of shrinking occupancy, Christian Village board members approached ACU in 2015 about the possibility of purchasing the property and restoring its initial connection to the university. The Dillards’ gift made this a reality.

“We’re very grateful to ACU for purchasing Christian Village’s building,” said David Swearingen, president of Christian Village’s Board of Trustees. “We can’t think of a better way for Christian Village to be used in the future – as a place for students to live as they prepare for life as young Christian adults.”

Gayle Dillard attended in ACU in the late 1950s, and together the Dillards have seen three children and three grandchildren attend the university. Max Dillard is managing director of The Dillard Group of Texas, LTD.

“Dillard Hall will be treasured for generations, and I am grateful for Max and Gayle’s leadership and dedication to ACU,” Schubert said.

Apartments at Dillard Hall will contain a living space, bedroom and kitchen for two to four students. The first two floors have an indoor commons area and the third floor has an outside deck.

The renovation includes new wiring, plumbing, flooring and furniture, said Kevin Roberts (’88), vice president of planning and operations.

“Dillard Hall is an exciting addition to our on-campus housing,” Roberts said. “It has fantastic living spaces and some much-needed public spaces. This combination will provide a wonderful place for our students to grow, live and learn.”

Dillard Hall will be open to students beginning August 2016.


We think ewe will love ElderLink story, art

Assigning writers and photographers/artists to ACU Today feature stories can be a bit of a Match Game at times, although not exactly like the long-running (1962-82) and often rollicking TV panel game show from years gone by.

Bobby Gombert

Bobby Gombert

Grant Boone

Grant Boone

Pairing Grant Boone (’91) and Bobby Gombert (’93) on “Flock Management” – a look at ElderLink’s first 15 years as an influential Abilene Christian University outreach to churches and church leaders – felt like the right thing to do, and we think you’ll agree.

Boone’s father, Nick, was the longtime song leader at suburban Nashville’s Madison (Tenn.) Church of Christ, for years the largest congregation of its heritage in the world. These days, Grant is the TV/radio Voice of the Wildcats and a broadcaster for CBS Sports, and a fine writer for our magazine’s print and online issues as his busy schedule allows.

He grew up in a home with strong ties to churches and their leadership as far back as the 1800s. His great-grandfather was former ACU and longtime Lipscomb University Bible professor Charles R. Brewer, whose brother was G.C. Brewer, another legendary Church of Christ evangelist.

Grant’s uncle (Nick’s big brother) is legendary pop music star Pat Boone, by the way.

Earth day celebration 7x4.38 96Gombert’s early skills as an illustrator were honed while serving as an editorial cartoonist for The Optimist, ACU’s student newspaper. Today he is a successful artist in Bulverde, Texas, a small city north of San Antonio.

His playful illustration of a shepherd tending his all-over-the-pasture flock of sheep is a fitting metaphor for the challenging work today’s church elders have in watching over and leading their serious-minded but easily distracted congregations.

ElderLink is one of several valuable resources offered by ACU’s Siburt Institute for Church Ministry, named for the late Dr. Charles Siburt Jr. (’68), who for many years was his alma mater’s vice president for church relations.

Siburt “could make you feel like you were the best minister God ever created,” recalled Granbury (Texas) Church of Christ peaching minister Dr. John Knox (D.Min. ’03). “Yet at the same time [he] had no tolerance for self-pity. Charlie could tell church leaders things about themselves that were very painful to hear. I quietly cringed more than once during meetings with Charlie and my leaders. But in response, those leaders would thank him and ask when he could come back. They intuitively sensed he had the health of the church in mind.”

ElderLink’s ministry of equipping and encouraging church leaders has been conducted in 10 cities through the years, from Texas, to Georgia to Oregon, even in Brazil. It will be held for the first time in Indianapolis, Ind., on April 23.

Read “Flock Management” by clicking on the viewer above.


The glass slipper fits: League title, WNIT bid

WBB Champs 1 600x400 96

Picked in a preseason poll to finish ninth in the Southland Conference, the Abilene Christian University women’s basketball team continued its Cinderella season Saturday, and they had a ball doing it.

The Wildcats began their final regular-season game at home with a 9-0 run, a 38-24 halftime lead and capped it with a celebration and an improbable conference championship. A 63-52 win over Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi sealed the deal.

Head coach Julie Goodenough’s team is 26-3 overall, 17-1 in the Southland, 14-0 at home and now awaits its next assignment: a first-ever berth in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament and a shot at even more heroics.

ACU’s only losses this season are to Kansas State, Texas Tech and Lamar universities.

The WNIT announces its field March 14 and first-round games begin March 16. The title game is played April 2. Semifinalists last year were UCLA, Michigan, Temple and West Virginia, with UCLA beating WVU 62-60 for the championship.

ACU won’t be eligible for the Southland’s postseason tournament until the 2017-18 season but became the conference’s automatic qualifier for the WNIT with its spotless record in regular season play.

Saturday, junior guard Alexis Mason scored 20 points and junior center Sydney Shelstead added 19 to lead the Wildcats over the Islanders.

Their 26 wins ties the second most in ACU women’s basketball history, matching the 1997-98 team that finished 26-5 and advanced to the finals of the NCAA Division II Southwest Region Tournament. Abilene Christian’s all-time record for wins was set by the 1995-96 team’s 31-2 record and third-place finish in the national tournament.