The Dormitory Years: Midwestern Baptist College, Pontiac Michigan

bruce and polly gerencser 1976

Freshman class, Midwestern Baptist College, Pontiac, Michigan 1976

From the fall of 1976 to the spring of 1979, I attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. Midwestern — an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) institution — was founded in 1953 by Dr. Tom Malone for the purpose of training men and women for the ministry. Dr Malone called Midwestern a character-building factory. Midwestern’s goal was to produce men who would pastor IFB churches and women who would be pastors wives. A small number of graduates would go on to become evangelists, missionaries, and Christian school teachers, but the primary objective was to train God-called men for the ministry.

Dr. Malone was a graduate of Bob Jones College and Wayne State University. While serving as chancellor of the college, he also pastored Emmanuel Baptist Church — one of the largest churches in America during the 1960s and 1970s. Dr. Malone was a native of Alabama and his southern style of preaching appealed to many of the southerners who had migrated to the north to find work in Pontiac/Detroit area automotive plants. Looking for some spiritual home cooking, these southerners flocked to Emmanuel to hear one of their own preach.

polly shope bruce gerencser 1977

Polly Shope and Bruce Gerencser, February 1977, Midwestern Baptist College Sweetheart Banquet, the only time we were allowed to be closer than six inches apart. This picture was taken days after we got engaged.

Polly, while still a student at nearby Oakland Christian School, enrolled at Midwestern in January of 1976 and began taking classes. I enrolled 8 months later. Polly’s uncle, James Dennis, pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple in Heath, Ohio, graduated from Midwestern in the 1960s. Her father, Lee “Cecil” Shope — called late in life to be a preacher — graduated from Midwestern in May of 1976. After graduation, Lee moved to Newark to be James Dennis’ assistant. He would later, with my help, start a church in nearby Buckeye Lake — Emmanuel Baptist Church. After Emmanuel closed its doors, Polly’s parents returned to the Baptist Temple. They remain, to this day, faithful members of the church.

The dorm at Midwestern was a two-story building with a finished basement. It was named after IFB giant and editor of the Sword of the Lord John R. Rice, and was home for single students. All single students — unless they lived nearby with their parents — were required to live in the dorm. The men lived on the first floor and the basement. Women lived on the second floor. The north men’s wing was called the party wing and the south men’s wing was called the spiritual wing. The basement was called the pit. I, thankfully, lived on the party wing.

The dorm supervisors were Ralph Bitner and his wife Sophie. A young, inept couple, the Bitners had no idea how normal, heterosexual young adults thought and lived. Their job to make sure we kept the rules, including keeping our rooms clean. Ralph was also responsible for the Sunday night Devotional/Singspiration held in the dorm common area.

Two older single male teachers lived in the dormitory. One was a man who suffered from some sort of mental illness. As long as he took his medications, he was fine. Sadly, thinking that God would help him live a “normal” life, this man would often stop taking his medications. This resulted in bizarre behavior, which at the time seemed quite funny. The other was a gay man who lived on the spiritual wing. He was quite effeminate, which was odd considering that Dr. Malone had zero tolerance for “sissy” men. This man had a student who lived with him.

Midwestern strictly regulated every aspect of dormitory life. Students were required to adhere a puritanical dress code. Midwestern also controlled who students could date, when they could date, and where they could go while on a date. Rule-breaking resulted in infractions being written on a demerit slip and turned into the dean of men. If students were written up, they were required to appear before the disciplinary committee to answer for their crimes. Most infractions were minor ,but other infractions — such as breaking the six-inch rule — could result in students being expelled from the college. (Please see Thou Shalt Not Touch: The Six Inch Rule)

When dorm students left the college campus they were required to put their names and destinations on the sign-out sheet. This sheet was religiously checked by the Bitners. Students quickly learned how to manipulate the sign-out sheet so they would never be in violations of the rules. Dorm students were not permitted to go beyond a ten-mile radius from the college campus (an exception was made for work). Single dating was banned and couples could only date on Saturday and Sunday evening — and only then with permission from school administrators. Weekends were often a scramble as dating couples tried to find another couple to double date with. Dating couples who had problems keeping the six-inch rule would seek couples with a similar rule-breaking mindset. Most of the dorm students broke the no-touch, six-inch rule. Copping a feel for a Midwestern dorm student meant trying to secretly hold a girl’s hand.

Midwestern was an unaccredited college. Students were not eligible for federal or state financial aid. As a result, most students worked one or more jobs. Polly worked at several restaurants, cleaned offices, and did house cleaning for a rabbi and his wife during her college career. I worked numerous jobs, mostly second shift factory jobs. I also worked at several grocery stores, sold Kirby vacuüm cleaners, pumped gas, worked as a mechanic, and drove a truck for a local dry cleaner. I changed jobs so often that I was threatened with expulsion if I changed jobs again. These jobs paid between $3.00 and $5.00 an hour.

