Commitment, partnership and collaboration are all critical parts of the Kansas Wesleyan culture, one that was built during the presidency of Dr. Marshall Stanton, which spanned from 1983-2002. When Stanton arrived on campus, however, words like bankrupt, overwhelming and bleak surrounded the university.
It was Stanton’s leadership that saved Kansas Wesleyan from closure, and, in the decades that followed, the family established a multi-generational legacy on campus.
“The KWU presidency was by far the most significant professional position I served,” Marshall said. “To see the institution flourish brings great satisfaction to the entire family.
“When I left, it had attained the best position it had ever. The endowment went from $1.7 million to about $17 million.”
He departed on a high note. When he assumed the helm of Wesleyan, however, the university’s financial situation was bleak.
“The institution was bankrupt,” he said. “There was a great team effort that surrounded this institution. It was comprised of the trustees, the faculty, the staff and the community. The community rallied for the first several months to find about $800,000 in order to pay our bills. That roused the community to service and commitment.”
The late ’80s were difficult for local institutions of higher education. Marymount College closed in 1989, and Wesleyan was fighting to escape a similar fate. Climbing back from the brink was a slow process.
“The facilities did not look good. The grass was not good, the buildings looked worn down, paint was peeling on the windows and enrollment was low,” Marshall said.
Wayne Schneider, who served as CFO of Wesleyan from 1985-2016, said improving the campus aesthetic was important.
“It was like a cow pasture, it was just dirt,” Schneider said. “The first thing we installed was irrigation, green grass and flowers. Then we started in on dormitories because that’s where the students lived.
“We took the student as a priority and focused on: where do they live, where do they go, what do they do? We made improvements based on those questions.”
It was important to make incremental changes.
“We tried to lift the whole institution a little bit at a time, all of the time,” Marshall said. “Our troubles were overwhelming, but one day at a time, you work them out.
“When I took this on, I didn’t think about failure. I thought, ‘What is our next step?’ We slowly renovated buildings. We did not go into debt for reconstruction and remodeling. We paid cash for all of it.”
Schneider said, during the course of two decades, the university made $50 million worth of campus improvements.
During Marshall’s tenure, there were four major fundraising campaigns at Kansas Wesleyan, two particularly of note.
The first was a financial recovery campaign in 1985.
“It was an effort to raise $750,000 to cover the expenses of the upcoming semester and next year,” Marshall said of the successful Financial Recovery program. “The community got behind that in a marvelous way.”
Shortly after, the university embarked upon its 2nd Century Campaign. Its goal was to help provide for future operations, as well as to expand the scholarship accounts.
In the midst of the 2nd Century Campaign, an opportunity presented itself to retire nearly $3.3 million worth of debt, which was acquired when KWU built Pfeiffer, Wilson, Wesley and Peters Science halls.
“Peters Science Hall was built in 1968, and it was estimated enrollment was 1,600 students,” Marshall said. “It was absurd. When I came in here, we were 450 to 500 students. The loans were not paid and were stripping the institution of its resources. We could never get ahead. That debt was an unrelenting burden.
“We discovered fortuitously that Bethel College (which is now Bethel University) in Tennessee had worked out a deal to get out from under the major debt on their buildings.”
Stanton collaborated with a consultant, the Board of Trustees, and politicians: local, state and federal. Together with William H. Graves and CFO Schneider, Stanton went to Washington, D.C. to make an offer.
“The proposal was that we would provide a $500,000 single cash payment to meet the debt in full,” Marshall said of the university’s accumulated $3.3 million for the quartet of buildings.
It was accepted, and a deadline for the payment was set. Once the balance was paid, Marshall said the financial atmosphere at the university changed significantly.
“All of a sudden, Kansas Wesleyan was free of debt, and we could start to spend money on the institution rather than on the debt,” Marshall said. “That may have been the single greatest event in the university’s history.”
At times, the task of building the institution felt formidable. Yet the Methodist faith he fostered from his teen years sustained him.
“I elevated the mission of Kansas Wesleyan as a Christian institution that was worthy of commitment,” Marshall said. “The fundamental thing is to maintain the university as a Christian institution and let it filter through everything.”
Marshall was ordained a United Methodist minister in 1958. He served faith communities in Jewell-Randall, Salina and Colby before being appointed district superintendent of 62 churches and 42 pastors in 1978. It was his church leadership that allowed him to hone the management skills utilized at KWU.
“We had goals. We met those goals. We had a sense of success, a sense of movement, a sense of achievement,” Marshall said. “Those things gave us courage to take the next step.”
Three years after he assumed the role of university president, Marshall’s son, Nathan, walked onto campus as a freshman.
“Kansas Wesleyan was incredibly important in the way it shaped how I would launch into life as a Christian leader and then as a pastor,” said Nathan Stanton ’91. “I entered Wesleyan knowing many of the professors who I would have through fellowship gatherings at our home. Many professors had profound impacts on me.”
Friends and mentors include Rev. David Smith, Dr. Paul Custodio Bube and Dr. Bill Brown.
“I spent a good many hours with (Smith) talking, discerning and working my way through the necessity of transitioning from college to seminary,” Nathan said. “Dr. Bill Brown was my adviser and spent many hours tutoring me in French. He is a beloved figure for me even today because of his brilliance and his graciousness in the way he carried the atmosphere of class, tying together faith, English and being a disciple of Christ.”
In addition to faith, football is a common thread for the Stanton men. Nathan suited up for the Coyotes from 1987-90, and two of his sons are playing for the Yotes this year. Both Noah and Isaac suited up for the Sept. 4 football game.
