On Aug. 28, 2012, Union University President David Dockery made his annual appearance in front of the Cardinal & Cream staff. However, this year was different. Students were assigned to interview him as though he had died that day and they were gathering details in order to write his obituary.
The 59-year-old college scholar came up with a “digestive disorder” (from consuming a salad at a pizza restaurant) as the cause of death. The hour-long, informative and sometimes entertaining repartee about whom he would choose to preach at his funeral, his 15-hour work days and his early dating life is reproduced in part below.
Q: Who are you leaving behind?
A: I’m survived by my wife of 37 years, Lanese (58); and three sons: Jonathan (32), Benjamin (31) and Timothy (30). Jonathan is married to Sarah, Ben is married to Julie, Tim is married to Andrea. Julie and Ben have two daughters, Abigail and Emma. Jon and Sarah have one daughter named Hazel. So that’s three sons, three daughters-in-law and three granddaughters.
Q: How long have you been president of UU?
A: It would have been 17 years on Dec. 8 of this year.
Q: Who would you like to preach at your service?
A: I imagine someone representing the university community and someone representing the family will participate. And then they will probably ask Dr. Timothy George, who serves as dean of the Beeson Divinity School at Samford University.
Q: Where would you like to be buried?
A: There is a Dockery plot at Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham, Ala., where I grew up. It happens to be across from one of the most significant Baptist ministers of the 20th century: Dr. Herschel Hobbs, who served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1962 and 1963. He pastored First Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, Okla., for almost 30 years and was buried in Elm- wood Cemetery, one of the most historic cemeteries in Alabama. Coach Paul Bryant also is buried in that cemetery.
Q: In what suit would you like to be buried in and why?
A: I think that would be my wife’s choice. I imagine it would be a black, pin- striped suit.
Q: Do you have any regrets?
A: I think that every- one has regrets about life and you often wonder and second guess things along the way. I wish I would have become a more serious student earlier in life. I had a genuine rededication to Christ between my sophomore and junior year of college. It revolutionized and transformed my life. I became a very serious student during that time. Before that, I was not a devoted student as I should have been. I have thoughts always about whether I should have given so much time to matters profession- ally as opposed to family. I do hope that primarily I will be remembered as a good husband a loyal father and a faithful friend to many.
Q: What kind of music, if any, or what song would you like played at your funeral?
A: “And Can It Be,” a Charles Wesley hymn; “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” “Abide with Me,” “It is Well with My Soul,” “For All the Saints” and “In Christ Alone.”
Q: I know that racial reconciliation is something that you’ve worked on here. What is your desire for that legacy?
A: I hope that somewhere along the way that will be mentioned at the funeral service. I hope that friends like Roland Porter at the Agape Church would work hard to carry on that legacy.
I would hope that the Center for Racial Reconciliation at Union University would become even more prominent than it is. And I would hope that the affirmation, appreciation and encouragement that came from President Gloria Sweetlove, the president of the Tennessee NAACP, would find some way to carry forth that legacy.
Q: What brought you to Union?
A: I was the chief academic officer at the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, where I had served on the faculty since 1988. I became the chief academic officer there in January of 1992 and thought that I would spend the rest of my life at Southern Seminary.
It is a place that I not only loved; it is a place that I still greatly admire. I was the chief academic officer there for four years before coming to Union. In the summer of 1995, a Southern Seminary trustee contacted me and said, “Union has just announced a presidential opening, and some of the pastors in the state of Tennessee would like to nominate you for the presidency.”
I said, “I don’t know much about Union other than the students we’ve had come to Southern from there. My sense is that they would go for a Union graduate or someone who has a connection with Union and I don’t have those. I had only been on cam- pus one time to speak in chapel in 1993.”
I knew one faculty member at the time: George Guthrie. So I thought it was quite a long shot, but I said to them, “You know, I think my future is in theological education in Louisville, but if the Lord leads you to do that, go ahead.” So, three or four Tennessee pastors got together and wrote a letter of recommendation to the search committee. Lo and behold, in September of 1995 I received a call from the chairperson of the search commit- tee, and he said, “You’ve been nominated, and we are very, very interested. We would like to have you here to have a conversation with you.”
I said, “Are you sure you have the right person? You wouldn’t want someone else?”
And they said, “No, we would like to arrange a time for you to come to Jackson, for a conversation.”
So, we found a date that would work, and I came and we talked for an interview that just went extremely well from every standpoint. The search committee just fell in love with Lanese, and said, “We want her to be the first lady, and you’ll come along, then she could be the first lady and we’ll let you be the president.” And that’s how it worked.