One of the teachers — knowing that I worked on automobiles — asked me if I was interested in a mechanic’s job. This teacher worked part-time for Anderson Honda on Telegraph Road, and my job there would be an entry-level position. I would primarily be responsible for prepping new cars, oil changes, and doing minor repairs. My starting wage was $7.00. After working for Anderson Honda for a few weeks, Dr. Malone called me into his office and told me that I would have to quit my job. He told me that I would just have to trust him, and that working at Anderson Honda was not good for me. I later learned that the Andersons used to attend Emmanuel Baptist church and left after having a falling out with Dr. Malone. I would later learn that the teacher — a married man — who offered me the job was having an affair with a woman who worked at Anderson Honda. That woman just so happened to be the wife of Midwestern’s dean of men. Both couples would later divorce.

bruce and polly gerencser 1978

Bruce and Polly Shope Gerencser, May 1978

Polly and I started dating a few weeks after I enrolled at Midwestern. We tried our best to keep the six-inch rule, but it soon became impossible for us to keep our hands to ourselves. That said, we did not kiss each other for the first time until we had been dating for four months. Our first kiss took place during my visit to Polly’s Newark, Ohio home during Christmas break. Polly’s Mom asked her to go down to laundry room and check to see if the clothes were dry. I went along with Polly to help her check on the laundry. Amazingly, it took forever to ascertain if the clothes were dry.

Needless to say, when we returned to Midwestern in January of 1977, we had a huge problem on our hands. Let me explain it this way. It was like going to a Dairy Queen the first time for a milkshake. The milkshake was tasty, but after sampling that delight, every time you drove by a Dairy Queen you wanted to stop and get another milkshake. Kissing for Polly and me was like drinking a milkshake at Dairy Queen. Once we started we didn’t and couldn’t stop. For the next 18 months, Polly and I lived in fear of being caught — knowing that such dangerous living would likely result in us being expelled from school if we were caught.

In the spring of 1977 — six months after we started dating — I asked Polly to marry me. She said yes. I bought Polly an “expensive” diamond engagement ring. It had a 1/4 carat diamond and cost $225.00 at Sears and Roebuck. Years later, the diamond fell out of the cheap setting and it was lost. We sold the ring for scrap when gold prices started escalating. Our engagement only served to add fuel to the physical fire. Weekend dates became make-out sessions — times when we were free from the ever-watchful eyes of teachers, dorm supervisors, room monitors, and students who were saving their kisses for their wedding night.

During our sophomore year, Polly and I were caught breaking the six-inch rule. I played on the college basketball team. During practice one day I slapped at a basketball and severely dislocated the middle finger on my left hand. I had to go to the emergency room to get the finger put back in place (an excruciatingly painful procedure). Male students were required to wear a necktie to class, and thanks to my injured finger I was unable to tie mine. Polly and I would meet each weekday morning in the common room so we could walk together to classes. Unable to tie my necktie, I asked Polly to tie it for me. She did so, and we then walked to our classes. Unbeknownst to us, someone saw us break the six-inch rule and turned us in to the disciplinary committee. Ironically, the couple that turned us in were notorious six-inch rule breakers. It was rumored that they had rounded the bases and slid into home. Today, this couple is faithfully serving Jesus as pastor and pastor’s wife at a Southern Baptist church.

Polly and I made our required appearance before the disciplinary committee to answer for our crime. The disciplinary committee consisted of two men — Gary Mayberry, the dean of men and Don Zahurance, a recent Midwestern graduate. These “pious” men told us we had committed a serious breach of the six-inch rule. Zahurance even went so far as to suggest that I got some sort of sexual excitement from Polly tying my necktie. Each of us was given 50 demerits and warned that any future infractions would result in us being campused — not permitted to leave the campus or date — or expelled.

Dr. Tom Malone thought by having puritanical rules — similar to those he experienced at Bob Jones —it would keep students from engaging in more serious sexual behaviors. Dr. Malone was quite naïve, and outside of a few a self-righteous rules-keeping students, dating couples, with passion and fear, broke the six-inch rule. Whether it was in the back seat of a car while on a date or in an out-of-the-way corner of the college campus, dating dorm students found ways to act on their basic need for human connection and touch. I have come to understand that Midwestern, regardless of their intention, taught an aberrant, crippling form of moralism. Instead of quashing passion, it stoked it. Learning nothing from the countless moral failings of the past, Midwestern still enforces a strict moral code of conduct. (Please see The Midwestern Baptist College Handbook)

Midwestern prohibited freshmen students from marrying. Dorm students could not marry until the summer of their sophomore year. Students who broke this rule were required to drop out of school for one year. Needless to say, come the summer of our sophomore year, there were a number of couples who got married — Polly and myself included. Due to the difficulty in arranging housing, the college allowed couples who were planning on being married in the summer to look for housing before school let out in May. One couple rented a house that quickly turned into a place for couples to have sex. While Polly and I never went to this house, the couple who rented it were friends of ours and we knew that they, along with other couples, used the house for secret booty calls. Some of these couples are now in the ministry, and several are luminaries in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. I find myself amused when I read their moralizing sermons and websites, remembering the time so many years ago, when they gave in to biology and passion and lost their virginity.

