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Oak Hills Christian College celebrates 75th anniversary

What started as a 14-acre camp purchased for $250 in 1925 now has a 75-year legacy as Oak Hills Christian College.

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Oak Hills chaplain Matt Graf, Biblical studies director Gale Struthers, president Martin Giese and former president Mark Hovestol participate in a Q&A on Saturday, March 26, 2022, during Oak Hills Christian College's 75th Anniversary event.
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BEMIDJI — What started as a 14-acre camp purchased for $250 in 1925 now has a 75-year legacy as Oak Hills Christian College .

In celebration of the college’s 75th anniversary since its founding in 1946, alumni, staff and friends of the college gathered for a day of reminiscence and activities on Saturday, March 26.

The day started off with 5K races followed by a brunch. Various recreational activities took up the afternoon culminating in a question-and-answer session with Oak Hills chaplain Matt Graf, Biblical studies director Gale Struthers, president Martin Giese and former president Mark Hovestol.

The day’s events concluded with a banquet with Christian comedian Daren Streblow from the Duluth area as the entertainment.

“We’re thrilled to be here, to watch God at work and to continue the legacy that we’ve inherited from our predecessors,” Giese said during the Q&A. “That’s what today is about. All of us who have served at Oak Hills stand on the shoulders of others who went before us.”

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Runners participate in a 5K race on Saturday, March 26, 2022, at Oaks Hill Christian College.
Elizabeth Stark / Bemidji Pioneer

From camp to college

Wilbur Sheridan Cummings moved to Bemidji in 1920 with hopes to develop a camp ministry.

With the support of an advisory and prayer support group, Cummings and his wife accrued $250 to purchase 14 acres of land overlooking Lake Marquette in September 1925.

While several acquisitions of land have brought the total current acreage to nearly 200, the Oak Hills Fellowship was incorporated to make use of the modest amount of land the Cummings’ had purchased to realize their vision at the time.

After some successful summer camps, Cummings passed away in 1932 from a brain tumor, though his ambition to create a Bible Institute lived on with other leaders wanting to build a Bible training school in the area.

In a report to the Oak Hills Fellowship Board in 1944, Superintendent James Schreiber wrote, “the thought in establishing such a school of training is that Northwoods young people, especially, who in many cases would not get down south to the larger schools of training, might receive a course of instruction at Oak Hills that would fit them for better service in their Northwoods communities as Sunday School teachers, young people’s leaders and personal soul winners.”

In November 1945, the board approved the management of a long-term Bible school headed by Principal Donald Wagner come October 1946.

Once October rolled around, the Oak Hills Christian Training School was ready for its first class.

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The early years

Oak Hills Christian Training School began in the summer buildings of Camp Oak Hills and welcomed 13 students and seven instructors.

Music courses were initially required for all students with Arthur Anderson taking the helm as the first music instructor. He would continue to direct the Oak Hills Choir from 1947 to 1962.

On April 8, 1949, the first graduation took place in the Bemidji High School Auditorium where seven students were recognized. These included Lois Conat, Bessie Degerman, J. B. Fuller, Gladys Fuller, John Green Jr., Robert Grover and Gene James.

At this time, the cost for tuition at Oak Hills was $50 per term while room and board was $7 per week. Students could have $1.50 deducted from room and board if they completed daily domestic work including dishwashing, shoveling snow or cleaning bathrooms.

The school’s first motto, “Personalized Bible training for effective Christian living and service,” was adopted in 1953.

In 1954, tuition increased to $60 per term with room and board costing $8 a week. All students were expected to do domestic work at this point with an additional $4 a week being tacked onto room and board if a student refused work.

A time of growth

Oak Hills’ enrollment crept up steadily and exceeded 60 students by 1960 after averaging around 40 students years prior.

The campus also underwent some expansion throughout the 1950s with the construction of two dorm buildings and an addition of a central heating plant to the School Building, which would be renamed to the Administration Building until its demolition in July 2015.

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The college added five areas of emphasis to the Bible major in 1956 giving students an option to focus on in-depth Bible study, Christian education, missions, general education or ministry.

The class of 1961 inducted 13 graduates into the Alumni Association of the newly-named Oak Hills Bible Institute. Significant growth throughout the 1960s saw 63 enrolled students at the beginning of the decade and a near-doubling to 115 students by 1969.

Tuition was $75 per term in 1962, the same year the southeast shore of Lake Marquette was developed as the site of Camp Oak Hills.

Robert Thompson became Oak Hills president in 1968, and the college’s nine-month school terms for two-year degrees took effect. These replaced the school’s previous 12-week terms from October to early April.

The campus Fellowship Center was dedicated in December 1970, and May 1971 saw the first graduation held on the Oak Hills campus in this building.

