Lee University Commemorates Dual Anniversaries

Cleveland, TN—An intimate gathering of church, community, and Lee University representatives gathered on the Lee campus on October 19 to mark both 25 years of university status and 75 years since the school’s return to Cleveland, Tennessee.

Founded more than a century ago on January 1, 1918, Lee University began as Bible Training School on the second floor of the Evangel Publishing Co. located on Gaut Street in Cleveland. The fledgling school quickly outgrew their space and operated out of multiple sites in Cleveland for its first 20 years. In 1938, the Church of God purchased the former campus of Murphy Collegiate Institute in Sevierville, Tennessee. BTS faculty, staff, and students relocated to the sprawling campus that fall and remained in the East Tennessee town for the next nine years.

In 1947, an opportunity arose for the Church of God school to relocate back to their headquarters city. At that time, the current Lee campus was occupied by Bob Jones College, a fundamentalist school that had been on the site since purchasing it from the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church, which had operated Centenary Female College there from 1885-1928. By 1947, Bob Jones had outgrown the campus following a period of enrollment increases and new construction, including several buildings still in use by Lee today.

Purchasing the campus for $1.5 million, BTS relocated to Cleveland in the fall of 1947 and adopted the name Lee College, honoring the school’s second president and former Church of God General Overseer, Flavius Josephus Lee. During the May 1997 commencement weekend, Lee College officially transitioned to become Lee University.

The Wednesday, October 19 luncheon was held in the Centenary Room, the only portion of the original Centenary College still in use. The event was designed as a reminiscence and “thank you” to Cleveland and Bradley County community leaders and businesses that have supported Lee University through the years. Guests included bank presidents, industry leaders, church officials, and Lee personnel, including President Mark Walker who opened the gathering with a greeting and prayer.

Featured speakers were former Lee president Dr. Paul Conn and Beecher Hunter, retired president of Life Care Centers of America and former editor of the Cleveland Daily Banner. Conn described his earliest memories growing up in Cleveland, attending local schools, joining the Lee faculty in 1972 and assuming the presidency in 1986 where he led it for 32 years.

“The Conn family arrived in Cleveland just a year after Lee, and moved just down the street, so I have spent nearly my entire life in this general area,” Conn said. “The relationships that have been forged between Lee and this community over 75 years have been valuable to both sides.”

Hunter echoed much of the sentiment of Conn, but from the perspective of an outside observer and newspaper editor. In his years with Life Care, he stated that visits to their corporate headquarters by executives and doctors began with a tour of the Lee campus.
“In the early years, Lee was viewed as, ‘that school over there, on that side of town,’” Hunter said. “The relationships took time to build, but I think everyone in this room will agree that Cleveland is better and would not be Cleveland without Lee University.”

—Cameron Fisher, Church of God Communications

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