Very sad to learn of the unexpected death today of Tom Corts, the former president of Samford University, the small private college that I attended in Alabama.
All Samford alumni are indebted to Dr. Corts. More than buildings, programs or the vastly expanded endowment that he helped build—as impressive and valuable as all those things are—I treasure his contribution of preserving Samford’s historic Christian character while steering it safely away from the control of extreme fundamentalists. In this way he saved what is most precious about Samford for future generations.
Some of what he did in 23 years as Samford’s president affected me rather directly. One of the things Dr. Corts championed was expanding the university’s investment in technology and making computers as accessible to students as possible. This all seems absurdly obvious now, but I went to college nearly a decade before the web became commonplace. In fact, I distinctly remember as a freshman coming to understand at a computer lab in the library that I need not hit a return at the end of every line of text. But Dr. Corts made computers abundant on campus, and over the next few years I learned a fair amount about how to use them. Knowing something about desktop publishing helped me land my first job and eventually led to my working at Apple. To this day technology remains one of my most persistent, fundamental interests. This, like my interest in China, is something that was sparked early in college, so actions of Dr. Corts are still reverberating in my life.
I got to know him slightly. I recall visiting his house once as an undergraduate. I probably caused him some annoyance as opinions page editor of the campus paper, inveighing as only an adolescent can against various initiatives (many of which, I now realize, were quite sound). Samford once gave my dad an Alabama Baptist bi-vocational minister of the year award, so he may have remembered me for more positive reasons, too. Also, I was on a Samford study abroad trip to China in June of 1989, our first exchange with a Chinese “sister” university. A week after our arrival, all our parents were horrified to watch on CNN as tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square. No doubt many of them were demanding Dr. Corts tell them what he was doing to SAVE THEIR KIDS. Cell phones & the internet weren’t ubiquitous then, certainly not in China, so the drama was intensified, and it was not clear whether the violence would spread or quickly subside as it did. We got out safely, but those could not have been the least anxious days of his presidency. I also intersected with him somewhat because his son and two nephews were all members of the same fraternity as me (and we all overlapped). I believe we even elected his daughter our chapter “sweetheart.” He and I both spoke at the chapter’s 10th anniversary celebration in the 90s. Thereafter we only corresponded once or twice over the years, but I always felt good knowing that thanks substantially to him my alma mater was progressing and not likely to be taken over by destructive fundamentalists.
Somewhere on campus there is an inscription to another person that reads along the lines of “if you want to see his monument, look around . . . ” That’s how I think of Dr. Corts—in the animated students walking around that beautiful campus on a fine spring day, enjoying the vibrant, financially secure university that Dr. Corts helped build. I also like to imagine that today Dr. Corts is being embraced by his maker and told, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”