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Runners take off from the start of a 5K race on Saturday, March 26, 2022, at Oaks Hill Christian College.
Elizabeth Stark / Bemidji Pioneer

Challenges and change

Oak Hills faced some financial challenges in 1982 when an audit showed a $183,842 deficit in operational funds. Cost-cutting measures included releasing some short-term and permanent staff members from their positions.

The board of trustees discussed the college’s financial struggles and long-term frugality at an August 1982 board meeting, shortly after which President Thompson announced his resignation.

Thompson clarified his resignation was not because of the meeting’s discussion topic, but because “(my wife Joye) and I are making our best effort to understand and fulfill the will of God.”

David Smith would take over the presidency in 1983, during which the college would once again be renamed to Oak Hills Bible College in 1986.

Fall 1986 saw the start of the college’s new four-year Bachelor’s program, which was expected to aid in student recruitment. Enrollment had dropped from 152 students in 1982 to 95 students in 1985.

The Schreiber Activity Center was constructed in 1988 in honor of James Schreiber who had served Oak Hills from 1932 to 1961 and was an active athlete. James’ wife Jemima, who served as acting superintendent in 1932, would pass away this year with James dying in 1996.

The new activity center allowed for graduation ceremonies to take place in the gymnasium as well as the formation of the men’s basketball and women’s volleyball teams in 1996. They initially competed in the Manitoba Christian College Athletic Association and took on their current name, the “Wolfpack.”

Recent developments

Shortly after President Mark Hovestol’s resignation in 1998, Oak Hills Christian College took on its current name.

The college then saw a slew of changing leadership, particularly the presidents.

Four presidents would head the college in a span of nine years from 1998 to 2007. These included Interim Gene Hovee, Tom Bower, Interim David Smith and Dan Clausen.

Steven Hostetter would become interim president in May 2007 and be appointed in October 2008, the first time in Oak Hills’ history an interim president was appointed to the position.

With goals to grow student enrollment, Hostetter presented “Vision 2009,” which aimed to increase enrollment to 200 full-time equivalent students by fall 2009.

The board of directors decided against pursuing this goal due to its expense and stated that Vision 2009 “is not a requirement or demand, but that we should be working toward that goal. It was suggested that we implement some of the things that do not cost much and put the plan on a two-to-three year timeline.”

A significant development in the summer of 2009 included the reopening of Camp Oak Hills, which had been leased by Concordia Language Villages from 1982 to 2003 and used by SPLASH Camp Ministry from 2004 to 2008.

The Mokahum Ministry Center near Cass Lake also offered its first classes to Native American students in September 2009 after the Oak Hills Center for Indian Ministries gained ownership of the property.

Like other area colleges, the coronavirus pandemic disrupted Oak Hills’ spring 2020 semester with several events being canceled or switched to virtual delivery.

Future hopes

Having returned to normal operations, the college is looking back at the past 75 years while looking ahead to the next 75.

Reflecting on the college’s core values, Giese pointed to some “non-negotiables” as OHCC progresses into the 2020s.

“There are many historically Christian colleges going back to the early days of our nation who began well and finished secular,” Giese said. “There’s tremendous pressure to compromise for the sake of institutional survival. Oak Hills will not.”

In terms of enrollment, Giese would like to see a five-year increase from the college's current enrollment of 95 students to 200 through diversifying outreach methods and promoting different degree options.

He pointed to OHCC’s rural leadership and ministry certificate, which targets mid-career church leaders and the program's first six graduates will graduate in May.

“Oak Hills, since its inception, held up the banner that every vocation is a ministry,” Giese said. “It’s intriguing to me and also very satisfying that we are beginning to fill a crying need among predominantly rural churches for leadership.”

With 26 current degree options, Hovestol spoke to the Biblical foundation of each program and the role it plays in recruitment.

“We’ve very serious about the Scriptures, very serious about taking Christ seriously, very serious about creating a community where people can grow, where people can lead with vocation and also impact their world,” Hovestol said. “That’s the kind of student we’re looking for.”

Recognizing college costs, Giese highlighted OHCC’s “academic partnership agreement” with Lancaster Bible College in Pennsylvania that allows a student to earn their bachelor’s at Oak Hills and continue on to Lancaster’s graduate programs with online courses being offered to both online and on-campus Oak Hills students.

“There are price points beyond us,” Giese said. “The boost that our undergraduate students get from our student grant fund and various prayer partners sets the stage. It’s amazing how God will make further education possible in a way that gets His work done. What God sponsors, God can afford.”

With various recruitment and retention efforts in place, Graf hopes students will feel a sense of community once they set foot at Oak Hills for years to come.

“For students who thought they were going to leave after one year on our campus, they start to feel God tug at their heart,” Graf said. “I hope all students will feel this sense of community and of God in their relationships so that they’ll want to stick around and see what else God has to offer.”

More information can be found at www.oakhills.edu .

Daltyn Lofstrom is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer focusing on education and community stories.
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