Delbert Baker, president of Oakwood University, is also a marathoner. He recently ran the Antarctic Ice Marathon just a few hundred miles from the South Pole, finishing the grueling race in six hours and 53 minutes. The race raised thousands for Oakwood University scholarships. Spectrum asked him about his running and other goals.
Question: In December you ran the Antarctic Marathon at the South Pole. What was it like running on snow and ice in below-freezing temperatures?
Answer: Hands down the Antarctic Marathon was the most difficult task I have ever done. It was a combination of exertion, elevation and the dryness of the cold.
Maybe I should have run the North Pole first, because the South Pole is the coldest race.
We flew from Punta Arenas, Chile, to the marathon location at Patriot Hills camp in the interior. Everything was delayed because of the weather, but then at 8pm on Saturday night they said: “This is the window, you’ve got to run now.” We didn’t even have time to acclimatize to the 3,000-foot elevation.
It was lunar-like. It was miles and miles of ice and snow and cold in 24 hours of daylight. There were 16 of us running the marathon, and three others running a 100 kilometre race. We stayed in tents.
They had carved out a path of snow and ice to run on. The first five miles was the most difficult. It was hard to get used to running in the cold. My mouth gear kept freezing up. It was 20 degrees below zero and it felt almost like suffocating. The tendency is to panic. It flips you out.
You just have to take control of your mind and focus. I prayed a lot, then kind of zoned out and got into the flow. You just have to run smarter. I paced myself and finished.
Question: You were snowed in for some time after the marathon. What happened?
Answer: We were supposed to fly out two days after the race. But because of bad weather we were stranded there for 12 days.
We ended up spending Christmas at the camp. I was bitterly disappointed not to be home with my family for Christmas. On the 26th of December, they fasted and prayed that we would be able to get out safely. And that was the day the plane got through.
There were all kinds of different people at the Patriot Hills camp. There were skiers there, and people getting ready to climb Antarctica's highest peak, Vinson Massif. There were scientists and explorers – maybe 50-some people altogether.
While I was there a group of people found out I was a minister and asked me to do a Christmas worship service. We had a Buddhist, an atheist, Anglican, Methodist, you name it. A lot of people wept. So even though I wasn’t home for Christmas, God used the experience for the good.
Question: Why do you run?
Answer: So far I have run 38 marathons in 28 states, and six of the seven continents. But I don’t simply run for the sake of running. I run with a purpose. In fact, several purposes.
To facilitate health is one reason. The model I use is the Creation Health model put out by Florida Hospital. Florida Hospital sponsors my races in the States.
The other reason I run is for scholarships.
I have been president of Oakwood for 13 years. My wife said to me, You know, people might want to sponsor you in some races. Florida Hospital said, You are using our model, so we are interested in sponsoring you. We will pay all of your expenses.
And finally, I like the adventure. Running 26.2 miles is a symbol for life. I like challenges. I climbed Mt Kilimanjaro in Kenya, too. Anything we do in life is a challenge, and taking on these big challenges remind me of that.
Question: So how does the fundraising work?
Answer: The program we have at Oakwood is called Running for Scholarships. That is split into two fundraising programs. 50 States for Students is a program where individuals can donate a certain amount per mile run. That goes along with my goal to run marathons in all 50 US states. So far we have raised about $110,000.
Seven Continents for Students goes with my plan to run a marathon on each of the seven continents. That is a fundraising program for organizations. We invited all of our Oakwood vendors in and asked them to sponsor me for $10,000 each. We have raised $80,000 so far.
The money that is donated never goes to expenses. We have separate sponsors who cover expenses.
Every dime of the donations goes toward student scholarships, and toward our goal of building an endowment of $500,000. The interest from the endowment fund goes to scholarships.
Question: How did you start running?
Answer: I ran my first marathon in 1988, when I was the editor of Message magazine.
It all started when I was planning to go somewhere for the weekend with a friend of mine. Then he told me he couldn’t go, because he was going to be running a marathon that weekend.
“A marathon?” I asked. “What’s that exactly?”
He told me it was 26.2 miles. I had never even run five miles.
He suggested that I come along and run five or six miles, just to get a taste of the race.
So I did. It was the Marine Corps Marathon in DC, and there were 11,000 or 12,000 people running. It was a huge race.
I got there and got all geared up. My goal was to run half of the marathon – 13.1 miles. At the halfway mark, my family was there, cheering me on. My kid said: “Dad, you’re going great! If you ran 13.1 miles, you can run the whole thing!”
That was not part of my plan, and I was not prepared to run a marathon, but I couldn’t quit there, in front of my family, so I kept on running. It took me about six hours and 30 minutes, but I finished.
And from there, I just kept running. Now, as I’ve said, my goal is to run all 50 states and seven continents.
Question: Those are big goals. But you have come a long way already. When do you plan to complete all these races?
Answer: My next race is in Hyannis, Massachusetts. Then Virginia Beach. The North Pole race is in April, and the Australia marathon (my last continent) is in July. I should finish all the continents and the Grand Slam (the North Pole in the Arctic) this year.
Question: How much do you train?
Answer: I work out every morning, and I run five to eight miles a day. In any given week I do about 30 miles. I don’t do long runs, because I do so many marathons. I ran marathons in 13 states last year. This year I will probably do six or eight states. That’s more than a marathon every eight weeks.
Question: What’s your best time?
Answer: I’m not out there winning marathons! My best time is three hours and 58 minutes, but my average is four hours and 15 minutes. It’s respectable.
Question: Running isn’t necessarily a young person’s sport, but your running schedule is extremely energetic. I have to ask: How old are you?
Question: Does your running inspire the students?
Answer: On campus the students are very interested in it. We have what we call the Presidential Running Club – a group who wants to run marathons with me. I meet with the students once a month.
Question: You have been president of Oakwood since 1996. What accomplishments are you proudest of? What have been your biggest challenges?
Answer: I have a great administrative team who have contributed to every accomplishment.
Oakwood now has its highest enrollments ever. We have a headcount of 1,865, and our full time equivalent is more than 1,700. Last year I told the students that my goal was to reach 1,800 students, and that whenever we reached the goal, I would jump into the pool. Well, this year we all went over to the pool after classes one day, and I dived in from the diving board wearing my three-piece suit.
But other than enrollment I would say there have been three significant accomplishments in the last decade or so.
First, the overall improvement of the campus and infrastructure. We have a new mens’ dorm, business and technology building and student housing complex. We have started a cemetery, and this is a true service for the Huntsville community.
We have an aging campus (Oakwood was started in 1896), so we have had to do some massive renovation to our school.
Every year for the last seven years we have won beautification awards for our campus.
The second area of accomplishment has been our move to graduate programs, and changing our name to university. We are moving into a whole new arena.
Third, we have had great success in fundraising. We have brought in more than $35 million during the time I have been here.
Of course we have challenges as well. One challenge is getting more scholarships for students. Anyone can come to Oakwood, and we have diversity programs to encourage this. Our students are about 85% people of color. We have a very ethnic mix in our adult education program.
We keep our tuition low – last year we had the lowest tuition of all the North American Division schools. We should still be in the bottom three. But this means we need more scholarships to offer students.
Delbert Baker graduated from Oakwood College in 1975, then went on to earn a Masters of Divinity from Andrews University. Later he earned a PhD in communications from Howard University. He worked as a pastor until he became editor of Message. He then served as special assistant to the president and director of diversity at Loma Linda University. He was named president of Oakwood in 1996.
In the next issue of Spectrum: Read more from Delbert Baker about Oakwood University, and hear from presidents at Adventist colleges across America, in a story about where Adventist higher education is heading.