Frocked in a long black robe, bright doctoral hood and with a newly crafted presidential medallion draped from his neck, Alton Lacey surprised — well, he rather shocked the inauguration’s attendees as he ended his address in song. His a cappella rendition of the Quaker hymn, “My Life Flows On” drew a resonating end to his oration and a formal beginning to his service at MBC. Faculty, students, alumni, trustees, honorable dignitaries, and presidents and deans of regional universities all rose in applause to greet Missouri Baptist’s sixth president.
A decade ago began an era of excellence pursued. It was a heedful time for the then-college as it embarked on its fourth decade as a private Christian institution. For thirty years it had balanced a tenuous line between rapid growth and survival. The mission had been long established, and the institution’s vision needed an architect. It was time for a new leader to take the institution to the next level — to seek to become one of the best Christian universities in the region.
Ten years later we find Lacey at the helm of a truly changed institution. Still young in its years, he has led the now-University through a quarter of its life, fostering remarkable growth and development.
Enrollment has more than doubled to over four thousand total students. New campus locations and academic programs were started, including three graduate offerings. Several new buildings were erected and renovation projects have remodeled the campus’ exterior almost as much as the University has changed within.
In the simplest of explanations, Missouri Baptist College became Missouri Baptist University.
But the changes were far more than cosmetic. Although Lacey is quick to give credit to the trustees, faculty and administrators, it is his leadership that has provided a haven for entrepreneurial approaches in an industry that is occasionally slighted for being backward or slow to change. Academic programs found renewed direction, task forces solved concerns, and his cabinet of vice presidents helped to reshape the organization.
The single most recognized change in the last decade came in the form of the new Pillsbury Chapel and Dale Williams Fine Arts Center. Incorporating the symbiotic visions of the Pillsbury and Williams families, the largest MBU facility was opened in 2002.
The music, drama and communications programs are housed in the Center, which sports one of the premier acoustically engineered auditoriums in St. Louis. The campaign for the Center was the most ambitious development in the institution’s history, and $10 million later it was deemed a milestone success in the life of the University and its leader.
Dr. Lacey’s office sits on the second floor of the southern portion of the Center overlooking the main campus entrance. The Center was far more than a campaign for him. A man of the arts, he is uncharacteristically ecstatic and frequently boastful about what the Center has done for the University.
Lacey has been dubbed a bit of a neo-Renaissance man. Versed in the visual and musical arts, he sings, plays drums, guitar and a few other instruments. He is a seasoned amateur photographer and has creative captures of his travels throughout his office and house. His artistic bent is seen in his influence at the University, and his understanding of importance of the arts in education has encouraged the fine arts programs and facilities.
An outdoors man, Lacey keeps active with jogging and the occasional round of eighteen. But his active passion is found in the remote outdoors.
Each May after the close of the spring term, Alton journeys west. Just below Aspen, Colorado, you would find him in the midst of the Frying Pan River tail waters. For one week each summer he trades his suit and tie for waders and a fishing vest. Taking the custom rods he crafted by hand the previous winter, he plays the waters below the green mountains studded with stratified rocks. If Lacey had a single passion, perhaps it would be fly-fishing.
But abilities and interests do not easily define Alton Lacey. Rather than having one passion, he is a complex character hosting a number of affections for both the arts and sciences. While a friend or guide sometimes accompanies him, he often frequents the Colorado waters alone. Perhaps it is a time of quiet reflection or a spiritual session with God and His creation. And just perhaps the uniqueness of his personality could be found in his fishing.
One of the few who has joined him on his fishing expeditions has a unique professional relationship to Lacey — Dr. Keith Lovin, president of Maryville University. Having developed a special friendship over the years, Lovin offers some insight into Lacey’s time in the rivers.
“In a lot of ways we are the odd couple of fly-fishing,” confesses Lovin. “Alton packs light whereas I bring half of all I own. The more stuff I take on our trips (to be prepared for every possible contingency) the harder Alton works to fit everything into one modest size bag. He loves his superiority in this regard (in Baptist circles it probably borders on sinful pride). I commit the sin of jealousy, but I just can’t pare down.”
“We are also opposites in our approach to trout. Alton is the world’s greatest nymph fly fisher (fishing bugs beneath the surface where most trout feed). I mean he is really good at this. I prefer casting dry flies even when there is no hatch because of some misguided notion of purity and poetry. As a result, Alton catches a lot more fish than I do.”
