tanding in subzero temperatures on the blue-ice runway at Patriot Hills, the only private camp in Antarctica, Delbert Baker stared across to the curved horizon and saw eternity.
“After the Russian-made Ilyushin cargo plane touched down, it was an unbelievable sight, like a lunar landing,” Baker, 56 and president of Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama, said. “I could see for miles in all directions. It was just a frozen mass of miles and miles.”
The sight, he said, focused his mind beyond the pending marathon near the South Pole, beyond raising scholarship money to help the 80 percent of Oakwood’s 1,865 students who receive some form of financial aid. The vista evoked the future Adventist Christians long and pray for.
“One of the things this took my mind to was the incredible creation God has made and how this was only a foretaste of the things to come in eternity,” he recalled a few days after returning from Patriot Hills camp. “Not just a greater ecology-mindedness, or trust in God’s providence, but a real longing for heaven.”
The vista is indeed breathtaking. Patriot Hills is located at the southernmost extension of the Ellsworth Mountains, Antarctica’s highest mountain range. The runway is about 2,600 feet above sea level; its ice is swept clean by “katabatic winds that funnel down from the mountains with great force,” as one description has it.
An Extraordinary Feat
In that setting, uncertain of how long it would take to complete the race and hoping to be home by Christmas, Baker ran, and ran, all 26.2 miles of the carefully laid-out route. His companions weren’t all Christians; none other was a college or university president. He certainly was the only Seventh-day Adventist in the pack that ran from the “evening” of Saturday, December 13, through the early “morning” hours of the next day. (Designations such as “evening” and “morning” must be used advisedly when describing time in a place where there is 24-hour, seven-day-a-week sunlight. Nonetheless, Baker was able to establish a time when the Sabbath was to end and his run came after that time.)
It took Baker 6 hours and 53 minutes to finish the run, more than 50 percent longer than his usual 4-hour, 15-minute time for a marathon that isn’t run at minus 28 degrees Fahrenheit. An advertisement for what is formally known as “The Ice Marathon” sums it up in what might strike some as chilling detail:
“Throughout the race you can expect snow and ice underfoot, subzero temperatures, gusty katabatic winds, and unlimited views out toward a noticeably curved horizon. . . . All you can hear is the crunching of feet on snow and the breath of your fellow runners.”
And through it all, you’re running 26.2 miles, no less. It would seem that Pheidippides, the original “marathon” runner, might have had it a tad easier.
Baker said it was “the hardest race I’d ever run. It was difficult at times to breathe. My mouthpiece would freeze, and I’d have to take it out,” risking near-instant frostbite, something Ice Marathon competitors are monitored to guard against. “The first five, seven miles were extremely difficult,” he added. “I feel the good Lord was with me. A lot had to do with my experience in running, my background, and [just] persevering.”
Those skills were also tested after the race ended. Baker and the other participants had hoped to leave shortly after the race’s conclusion, in order to be home for Christmas. However, inclement weather kept the team at Patriot Hills through the holiday, and Baker led an impromptu worship service for about 18 people there, believed to be the first connected to the Ice Marathon.
An Oakwood news release summed up the race’s conclusion: “According to plan, Baker crossed the finish line carrying the American flag in one hand and a pocket version of the Holy Bible in the other.” With the completion of the Ice Marathon, Baker has successfully completed marathons on 7 continents and in 28 of the 50 states in the U.S. His goal is 50 marathons in 50 states, all with the aim of raising at least $500,000 to endow a scholarship fund at Oakwood, as well as to promote healthy living.
The scholarships are key: students at Oakwood, one of four tertiary educational institutions owned by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and one of America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs, are often pressed to pay for their education. And Oakwood’s international students—hailing from 35 countries, Baker said—can’t qualify for U.S. government-backed student loans.
Milestone to Milestone
However, perseverance—in running or in fund-raising—is not unusual for Baker, who had already packed into the last four decades enough accomplishment for a lifetime, even without marathoning. One of five children, he left home at age 14, ending up at Oakwood, where he earned a B.A. in Ministerial Theology in 1975. Twice, Baker was president of his class while at Oakwood.
That time was followed by a decade of pastoring Seventh-day Adventist congregations in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, along with earning a Master of Divinity degree from the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Then he spent six years as editor of Message magazine, where subscriptions increased fourfold, with (then) President Ronald Reagan writing in praise of the publication.