Q: Who has had the greatest impact on your life?
A: There have been several people on that list. It would be hard to pick one. My childhood pastor, Darold Morgan, who just turned 88, is a person with whom I stay in contact, and who stays in contact with me. He was very instrumental in my childhood and those days moving into teenage years. He left Birmingham and moved to Texas and became president of the Southern Baptist Annuity Board (now called Guidestone). He was a major leader in Southern Baptist life, a statesman, for many years. He is a very significant friend and mentor.
Number two: I had the privilege of working in the athletic department at the University of Alabama as a student, and I worked primarily with football and basketball teams. The basketball coach was C. M. Newton, who has been selected for the college basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. On Nov. 15, he will be recognized as the president of the Joe Lapchick Character Award, which is the highest character award in college basketball.
He has been a marvelous friend. His approach to leadership has influenced my approach to leadership, and he has been very helpful even to our work at Union. He became the unofficial consultant for us, leading us from the NAIA to NCAA at the university even in his retirement years.
A third one would be Dr. Herschel Hobbs. He kind of adopted me as one of his children in the ministry, and I actually met with him in Nashville in
November 1995. Professor Jim Veneman was actually there and took the last picture I have of Dr. Hobbs before he died. Dr. Hobbs didn’t know I was coming to Union. During that conversation he thought I was staying at Southern Semi- nary. And frankly, so did I. He gave me two exhortations. One: “Take care of mother,” which meant take care of Southern Seminary, and number two: “Don’t get off of the bus.”
You have to know Dr. Hobbs to understand this expression, but the “bus” was the Southern Baptist Convention. It was a time in which the SBC was going through even more difficult challenges than now, and he said stay there, and stay involved and continue to try to make a difference, whether you drive the bus or wherever you sit, but try to make a difference in that world. The fourth person has been Chuck Colson. Mr. Colson died in April 2012.
He was a very, very special friend. These people came during various stages of my life. Dr. Morgan came early; C.M. Newton in my college years; Herschel Hobbs in the years going into ministry and into denominational service; and Chuck Colson has been my mentor for involvement in the evangelical world at large.
Q: Can you describe what you think happens after you die?
A: Heaven will be a place where the glory of God abounds, and where the full love, grace and mercy of Jesus Christ is made known not in the veiled way as it was when he was incarnate on this earth but in a full way. That seems to me ultimately what heaven will be about. Experiencing the adoration of God and enjoying fellowship with the trinitarian God …
It also will be a place of ongoing worship, service and fellowship, including the developing of relation- ships with all the saints.
I’ve thought a lot about that. We are told really just enough to kind of point us to recognizing that this is going be a wonderful experience, but not enough to really satisfy our curiosity. I’m sure some of us are going to have to take Christianity 101 over again and try to get it right this time around.
I wrote a little book back in 1999 called “Our Christian Hope” in which I tried to answer a few of those questions of what I think it might be like. Again, I don’t want to move into areas of speculation. I try to stay as theologically grounded as I can. But I think ultimately, it will be a time of worship of the trinitarian God and although we think we know a little bit about worship now, I don’t think we know anything about it, what it’s going to be like there.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about how sports have influenced your life?
A: Ultimately, basket- ball is my favorite sport. I played high school basket- ball. I was too short and too slow, but I still loved to play. I could shoot the ball quite well, so that allowed me to get out on the court from time to time. I became a student of the game, and that was one of the reasons I wanted to be involved with the athletic department of the University of Alabama. I was thinking that sports might be part of my future, to be a coach or a sports journalist. I worked my way through Grace Theological Seminary as the women’s basketball coach at Grace College.
I actually helped lead the program to some degree of minimal success, even against some big-named teams. Sports have been very important for me, not just as a hobby or a way to relax from the stresses of this job, but I think sports teach things about ourselves. Team sports teach you the value of working with others and understanding people who have another set of strengths than what you have. So, you find ways to maximize the strengths and abilities of others to compensate for the things that you can do, or can’t do.
Sports teach you to push further than you think you can go, they teach you about endurance and discipline that sometimes you miss if you don’t participate in these things. Sports, rightly understood, emphasize teamwork, character, discipline and good sportsmanship.
Learning how to respond to losses is a very important life lesson. Baseball teaches you more about life than just about anything. Baseball, unlike football, is a sport where people do not expect you to have un- defeated seasons because of the length of the seasons.
