Remember Robert E. Cooley, Former President of Gordon-Conwell

If you’ve met Robert E. Cooley, you’ll remember his startling handshake. If you’ve been to a meeting with him, you remember a genius who stopped the committee chatter or – more unlikely – suddenly made sense of it. If you’ve worked with him, you will remember a measured determination that could bring your organization back to its mission or lead a whole new movement.

Cooley, a Near Eastern archaeologist and former president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, died Thursday April 1 at the age of 91.

Best known for his seminary presidency from 1981 to 1997, Cooley spent much of his earlier career at archaeological sites in Israel and Egypt. His most important finds were made in Tel Dothan, West Bank, where he shed light on the ancient city’s funeral rituals that say a lot about their way of life. He played a key role in founding the Near Eastern Archaeological Society.

His subsequent research at 106 Native American sites while he was director of the Center for Archaeological Research at Missouri State University has become essential to the US government’s “cultural resource management studies”.

But it was in higher education that he had his greatest impact on American religious life, largely after his retirement from Gordon-Conwell. He helped Tim Laniak, then dean of the Charlotte, North Carolina campus, develop that campus and establish a satellite school in Jacksonville, Florida.

“Those who knew Dr Cooley,” said Laniak, “assumed the whole world did.”

In 2008, Cooley helped to reorganize governance of Oral Roberts University at a time when the school was in debt and was on the verge of closure. Mart Green, co-owner of the Hobby Lobby stores who brought in Cooley to help save the school, recalls, “I first met Bob in the late 1970s, and wisdom flowed from him.

The son of an Assemblies of God minister, Cooley was instrumental in consolidating three of the denomination’s schools in 2011: Central Bible College (his alma mater), Evangel University, and Assemblies Theological Seminary of God in Springfield, Missouri.

Cooley, former president of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada, was also editor-in-chief of Christianity today magazine and worked for the World Evangelical Alliance. He was a founding member of the Board of Trustees of the Museum of the Bible.

His last conference, in November 2019, was at the Charlotte campus, where he retired. Entitled “Domestic Archeology: My Career Is in Ruin”, it was the first he delivered while sitting, Cooley explained, noting that he was approaching “the 90-meter lifeline.”

Cooley was a man of great personal strength and he was aging gracefully – at 84 he could grab a 100-pound bag of golf clubs with one hand from his trunk and carry it some distance.

In 2014, he lectured in Springfield, Missouri, at a traveling Bible Museum exhibit, speaking for over an hour to a standing crowd, without notes in hand, and gave a detailed and memorable talk. on archeology. and the Bible. The Q&A was extensive and even more captivating. Afterward, he resisted a long line of people waiting to chat.

Seeing this image of him leaning lightly on the podium was a moment of freeze-frame. He told me in advance that this was his last special conference away from home because “my youth is leaving me”.

He lived fully and on purpose. As he lost the ability to move and eventually the ability to breathe, he never lost the strength to invest in others and to live with the belief in Heaven. He was proud not to be “the last of the Conservatives” but a mentor to future generations.

Green said the news of Cooley’s passing and of his life in general reminded him of a verse from the Book of Job: “Is not wisdom found among the elderly? Doesn’t long life bring understanding?

Jerry Pattengale is the first university professor at Indiana Wesleyan University and is a member of the board of directors of Christianity today.

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