WILMINGTON — Wilmington College’s 18th president, Jim Reynolds, and his wife, Sue, followed their moving van en route to Decatur, Illinois, last week, marking the end of his nearly nine-year presidency and, for the couple, 13 years as an integral part of the college community.
On Wednesday, July 1, he will become president of Millikin University.
As Reynolds looked back upon his tenure at the college, he takes pride in what has been referred to as the institution’s 21st century renaissance.
The college successfully completed the largest building boom in more than a half century, enrollments of new students attained record watermarks, academic program offerings expanded, the institution underwent a re-branding process that places its longtime hallmark for hands-on learning front and center, and it successfully concluded its largest fundraising campaign before, this spring, realizing the biggest gift — $13.5 million — in its 150-year history.
“You can look at a lot of things, but for me, it’s knowing that we graduated 2,660 students during those nine years,” he said. “We’ve witnessed so many grow and have an exceptional experience at Wilmington College. For many, it’s changed their lives in very meaningful ways. A lot of those students really needed the college in their lives at that time.”
Indeed, Reynolds often has cited a borrowed yet especially meaningful phrase: “We change family trees.” The first in his family to graduate college, he empathizes with the sometimes-challenging plight faced by first-generation students and others for whom attaining higher education is a stretch.
“Wilmington College has a powerful purpose in extending an opportunity to those students looking to improve their lives. I’m happy to have been part of a place that really wants to educate students and I’m really proud to have played a small part in their lives,” he added.
Sadly, this spring, just as the pandemic stole graduating seniors’ opportunity to enjoy all those “lasts,” so did Reynolds, Sue and the rest of the campus miss out on experiencing the seniors’ swan song final weeks with them.
“It was hard for us,” he said. “We missed having the chance to say, in person, ‘Congratulations, thanks and goodbye.’” Sue added, “I especially missed this year seeing the enthusiasm and happiness of our students and their families at commencement.”
Pandemic protocols prevented much of the campus community from expressing its thanks and in-person farewells to the Reynoldses in the weeks before they left the college.
The couple believes in spiritual callings, that, “We’re placed here for a reason — it’s not just serendipity,” he said about coming to WC as vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty in 2007, and becoming the college’s 18th president several years later.
“I didn’t realize how much I needed Wilmington in my life until I got here. A lot of important things happened to us while we’ve been at WC. We believe there’s a reason for us to be where we are. Now, I know I’m being called to Millikin.”
He will become the 16th president of the 119-year-old institution in Decatur — his hometown.
He grew up six blocks from the Millikin campus, watched Saturday afternoon football games there, swam in its natatorium for a high school gym class and took his college ACT exam in a room across the hall from where his presidential office will be.
“I have a lot of really fond memories of Millikin,” he said. “It’s the culmination of my professional career to go back to my hometown — that’s really a blessing.”
He recalls his father driving his family after church along Millikin Place, a cul-de-sac of spectacular homes, near the university, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright or a protégé. All these years later, he will live in the president’s home on Millikin Place.
“I remember Millikin as a beacon of culture in my hometown. Decatur was a place where a blue-collar worker could live the American Dream,” he said, noting his parents lived their final days there and he and Sue still have good friends they often visit in Decatur.
“It’s a place that’s really special to me.”
They said Wilmington also has been a special place to have invested their lives for the past 13 years. Their younger daughter, Erin, is a 2015 graduate. Also, the Quakers’ ethos of promoting peace, equality and social justice found eager exemplars in the Reynoldses.
Reynolds said he’s been impressed with how the college is a place that really lives out its sense of community and values, and how those ideals have been perpetuated through the lives of WC alumni. “There are so many good memories we have here and so many good people we’ve had the opportunity to know and work with.”
As for a legacy at WC, he said, “I want to be remembered as the kind of president who focused my attention on making students’ experience the best it can be. I have loved this place and it has loved me back. I’ve given my heart and soul to Wilmington College.
“I’m a Quaker for life!”