In baseball, if you win 60 percent of your games, you are considered outstanding, and if you get a hit one out of three times you are at bat, you make it to the Hall of Fame. Those are important things to learn about life that sometimes are not picked up in other spheres, for life is often about responding to loss and disappointment.
Q: What is your typical schedule?
A: My work day is often a 15-hour day. It has about three shifts to it. It begins at home before coming to the office. I read news and emails and get a glimpse of what is happening in the day. The time in the office, which generally follows office hours of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., includes about two to three meetings a day, lots of correspondence and things of that nature.
Then the evening shift has two parts to it. One is usually a campus activity, which could be a drama or play, or concert, or game, or dinner. Probably four to five nights a week, there is something like that.
Then the last shift, which is reserved for me to think, read and focus on matters of education, theology and church and kingdom.
I try to constantly be reading a new book, and that’s when I do it. I think leaders are readers, and I do not know a leader who doesn’t read. As soon as someone quits reading, they might as well walk away. Reading helps one stay in touch, helps one to think and helps one engage key issues.
Q: What are your favorite books?
A: I try to read widely. I often try to read from people with whom I disagree. I try not to read just things that I would find myself agreeing with.
I would like to be challenged by someone who approaches things differently from how I do, either philosophically or culturally. In terms of my favorite Christian authors, it would probably be people like Carl F.H. Henry, Mil- lard Erickson or J.I. Packer. A.W. Tozer’s book on “The Knowledge of God” is probably a book I’ve read a dozen times. I’ve tried to read widely in different areas in business, leadership, education, theology, culture and politics.
Q: What is one thing that you would like to see happen at Union in the many years to come?
A: I would like to see the depth of the mission extended, the work of the university enhanced and Union’s national and international footprints made known in broader contexts. Not in a grandiose sense, but I think we are doing something special here, and I hope that will influence people like many of you, Union graduates, for some time to come.
It excites me when I read in Baptist Press that Jonathan Key, a Union graduate from a few years ago, was appointed vice president of the Southern Baptist Foundation. That is a very significant role that he will have, and I could go through dozens and dozens of people like that who have left this campus – some before I came but many after I came here – who are making a significant difference for the cause of Christ.
Q: If you could give one piece of advice to young American Christians, what would it be?
A: Find ways to triage your thinking about what is important in what you think, things in which you are involved and the issues with which you are willing to fight for or for which you will make a stand. My sense is that most of us make those decisions wrongly, and we make stands or fight over secondary and tertiary matters that don’t really matter as much. We often don’t have the courage to stand for the things that do matter. I hope that Union students would find the courage to stand for the things that really matter and learn to triage those differences with a sense of wisdom.
Q: Now that you’re in heaven, other than Jesus, who do you really want to meet?
A: The apostle Paul has to be first. I want him to sit down and help explain what the “righteousness of God” means. And I want to ask “Why was it so important in your writings?” And who was right: Martin Luther or N.T. Wright? I hope he says Martin Luther. I hope to meet Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and even see Lottie Moon. That would be an incredible thrill to get to meet her on the eternal stage. But Paul would be first.
Q: Is there a book of the Bible that intrigues you the most?
A: Romans. I’ve spent hours and hours and hours trying to figure it out and I think I have a good general grasp of its meaning, but a lot of it depends on the meaning of that phrase “the righteousness of God.” If you don’t get that phrase right, then it’s hard to understand the whole book …
Paul introduces it in 1:17 and expounds upon it and looks at it from just about every angle, so for him, it’s key to understanding what God has revealed in Jesus Christ. I believe if you don’t understand that phrase, then you can’t understand Romans. And if you cannot understand Romans, then you can’t understand the Apostle Paul. If you can’t understand the Apostle Paul, then you cannot really grasp the message of the New Testament. If you cannot understand the New Testament, you can’t understand the Bible. So, in many ways, it all hinges on that phrase.
Q: I understand that you did some interim pastoring in Jackson. What, where and when?
A: The interim pastorate here was the First Baptist Church at Jackson.
It lasted about 18 to 19 months, and it was a long one. It’s the only one I’ve done here, and for that reason. I can’t afford to get tied up that long at one church again. But given the special relationship that Union has with a few key churches in the area, First Baptist being one of them, I think it was well worth the time. We have a lot of Union students, staff, faculty, alums and trustees that go there. I think it was worth the investment, but I made a commitment to the board of trustees that I would never do another long interim pastorate, because it was just way, way too long. Before coming to Union I had done other interims in Texas, Kentucky and Ohio, among other places.
Q: How would you have celebrated your 60th birthday?
