On Thursday, former APU President Jon Wallace passed away. Wallace served as president of the university for 18 years and was known for how he engaged with students— stopping to talk on Cougar Walk, sharing wisdom in Chapel, and even by inviting a small group of students over to meet his family and bake bread. Former ZU News editor-in-chief Nathan Foster shares his thoughts on the legacy of “J. Dubs.”
To honor the legacy that Jon Wallace left behind at Azusa Pacific is to remember the ways in which he impacted the lives of students.
In just two conversations, here is how Jon Wallace made an indelible impact on mine.
As a reporter for ZU News, I had the privilege to interview him twice. In 2017, the newspaper produced a special issue on politics and Wallace happily shared advice on how students could become politically engaged. In 2018, he announced his retirement, and I spoke with him about the decision after nearly 50 years at the university.
When I heard of his passing, I thought back to those two interviews. During both, it felt as though he was interviewing me instead of the other way around. In the first, he broke the tension by making fun of me, a rookie reporter interviewing the most important man on campus.
“So I’ve read some of your articles,” he said. “It looks like you cover mostly sports. They sent the sports guy to interview me, huh?”
“Yes, sir. I do write mostly sports stories. But I also cover hard news and politics and I-”
“Can’t take a joke?” he laughed.
I laughed too, realizing I had just been roasted by the president of my university. The interview quickly improved as I turned to my list of questions. Jon responded enthusiastically, encouraging students to engage in politics at a local level.
Jon wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. He wrote former President Donald Trump, condemning an executive order banning immigrants from several countries in the Middle East.
“Many in our diverse communities come to our campuses on the shoulders of immigrants. Indeed, we all share pages in that American heritage of welcoming the vulnerable, extending hospitality, and inviting participation in the great experiment of these United States … Scripture calls us to care for the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the refugee. It also urges us that we work with respect for the authorities of our nation with fidelity to our Christian identity. We contend that every person bears the image of God and deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Unlike Trump, Wallace advised others to treat each other with respect and to speak life.
“Students need to express their voice and encourage conversation with their friends around issues that matter,” he said.
In the years that followed, Azusa Pacific students would take up this mantle, leading the charge for change on campus. The university became more inclusive as voices that had shouted to empty ears for so long were finally heard.
Through this, Jon battled cancer. At the end of the 2017-18 school year, he announced his decision to retire in a morning chapel.
Thousands of APU students and alumni felt the shock of the announcement. Jon had led APU for the better part of two decades and was as enthusiastic as ever when you bumped into him on campus. He still loved talking with students and meeting new friends around Cougar walk, but after much discussion and contemplation with his wife of five decades and his family, Jon knew the time was right.
When I asked my former editor-in-chief, Sharon Lee, if I could take the J. Dubs story as a freshman, I was terrified. I had never talked to a president before, even if he just oversaw the operations of a midsize Christian university. I was a sports guy, but I knew I wanted to be more.
I remember waking up that morning and chugging two cups of coffee because I wanted to be sure I didn’t look tired in front of the president. Then I got super jittery and started worrying that I wouldn’t be able to sit still for the thirty-minute interview.
By the time I walked into his office, I was so relieved to hear that he had even read some of my work that I forgot all of my other concerns. Jon had that effect on people. He knew that as a leader, it helps to live like a servant and not be bigger than anyone else in the room.
When I heard he was retiring, I knew I wanted the chance to speak with him again. This time I was accompanied by my friend Brandon Rodriguez, the newspaper’s sports editor at the time.
Jon welcomed us into his office and proceeded to roast me for the second time in two interviews. As he and Brandon laughed at me, I began contemplating angles to take for the story. At that point, it was the biggest story of my career.
How do you capture someone’s legacy?
Is it the impact they had on an institution? Is it in the memory of the family they are blessed to call their own? Or is it in the advice dispensed from one generation to the next?
That day, Jon told me something that had taken his whole life for him to truly learn. He had worked at the university for the better part of a century in a variety of areas, including the cafeteria, campus security, the bookstore and the print shop. Many career changes led Jon to the position of dean of students and eventually the presidency.
“I stayed in Azusa because I was continuously chosen,” Wallace said. “When you’re chosen it means that someone believes in you enough to let you fail.”
This stayed with me as I experienced the truth of his words firsthand. Just months later, I was chosen to lead the news staff of ZU Media, the university’s student newspaper — something that I would fail at time and time again.
Some articles were published prematurely, before they had gone through the whole editing process, making us look sloppy. Sometimes my reporters would enrage big people on campus with their stories, and I would take the heat for it. Sometimes I would fall asleep while editing articles because I was working four jobs and taking 18 units.
Each failure was demoralizing. Each failure was bearable.
I knew my faculty advisor still believed in me. I knew my staff wasn’t going to give up on me. I knew this because of what Jon told me.
“When you’re chosen it means that someone believes in you enough to let you fail.”
I bet Jon failed a lot too. But that didn’t stop him from making an ineffable impression on thousands of students during his 18 years as president of APU. That didn’t stop him from leading each Candela in the fall and speaking at Chapel each spring. That didn’t stop a custodian from climbing the totem pole to the top.
Talking to Jon was like talking to an old friend. He embodied true servant leadership; a feat that most are unable to achieve. You didn’t work beneath him; you worked alongside him.
In the interview, Jon talked a lot about his faith, including his life verse Galatians 2:20, “. . . and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
It is easy to be lost in sorrow, but part of me is smiling at the thought of Jon being up there, making bread and greeting others with his trademark salutation.
Shalom, Jon, go with God.