While Lacey is extremely fond of his fly fishing pastime, he’s never commented on the big fish he caught or the one that got away. Rather, he talks of the preparation and the journey. His time is spent crafting fine and marvelously effective fly rods and flies. The engineer-trained Lacey meets the artist in this preparation.
The duality of those influences comes together in his work at the University. With the same artful preparation, Lacey embraced the ideas and vision of faculty and administrators to define the path of MBU’s success. Introducing business-borrowed tools, he scripted the University’s story as a future-tense guide for decisions and institutional development. Efficient and magnificently crafted. Slowly the plans grew in form and function and now maintain the foundation for yearly planning and can be found on every administrator’s desk or shelf.
“The University has always had a core group of faculty and administrators who understood the school’s mission,” Lacey said, “And were willing to make whatever changes were necessary to go beyond the normal.”
The inaugural Spirit of Excellence campaign was a springboard for many of the changes. While the campaign has concluded, the results of the journey are still found in the continued pursuit of excellence.
Core to the MBU family is its mission. New programs have started and buildings have been erected, but the constant has been the vision and purpose set forth by the mission. Over the past ten years the mission’s focus has remained unwavering.
Beyond qualitative measurements, MBU has become a blossoming institution focused on the integration of faith and knowledge. Faculty, each of which are professing Christians that are active in church and community, have embraced this essential cause. Evidences from this pursuit have included the publication of a semiannual faith and learning academic journal, the membership and leadership roles in various faith-based associations and most importantly, as expressed in the lives of our faculty and students.
A new decade has started. The future plans of MBU are excitingly ambitious, including a new capital campaign on the horizon and ventures into value-added international studies and other new programs for the traditional and adult student.
A record number of students graduate this spring. A few weeks following, Lacey will again venture to the Colorado rivers to test the metal of his winter preparations and return renewed.
“Serving on the board of a well run organization is a privilege. His public recognition can only partially acknowledge Dr Lacey’s ability and dedication at Missouri Baptist University. It is rare to have this level of competence at the helm of a university our size. Be it issues of student life, faculty and academics, administration, or sports teams at school; planning and construction of new educational buildings for campus expansion; budget, financial management and institutional development; or the future of higher education in Missouri and across the nation — he keeps us on point and often ahead of the curve with a vision and a plan ten years into the future. It is an honor to serve with Dr Lacey.” — Bill Houk, Chair of the Board of Trustees
“It’s been my privilege to know about and to know Alton Lacey for many years. As the chief development officer at Louisiana College, he demonstrated early both the technical know-how and the heart to lead an institution to accomplish great things. When he went to Missouri Baptist University, I was delighted because of the level of confidence I had and have in his visionary leadership ability. He and his wife, Pat, make a fantastic team. Their ability to care genuinely about people at every level of the university’s constituency and their willingness to invest in both students and the institution as a whole make them the kind of president and first-lady that any school would be pleased to have. Alton has emerged as a leader among Baptist colleges and universities because of his passion for the cause of Christian/Baptist higher education. He is highly regarded and respected among his peers.” — Bob Agee, Executive Director of the Association of Southern Baptist Colleges and Schools
“One of the things I admire most about Alton Lacey is his ability to relate well with all kinds of people. He’s comfortable visiting with the CEO of a major corporation and equally at ease talking with an incoming freshman at campus visit day.” — Keith Ross, VP for University Advancement
“Dr. Lacey brought certain strengths to the job, particularly in regard to the development of a Strategic Plan for the University. But he has also built a very strong management team that he has empowered to function efficiently and effectively. The University has enjoyed a strong collaborative spirit among this team that has been reflected in recent accreditation visits and by many other campus visitors. He has nurtured this sense of family among all employees and the result has been longer average tenures and a collection of Institutional history that is such a valuable asset, and a foundation for effective management decisions.” — Ken Revenaugh, VP for Business Affairs
“I admire and respect Alton Lacey enormously. He has made outstanding contributions not only to Missouri Baptist University but to higher education in general, especially in Missouri where he now serves as President of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Missouri. While we do talk of weighty matters from time to time, and seek each other’s advice for the various challenges we face, it is on those trout streams that our friendship has been so perfectly honed. The last time we were out west together we were forced to leave the water on our last day because the driving snow and cold finally, by mid afternoon, became too much for us. Our next trip out west is just around the corner. I can’t wait.” — Dr. Keith Lovin, President of Maryville University