BUENA VISTA, Virginia — The first LDS apostle to speak officially at Southern Virginia University honored SVU's pioneers on behalf of church leaders and praised the independent school's president at his inauguration on Friday.
Energy rippled across the campus with the historic visit of Elder Ronald A. Rasband, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The inauguration marked the first time the faith's First Presidency has assigned a member of the Twelve to visit SVU, which though independent from the church is guided by its values.
Elder Rasband made impromptu visits to eight classes in the morning, and students excitedly shared stories about meeting him. In the afternoon, buses waited for the SVU football and women's soccer teams, who delayed trips to away games to join the inauguration at 2 p.m. The cross country teams skipped their meet so they could participate.
"Twenty years ago a small group of leaders, recognizing a need for an institution of this caliber on the east coast, established this university from what had begun here as Southern Seminary at the turn of the 20th century," Elder Rasband said during the inauguration ceremony. "Those visionaries perhaps could see today and beyond; we commend them for putting in place this campus for higher learning and higher standards of living.
"We say thank you for making this day possible. Much has happened here at Southern Virginia University — there is much, much more to come."
On a pleasant, overcast day in the Shenandoah Valley, a standing-room-only crowd of 1,100 students, faculty and alumni fanned themselves with programs in the warm Stoddard Student Center. The building was a horse stable and riding arena in 1996 when Glade Knight agreed to help take over ailing Southern Seminary and transform it into SVU.
The inauguration installed Reed Wilcox as SVU's eighth president. A former BYU student body president with both an MBA and law degree from Harvard, Wilcox previously led a global medical company with a specialty in nanomedicine.
"This institution will be enriched and enlarged by the leadership of President Wilcox," Elder Rasband said. "It is fair to say, this university is in very good hands. To have him at the helm is to have a man who will seek God in his decisions, who will seek counsel from the board of trustees, his advisors and faculty and who will seek opportunities to work with the students, as we have heard today — one by one."
Wilcox has served as SVU's president for two years. He had little contact with the school prior to that. When he visited a year ago with the first counselor in the church's First Presidency, President Henry B. Eyring asked for Wilcox's observations as an outside-insider.
"The faculty and students are exceptional and all out of proportion with the size of this school," Wilcox said he told President Eyring.
"President Eyring expressed his love and appreciation for all of you for having brought this about," Wilcox told the university community on Friday. "On that day, your service brought a smile to the face of someone we all love very much, and he said, 'Thank you,' and he meant that for you. He said, 'I love you,' and he meant that for you. A manifestation of that love is the fact that Elder Rasband is sitting on the stand today."
Three years ago the school was staggered by the LDS Church's decision to lower the age eligibility for missionaries; Southern Virginia lost about one quarter of its student body. The school has rebounded and set a new enrollment record this semester with 811 students. Elder Rasband lauded its small class sizes.
"Many colleges and universities boast of their numbers," he said, "fitting in as many students as they can in a classroom or hall. Not here. You have the luxury of a student body where the focus is not on the mass of students, but on the one."
Elder Rasband's theme focused on serving individuals. Students earn diplomas one by one, he said, the same way Jesus Christ teaches his children individually.
"One by one he took our sins upon him in the Garden of Gethsemane. One by one he healed the blind, stooping for mud to apply to eyes or simply touching them with his finger."
He encouraged students to seek a testimony of Christ, prophets, the Book of Mormon and priesthood.
"President Wilcox," he said, "you will feel the Lord guiding you and impressing upon you what needs to be done here at the university. I encourage you to find ways to help students to include religious thought and study as central and not just complementary to their university experience."
Wilcox echoed Elder Rasband.
"A university is a place to learn," he said. "A good university is a place to learn how to learn. A great university is a place to learn how to learn what matters most. The most important thing we can learn is to know God, and to learn that he knows you, and I don't mean you collectively, I mean you individually, because he knows you personally and cares about you that way."
During the inauguration, the university's board of trustees awarded the Founders Medallion to Glade and Kathleen Knight. The liberal arts school's athletic teams are known as the Knights.
"I dub you Knights," Glade Knight said to Elder Rasband and other visitors to the ceremony, "and welcome you to join our family."