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Remembering Neal Wilson

I mourn the passing of Neal Wilson, former president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and a longtime family friend. Among the Geraty family’s interactions with Neal Wilson are the following:

1. Neal was born in Lodi, California, my mother’s hometown. Though she was eight years his senior, they were good friends, and they, along with my father, attended Pacific Union College.

2. I spent my teenage years in Beirut, Lebanon, where my father was president of Middle East College. During those years, Neal was president of the Nile Union Mission in Egypt. I distinctly remember our first visit to the Wilsons in Cairo in 1951 when Neal successfully competed with local Egyptian teenage boys in beating them to the top of the Great Pyramid in record time (something not allowed to today’s tourists!). It was he who introduced me to Mt. Sinai on an unforgettable drive into the Sinai Peninsula a couple of years later.

3. My wife’s parents were also missionaries in Lebanon where my father-in-law founded Middle East College in 1939. When the Keoughs were ready to immigrate to the United States, following their daughter (my wife), Neal, as President of the Columbia Union Conference and Chair of the Columbia Union College board, arranged a position there in the Religion Department to have Arthur Keough teach Bible, something he did for the rest of his life.

4. During Neal’s years in Takoma Park, Maryland, my father worked at the General Conference in the Education Department, and then later my Father-in-law taught at CUC. Though I had left home by then, with parents there, my wife Gillian and I often spent time in Takoma Park. Our common Middle East connections often brought together on Sabbaths the Wilsons, Geratys, Keoughs, plus the Osborns, Leshers and others. In fact my mother and Eleanor Wilson both had the third grade rooms for several years at John Nevins Andrews School.

5. When Ted Wilson attended the Seminary where I was teaching Old Testament and Archaeology, he lived with my parents who by that time resided in Berrien Springs, Michigan, where my father was Dean of the School of Education at Andrews University.

6. In 1980 my Seminary colleagues elected me their representative to the General Conference Session in Dallas, Texas. Neal Wilson appointed me to a small committee chaired by Duncan Eva to incorporate appropriate suggestions from the floor of the session into the Statement of 27 Fundamental Beliefs that was adopted that year.

7. While I was President of Atlantic Union College, Neal Wilson, as Chair of the Loma Linda University Board of Trustees, made a personal trip to Boston to try and talk me into becoming President of Loma Linda University to succeed Norman Woods after I had already turned him down on the phone. I said to be successful, I thought the president needed to be an MD and that I did not feel called to that position. Eventually Lyn Behrens was chosen and history has proven her to have been the ideal candidate.

Even though we often differed on views relating to the church, and I did not always take his proffered advice, Neal Wilson always warmly welcomed me to Silver Spring and unfailingly treated me as a friend.

Though the legacy of his involvement with Merikay Silver, Des Ford, and supporters of Donald Davenport, as well as his lack of progress in ordaining women are all blots on his record of leadership, we must not forget what he did accomplish, including the following:

1. Support for a consensus Statement of Fundamental Beliefs.

2. Furthered the Church’s mission in the former Soviet Union, including obtaining permission to establish a seminary and administrative headquarters.

3. The creation of Adventist World Radio and Global Mission.

4. Relocation of the denomination’s World Headquarters from Takoma Park.

5. His support for African-American Adventists and his condemnation of Apartheid in South Africa.

6. Made the winning argument that women be allowed to baptize individuals and officiate at weddings.

7. He was instrumental in developing official public statements on moral issues:

Few church leaders have travelled as extensively as Neal Wilson (to more than 170 countries) or made more of an impact, not only on church members but on international political leaders. I have always admired his statesmanship and phenomenal memory for names and never doubted his loyalty and commitment in serving the church to the best of his considerable ability. The SDA Church has lost one of its most able leaders and I have lost a friend.

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