A: On Oct. 28, I would’ve turned 60. I was scheduled to give the inaugural address for Anthony Allen, the new president of Hannibal-LaGrange College, a Baptist school in Hannibal, Missouri. That would’ve been on Oct. 26, and then there is a Union University alumni meeting in Louisville the following Monday night (Oct. 29). So, we were going to drive from Missouri to Kentucky, and find a place somewhere along there to meet on the 28th for all three of our sons and their families to meet us for a birthday lunch or dinner.
Q: Do you like pets?
A: Buster the bulldog was one of the first class gifts to Union, when I came. He was a gift of the class of 1997. I always meet with the senior class president in the spring, and usually he or she comes with five or six things that the class is thinking about, and I usually have a list of about four or five that I would like for them to think about. But I have to tell you, there was certainly no bulldog on my list. And when they told me what they wanted to do, I wondered, “Who’s going to take care of this dog?” They huddled again and came back and said, “We’ve got it worked out. Todd Brady will take care of the bulldog.” Todd at the time was a 25- or 26-year-old, and he was still single and living on his own, and he said he would take the dog.
He was director of campus ministries at the time. The class raised some money that endowed all the veterinarian trips, and food for about five or six years. That wound up being a very special gift. Buster was regularly seen or featured on the Union campus during the late ‘90s. And we loved having Buster here at that time.
But Buster got old before I did. I don’t know if there will be dogs in heaven, but maybe I’ll see Buster after Lottie Moon. Yes, I do like dogs. I don’t like all animals, but I do like dogs. We had a dog named Sadie that was a Siberian Husky, a beautiful dog, that we purchased as soon as we arrived in Jackson, and Sadie died this year.
Sadie has been part of the family and part of every freshman ice cream event, and just about every event that we’ve done at the house. This is the first group of freshmen with whom Sadie’s never run around or played Frisbee. But we don’t have plans right now to get another dog. Sadie was too special to be replaced at this moment.
Q: What were your parents’ names?
A: My parents were from rural Alabama. My daddy’s name was Samuel W. Dockery, and he was born in 1925 and died in 2008. And my mother’s name (don’t laugh, she was from a Southern family, with Southern names, all daughters) was Pansye Elizabeth. She was born in 1925 and died in 1999, almost a decade before my dad died. My mother was very, very special and was my first Bible teacher. I am certain that she was the person whose prayers kept me from having even more regrets than what I listed earlier. I have no doubt that her prayers have shaped my life in ways that I am unaware of.
Q: What would have been your vision for technology at Union?
A: The first piece was hiring Jim Avery a few years ago. He is probably the finest technology leader Union has ever had and someone who thinks very collaboratively. He works with faculty and staff and has pulled the team together so that they are all working off the same page to bring serious commitments to quality in those areas. The second piece is “how do we use technology to deliver the distinctiveness of Union education?” The hiring of Hayward Armstrong is a big piece of that because we have 242 full-time faculty members, but only one who has his degree in distance learning. Hayward Armstrong has his doctoral degree in missions and theology but also his master’s degree from the University of Maryland in distance education.
He is helping the School of Theology and Missions to pioneer programs in this area. We have had distance courses but not a distance-learning program or degree. So the new masters of Christian studies program from the School of Theology and Missions is the first full online degree that we have.
I believe in technology. I carry this little phone around, there’s an iPad out in my car. I live off this stuff like you all do. I am convinced that we can convey information well and effectively. However, what makes a Union education distinctive is helping students move from education to knowledge and then to wisdom. And if we don’t get to the wisdom piece, I’m not sure that we have fulfilled what we need to do. I’m still struggling with how we do that online. I think it happens in conversation and sharing of life with people that is not done in 140 characters on a Twitter account.
There’s something about a verse in Mark 3:14 that is haunting to me. It says Jesus chose the disciples and he was “with them” and then he sent them out to preach. So, he could have chosen them, taught them, then sent them out to preach, but he thought it was important to be “with them.” And I think it’s that “with them” context that provides the relational dynamic where wisdom is able to grow. I recognize that doesn’t happen with every student in every classroom. I do think the context is there, and I want to make sure that the context is online to encourage it as well. Not just delivery of information but the next step must help develop wise Christ followers.
Q: Since you died of a digestive problem, what is your favorite food? Assuming that you can digest it up there?
A: Ice cream would be number one I guess. I love Picasso’s Pizza. My favorite snack is popcorn and Diet Coke.
Q: What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?
A: Banana … I hope you all make it to the service! Come and pray for my family during this time of “loss.” I’ll be praying for all of you during this semester.