Several years ago, Polly and I drove to Pontiac to see what had become of the Midwestern campus and Emmanuel Baptist Church. We were saddened to see the places that once were a major part of our lives now closed and for sale — testifying to the bankruptcy of the IFB church movement. Midwestern still exists in a much smaller form as a ministry of a nearby IFB church. While Polly and I have many fond memories from our days at Midwestern, we are grateful that the college is but a shell of what it once was. No longer will Midwestern have the opportunity to infect large numbers of young people with its pernicious ideology.

Did you attend an IFB college and live in its dormitory? If so, please share your experiences in the comment section.

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14 Comments

  1. J.D. Matthews

    I did not attend an IFB college, but I did attend a fundamentalist Church of Christ university. It’s not quite as severe, but many of the rules reminded me of my experience there. You are spot-on about the unintended effects of these Puritanical rules. It was almost comical. Parents would send their precious snowflakes to this university to keep them away from the pressures of “the world” and because they just knew that the awful state schools were a 24 hour orgy. Yet my university was just crawling with sex. Everyone knew it. But the illusion was still there. We had a code word for it: boogin’. If you were gone boogin’, you were in a car somewhere off campus doing the dirty. Personally, I knew every hiding place on campus and off. Rather than stopping sexual activity, it only served to mystify it and make it more appealing. And it pushed us to do it in unsafe ways in unsafe places.

    Reply
  2. archaeopteryx

    “The prude, is in fact the libertine, without the courage to face his naked soul.”
    — A. S. Neill —

    Reply
  3. Justine Valinotti

    Any time rule-breakers are obsessed with sex, those who are ruled by them will think of nothing else. How could it be otherwise?

    Reply
  4. Justine Valinotti

    I meant rule-makers. Mea culpa. (That’s Latin for “my bad”.)

    Reply
  5. Sylvia sherman

    Do you know where I might be able to get baptism records from Emmanuel Baptist Church in Pontiac

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Sylvia,

      I do not. I suspect that those records are long gone.

      Bruce

      Reply
  6. Bagman

    I too attended Midwestern and lived in the dorm as a single student (1974-1975). Your article made me laugh, smile, and groan remembering it all. I was one labeled as a ‘quitter’ because I left the college before completing graduation. Although I have not abandoned my relationship with Jesus, I have certainly abandoned the narrow and warped view of Christian living espoused there. I’ve been learning over the years to separate the unconscious mindset of fundamentalism and wake up to the reality of being a whole human being with a spirit, and soul living in a body of flesh. Praise God… he’s always bigger than all our tiny thinking.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Thanks for commenting. You were at Midwestern the same time as my father-in-law, Lee (Cecil) Shope. He was a married student, graduated in May 1976.

      I have many fond memories of my days at Midwestern. The ridged, narrow Fundamentalism, however, made a deep, lasting scar on my mind. It’s always nice to hear from people who escaped Midwestern, even if they are still believers. 🙂 It troubles me that some of the men I attended college with are every bit as narrow-minded as they were in the 1970s. Sadly, they have experienced little to no intellectual or psychological growth over the past 40 years.

      Be well.

      Bruce

      Reply
  7. Dr. Steven Tassell

    I attended Midwestern from 1973-1979
    I had my problems however I’m not trying to destroy anyone. If you had a problem with sex at school that was on you. I was a chaplin for USAF, taught school at Fort Knox and I’m a pastor with my Doctorate in counseling. So instead of telling the bad because any school has that tell the good. Dr. Tassell

    Reply
    1. Zoe

      And you have a doctorate in counseling? You’d never know it by your approach.

      Reply
      1. GeoffT

        Zoe, that’s what I thought but didn’t like to say. His grammar is terrible, though perhaps he’s better at communicating face to face.

        Reply
      2. Becky Wiren

        Yeah Zoe. Sounds pretty suspicious to me also. More likely a fundy who just wants to score points. If a counselor, I can’t imagine ever wanting to go to this dude for ANY reason.

        Reply
    2. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Why the resume quoting? From what college/university did you earn your post graduate degree? We’re you married while attending Midwestern? If so, you had an outlet for your sexual needs. Dorm students didn’t — not even masturbation. Single students weren’t even permitted to touch someone of the opposite sex. Well, except for the gay teacher who lived in the dorm with several male students. Pretty sure a lot of touching went on there behind closed doors.

      I choose to present Midwestern as it was, not a sanitized version that only shows the good things. You only want to hear about the virginal qualities of dorm students, and not the fact that some students were going to rented apartments or motels to have sex. If I named names, several current Midwestern moral crusaders would be thoroughly embarrassed. But, their secrets are safe with me.😀

      Reply
  8. Caroline

    I attended an evil state college in the mid to late 70’s and a grad program at an even more evil state university in the early 80’s.
    I survived, learned, and evolved. I feel bad for any young adult (or person) who is not allowed to be who they are and feel what they feel because of a manmade set of rules that give power to someone else. I have also enjoyed a career teaching in a super duper evil public high school for the last 38 years. My husband is a productive of only Catholic education including college. We often discuss the similarities and differences or our different educations, but there are way more similarities. and in many ways he admits that my public school education was probably better than his parochial education.

    Reply

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