“They played their first college football game on the field at Friends University, the same field where I played my first college football game 68 years ago,” said Marshall, who played football for four years at Friends while earning his bachelor’s.
Nathan said his years as a student-athlete helped teach lessons and discipline he still uses.
While Noah is entering his junior year and Isaac his freshman season, the two have the same eligibility because of delays relating to COVID-19.
Both Noah and Isaac began at Kansas Wesleyan in August.
While the family are enthusiastic athletic supporters, the accessibility of academic and club activities shaped both Nathan, who graduated with a degree in English in 1991, and his wife, Brenda, who graduated with a bachelor’s in theatre and speech in 1997.
“Dr. Eric and Barbara Marshall, along with my sister Kirsten and good friend Jernard Burks, twisted my arm and talked me into working the Audrey II puppet in “Little Shop of Horrors” my freshman year,” Nathan said. “I had never done anything like that except play in a band. I was cast in two or three shows every year after that.”
He later attended seminary and was ordained a Methodist minister in 1993.
“If I had not done all of that memorization and acting at KWU, I never would have been able to deal with the thought of preaching week in and week out for the rest of my life,” Nathan said. “Theatre was a crucible that brought together a greatest fear — public speaking — with creativity and team building. That sticks with me even today.”
The positive collegiate experience prompted Nathan to join the university as a member of its Board of Trustees in 2013.
“I said yes and wanted to be all-in for KWU,” Nathan said.
Returning time and talent via stewardship was important to the couple. Nathan and his wife, Brenda, met during college and wed in December 1994.
The couple enjoys hearing about their sons’ first-hand experiences on campus.
“My kids have commented several times about professors and students being very helpful and kind,” Brenda said. “KWU is growing. There is a positive and vibrant feeling on campus. The individual attention that is given to students at KWU is amazing.”
She said the university was a part of their sons’ lives from the very beginning.
“My grandfather taught me how to ride a bike,” Isaac said. “Very soon after, I remember riding around and on the campus at Wesleyan.”
He has vivid memories of watching KWU football games and pursued the sport enthusiastically. During his senior year of high school at Basehor-Linwood, Isaac was invited to participate in the 2021 Kansas Shrine Bowl.
“The (Wesleyan) football coaches reached out to him,” Brenda said. “(Isaac) was impressed with the campus and the individual attention he was able to find here. Noah decided to transfer in order to be with family.”
The importance of family heightened when Nathan, who has served as director of congregational excellence for the Great Plains conference since 2017, was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS) in the spring. This fall, the family moved from the Kansas City area to Salina to be closer to Marshall and Janice.
“Since we learned of Nathan’s illness, it has been important for us to have our family together so we can spend as much time together as possible,” Brenda said. “We don’t want Noah to have to choose between classes or practice and getting to see his dad.”
Lessons learned while at KWU also help Nathan as he journeys through the illness.
“Football practice was a driver in how I approach life,” he said. “Being diagnosed with a terminal illness, you can either give up and check out on life, or you can get up and lean into the psychological pain and challenge of that knowledge until it is manageable. I have chosen the latter.
“I don’t know if I would have had the wherewithal to face the diagnosis as I have without the foundation of depending on teammates in the games we played and the hours and hours of training and practicing together. There just isn’t a way to prepare for life any better than being part of a cast or a team, who have a clear goal in mind and are willing to give up their own comfort to get it done.
“As much as KWU is part of Brenda and I’s past, it stands in the middle of this trying moment for us as a family. It is a big part of our story to be together and to enjoy the time we have.”
Facing ALS snapped many areas of life into sharp focus for the family.
“Legacy is something I didn’t think about that often until I was faced with the ALS diagnosis,” Nathan said. “The most powerful legacy is improving other people’s lives. My mother and father have a legacy of serving KWU with wise and excellent stewardship for the campus and school. To this point, my legacy is being part of the Stanton family and being on the board as an alumnus.
“Brenda and I share the fact we were shaped by the people and the activities on campus. My two sons’ choice to come to Wesleyan is part of that legacy.”
In addition to Nathan, his sister, Kirsten (Stanton) Drennon graduated from KWU in 1988. His mother, Janice, served as an adjunct faculty member from 2000-02.
Brenda’s family also has several KWU graduates. Her sister, Jenny Riggins, graduated from Kansas Wesleyan, and niece, Shelby Riggins, will graduate in the spring.
The legacy for the Stantons and extended family began with Marshall’s tenure on the Board of Trustees and continued into his presidency.
“When I think of legacy, the thing that comes to mind is going from survival to thriving,” Marshall said. “The main legacy is that the institution was near a precipice, and it not only survived but thrived.”
In September, KWU celebrated its 135th birthday and he is optimistic about KWU’s trajectory.
“I think the institution is flourishing on every front,” Marshall said. “Matt (Thompson) has done a remarkable job of developing the institution — going in depth in the ways the institution was already going. It’s just phenomenal.”
As Noah and Isaac continue their academic trajectory, Nathan continues to serve on the Board of Trustees.
“The future is bright,” Nathan said. “I take a lot of pride in the fact the campus has been able to pivot after several events through my time on the board that weaker colleges would have been hurt terminally. What I have seen is the college, coaches and campus administration show the grit and resilience to come out on the other side with strength.”
Story and photos by Karen Bonar. This article originally appeared in Contact, the Kansas Wesleyan University alumni magazine.