As Southern Adventist University celebrates 125 years of training young people, it is remarkable to see how God has led. Much has changed since the institution was established in 1892, but its core values of placing God first, nurturing students, and serving others have never wavered. The dedication, sacrifice, and vision that mark Southern’s beginnings have also remained constant.
The school was originally founded in Graysville, Tennessee, by George W. Colcord, at the encouragement of Seventh-day Adventist Church leadership. With the dream of offering quality Adventist education to the Southeast, Colcord was committed to the school’s success, using his own money to rent a temporary classroom on the second floor of the town’s general store. Initially, 23 students attended his classes.
Though small, the school prepared its students to have a positive impact on the world for decades to come. One of the early graduates, Rochelle Kilgore, was born on a cotton plantation in Reynolds, Georgia, in 1887. Shortly after graduating in 1904, Kilgore began a teaching career that would span 75 years, mostly spent in higher education. Instructing young people was more than an occupation for Kilgore: through the years she invited 94 students to live in her home, and corresponded with hundreds of American service members around the world. She died at the age of 105, but is still remembered as an inspirational figure.
Moving the College to the Dale
By 1916, after many rocky years in Graysville — culminating in a fire that demolished the women’s dorm — the school’s administration, along with leaders of the Southern and Southeastern unions, decided to relocate the school to what is now Collegedale. Then known as Thatcher Switch, the site offered a lovely setting but very little infrastructure. However, the team had a vision of what Southern could become, and, with the help of funds raised through the union’s publication, Field Tidings, they purchased the property and made the move.
For the first few years in Collegedale, students lived in tents, and early accounts use terms such as “Spartan” and “primitive” to describe life on campus. Visiting missionaries even expressed that the conditions at the school were worse than in the mission field. Still, the little school persisted. Various accounts from the time say that students complained very little about the rough conditions. According to A.N. Atteberry, then principal of the school, “The pioneer spirit was dominant. The young men and women felt they were experiencing some of the conditions our missionaries often endure, and also that they were building for those who would come later.”
That indomitable spirit carried on through the years as the campus and student body grew. By the 1940s, World War II loomed on the horizon. Following the Adventist tradition of pacifism, Southern took part in a program called Medical Cadet Corps, training young men to save lives rather than to kill, and preparing them for the military’s medical service. By the end of the war, 171 Southern students had served in the U.S. armed forces, with eight making the ultimate sacrifice.
The philosophies of saving lives and serving the community are woven throughout Southern’s history. In the early years, the school operated a sanitarium to meet the community’s health needs, and in 1956, Southern debuted a new program: nursing. It quickly became the most popular major on campus, and by 1973 Southern had the largest nursing school in Tennessee. Graduates of the program have gone on to provide quality healthcare around the globe.
From its infancy in Graysville to a thriving University of nearly 3,000 students in Collegedale, Southern has trained young people to positively impact their world. Graduates have gone on to become missionaries, filmmakers, and senators. They work at the General Conference, Google, and the United Nations. Whether leading a congregation or researching a cure for cancer, each one carries the legacy of service in their heart — and it all began 125 years ago on the upper floor of a tiny store in southeast Tennessee.
As we mark Southern’s 125th anniversary this year, we invite you to join us in honoring this tradition of serving others. Our goal is to collect 125,000 hours of service by the end of the year. Visit southern.edu/125 throughout the year to enter your community service hours and check progress. Everyone is invited to participate.
, is the 26th president of Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee.