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  • 2011 Distinguished Alumnus of the Year

    Darlia McLuhan Conn was the second of three children, and the only daughter born to Rev. M.G. McLuhan and Merle Reesor McLuhan. She was born in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada. In 1949 her family moved to Minot North Dakota where her father, Dr. Mac, as friends called him, served as President of the North-western Bible College. In 1953 her father was offered the opportunity to revive a failing school in Kroonstad, South Africa, which at the time was described as having “no money, badly neglected facilities, and three teachers, two of whom are second rate.”With that grim description he took the assignment and the family was off to Africa.

    In 1957, when Darlia was in 7th grade, it became necessary for “Dr. Mac” and Merle to return to Canada to raise support, both there and in the states.The road was no place for young children who needed to be in school.The decision was made that the children would stay with their grandparents McLuhan and Reesor for a year while Reverend and Sister McLuhan went out and raised money for the mission field.That year on the farm with her grandparents Reesor, 1957-1958, surrounded by family and unsupervised adventure, Darlia remembers as one of the best of her life.

    The family returned to Africa, this time moving to Salisbury, Rhodesia – today known as Zimbabwe. In 1962 Darlia graduated from high school. She went on to receive a performer’s diploma from Trinity College of Music.

    Her father finished his second term in Africa and moved the family back to the United States in 1964. It was then that Darlia enrolled in Lee College, joining her older brother, Dewayne. Not long after arriving at Lee, Darlia joined the Lee Singers as the pianist for the group. It was there that she caught the eye of an earnest ministerial student named Paul Conn. Here is Paul’s description of that moment when he first saw the new Singers’ pianist from South Africa: “I was a sophomore without a clue when I saw her walking alone on the sidewalk toward the music building. She obviously had ‘it’; whatever that is. I stopped so I could look at her. I felt like howling at the moon.”

    As these things happen, she and Paul were engaged and married in 1967. They moved to Atlanta where Paul enrolled in graduate school. It was in Atlanta in 1969 that Darlia had the first of her three children, Vanessa Rae. When Paul finished his graduate work they returned to Cleveland and Paul began teaching psychology at Lee College. Darlia had two more children, Heather, and Brian, before finishing her B.A. in music in May 1977. For the next 14 years Paul and Darlia were a faculty family at Lee.

    But in some ways the reason for this award began in August of 1986 when Paul and Darlia were given the opportunity to lead a small and struggling college that had little more than a doubtful future. It was a big change from the flexible private life of a faculty family. It was a decision to go “all in” and would take the kind of commitment that one learns on the plains of western Canada and South African mission field.

    Over the next 25 years Darlia would not only serve as the first lady of Lee University, supporting, counseling, praying for, and maybe sometimes correcting her President husband; but she would become personally involved at almost every level of the university. From serving on the music faculty, accompanying student recitals, attending athletic events, worshiping in chapel, serving on committees, and traveling to see performing groups on the road, Darlia has been an essential part of the renaissance of Lee University over the past 25 years.

    One friend and colleague wrote of Darlia’s contribution to the success of Lee:

    In my view, Darlia is much like the roots of an oak tree. If you have ever read anything about oak tree roots you know they extend far beyond the visible, beautifully branching part of the tree. They provide the nutrients that sustain the growth and beauty of the tree. When strong winds come they provide stability. It is obvious that Darlia tapped into a deep, unwavering faith long before she became First Lady of this university, and her commitment to that faith has been a source of nourishment and strength, not only to our President, but to everyone around her. She has enthusiastically and freely given her time, her talents, and her possessions wherever and whenever needed. She has laughed with us in happy times and cried with us during painful times, but she is always there.But unlike the roots of an oak tree, Darlia has always been highly visible. Whether managing First-Lady details from the President’s office, serving as a public speaker, performing piano accompaniment for students, tending to grandchildren, entertaining with home-cooked meals, creating needlework treasures for family and friends, or cheering along with other Lee University sports fans, she is always genuine. Always gracious, always kind and compassionate, always supportive, always generously giving of herself, Darlia is the perfect choice for “Alumnus of the Year.”

    All Honorary and Distinguished Alumni