From the editor’s chair, Baker went to another General Conference-owned institution, Loma Linda University in California, where for three years he worked on diversity issues and taught religion. According to an entry in the online reference Wikipedia, Baker is credited with “exponentially” increasing the number of ethnic students at the school. His wife, Susan, a physical therapist, also taught at LLU.
In 1996—the year Oakwood celebrated its centennial—Baker was asked to return to his alma mater as president, the tenth in the school’s history. From the time he arrived enrollment increased and the school’s standing and visibility rose, both locally and globally. In 2007 enrollment topped 1,800 students and Baker fulfilled a promise to the school: he jumped, fully clothed in a three-piece suit, into an indoor swimming pool on the 1,185-acre campus. (The temperature, presumably, was well above freezing that day.)
Along the way, Oakwood moved from college to university status, a change that came after the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in Decatur, Georgia, voted in June 2007 to allow Oakwood to advance from “Level II” to “Level III” status, allowing the school to offer graduate degrees. A master’s in pastoral studies was the first graduate degree offered and others are in the planning stages: “This will be the beginning of a series of programs we will offer in coming years,” Baker said at the time.
Building and growth continue on the campus. On May 9, 2008, Holland Hall, a multimillion-dollar men’s dormitory with more than 300 rooms, opened.
And while Oakwood is well known in Huntsville—how many other cities can boast an “Adventist Boulevard”?—it’s not the only academic player. The University of Alabama at Huntsville, or UAH, is perhaps the city’s dominant school, closely allied with the space and military engineering that is at the center of the local economy. And there’s another HBCU, Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University, usually referred to as Alabama A&M.
“They’re state and we’re private,” Baker said of the A&M school, which has 5,000 students, more than two and a half times Oakwood’s enrollment. “We really see ourselves as more complementary than competitive” with them.
Baker said Oakwood exchanges classes with both schools. “At UAH in particular we have a special engineering program, [from which our students] graduate with an engineering degree.”
Despite the cooperation, there are differences: “We’re an HBCU, and Christian, and private. Everybody recognizes the unique role of Oakwood and respect for its graduates. Our students have developed a good reputation.”
Oakwood graduates, Baker asserts, “are not the regular, run of the mill, average guy on the street. I love the fact that we’re in the top ten [ranking] of graduating students who are accepted to medical school and [subsequently] graduate from medical school. We’re in the top 25 with dental school admissions. We’ve been listed for 12 years in U.S. News & World Report as among the best colleges in the southern U.S.”
And, he adds, “in the state of Alabama we have one of the strongest education programs; it’s one of the top programs for producing teachers.”
What Makes Him Run
Doing these things requires money, however, and it was money that made Baker run.
“It’s often difficult to create interest in straight scholarships; but this was a little way to focus attention on scholarships and let individuals, including 300 students, who gave $1 per mile, they were so caught up,” Baker said. “It also inspired them to a new level of awareness of health.”
In his running Baker enlisted the support of Florida Hospital, a Seventh-day Adventist institution; and he credited Des Cummings, president of the Florida Hospital Foundation, and Lars Houmann, Florida Hospital’s president and chief executive officer, with being supportive of the effort. In turn, Oakwood has featured the hospital’s CREATION Health model at student forums and other venues.
Along with accolades from students and faculty, who gathered to welcome Baker home, other Seventh-day Adventist church leaders applauded his effort.
“Imagine it: an Adventist college president runs a marathon at the South Pole, listening to God’s Word and carrying the Bible in his hand,” said Mark A. Finley, evangelist and a general vice president of the world church. “What a testimony to a Bible-based Seventh-day Adventist education. And what a unique way to highlight the importance of God’s Word for every college student in the world.”
Don C. Schneider, chair of Oakwood’s board of trustees and president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America, said: “Delbert Baker’s marathon achievement not only helps Oakwood’s students realize their dreams of higher education by raising scholarship funds, it also sets an exceptional example of healthy living. We’re proud of his accomplishment, and ‘cheer on’ his goal of creating an endowment fund to boost Oakwood’s scholarship resources.”
What’s next for Baker? As he does in running a race, he plans to keep one foot in front of the other, with an eye on the horizon.
“I’m just committed to a quality program at Oakwood,” he said. “God is the One that points to the path and opens the door. My goal is to keep spiritually in tune and look out for signals. I’m just tuned in and open for God’s providential guidance.”
Mark A. Kellner is news editor of the Adventist Review.