In an orange Hawaiian shirt, his signature look these days, the Rev. Ira DeSpain moves from table to table inside a Baker University sorority house.
He’s talking to students about finals, telling the same joke three times — successfully — and fist-bumping a student who just conquered a rough test. DeSpain also makes a point to reassure one young woman that it’s OK she missed chapel.
Then, as two sorority members make their way from the kitchen with heaping plates of pancakes, he turns and uses his hands to act as if he’s swimming across the room, a dramatic breaststroke. Students laugh as he makes his way to the flapjacks.
It’s what they’ve come to expect from their minister, a man they know simply as Ira. A man, many say, who has made an art of relating to and connecting with young men and women who are away from home for the first time.
“He’s so personable,” says freshman Jordan Buscher of Overland Park. “He welcomes you to come in and talk, have a soda.”
That’s why it’s so tough for her and other students — and the campus community as a whole — to see the minister leave after more than 22 years.
Since he arrived in 1992, DeSpain, 65, has preached more than 600 sermons on the Baldwin City campus, which has roughly 900 students and is affiliated with the United Methodist Church. He has been the only minister to conduct worship service inside Osborne Memorial Chapel, a small church brought here from England in the mid-1990s.
He has guided students through national tragedies such as 9/11 and the shootings at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech. And, since the chapel opened 18 years ago, he has officiated at weddings for at least 300 couples who met at Baker or attended the school.
Saturday afternoon, a day ahead of Baker’s baccalaureate service and graduation, DeSpain will mark his summer retirement with one last marriage ceremony of sorts, joining about three dozen couples and their families and friends outside Baker’s chapel for a mass renewal of vows.
One couple has been married nearly 50 years, others more than a decade. One husband and wife, who just returned from their honeymoon, will renew the vows they took earlier this month. All wanted to be part of the campus minister’s farewell.
Especially Susan Dunaway and her husband, John. DeSpain married them in June 2000. And though they hadn’t planned on renewing their vows, they wanted the opportunity to be in front of Ira one more time.
“He has done his entire career just based on loving and serving other people,” said Susan Dunaway, who became close to the minister in the 1990s during her time at the school. “For me, Baker and Ira are pretty synonymous. It’s going to be hard for me to go back to campus and for him to not be there.”
For his first two decades as a United Methodist minister, DeSpain served in churches in small towns, suburbs and the inner city.
The son and grandson of Methodist ministers, DeSpain hadn’t planned on leaving that type of service. But then he heard about the campus minister opening at Baker, his alma mater. The college of his parents, his wife, Barb, and their children.
In some ways, leading worship on a college campus would be like leading a community church, he thought.
“The human hurt and human joy, helping them with problems and celebrations are the same,” DeSpain said.
What worried him was being able to reach the students. He knew how to connect to people in a church, where the sole purpose for gathering was religion. No one ever wondered why a minister would be inside a church. That was his or her place.
But a university campus? Young people don’t go to college to go to chapel, he thought.
He knew that if he was going to reach students, they needed to know him.
“I’ve had to invent ways to get myself in front of people,” he said. “So if they needed me for something, at least they’d know who the heck I was.”
Dunaway remembers how the campus minister seemed to be everywhere. At sporting events, concerts, fundraisers on campus or just standing outside after class. That’s where she first got to know him.
She was coming out of an English class where she’d had to write a paper about something from the Bible. An A student, she’d gotten a B, and she wasn’t too happy with the teacher’s opinion.
She saw DeSpain on the steps.
“‘You’re the minister, you tell me if this is correct,’” she remembered saying. “He sided with me and I decided, ‘OK, I like this guy.’”
Others say he was good because he reached students on their level. His sermons were on topics that related to them. He knew who the hard teachers were and whatever was going on at the campus.
“He just has this presence about him. He’s very engaged and welcoming,” said Emilee Kuhn, who with her husband will be one of the couples to renew their vows. “He was always good for a smile and a ‘How’s it going?’ And he was a little bit goofy.”
Goofy, as in that thing he did at halftime during home football games.
It started about 15 years ago. DeSpain remembers the band beginning to play the Village People’s “YMCA.” He figured he’d have a little fun. Be visible and get in front of students.
So he stood behind the student conducting the band and started mimicking the hand movements.
“Then he just moves out of the way,” DeSpain said, smiling. “And there I was, conducting the band.”
It caught on. Every halftime, there he was, almost always in a hard hat, doing crazy moves and dances. He became known for it.
A few years ago, while he was on vacation with his family in Gulf Shores, Ala., a parent of a former student recognized him while he was grocery shopping. Excited, the parent introduced DeSpain to a relative.
“He’s Ira. He’s from Baker,” the woman said. “He’s the band director.”
Back in the Tri Delta sorority house, DeSpain seeks out Alyse Menghini.
She helped organize the pancake fundraiser and has been nervous, worried that not enough people will show up.
After he’s had a plate himself, DeSpain finds the student he has watched hit home runs on the softball field.
“How are you doing?” he says. “... Is it going well?”
Menghini, a junior from Lincoln, Neb., is used to the campus minister being there for her and other students. He’s always been at her softball games, jokingly letting her know when the wind is right for a home run.
And now he’s at the pancake breakfast, showing his support.
“There’s about 1,000 kids on campus and he finds time for everyone,” Menghini says, admitting it’ll be tough to see him go before her senior year.
But, “I think he’ll still be around,” she says. “If he’s not, I think we’ll all be really sad.”
What most students don’t know is that DeSpain won’t be on campus after the end of June. At least not for a while.
There’s a courtesy, a type of protocol, in the United Methodist Church that says once a minister leaves a congregation, or in this case a college, he or she allows the successor time to get comfortable, get to know people. Create that connection.
There’s no set time period, but DeSpain figures he’ll try to stay off campus for a couple of years.
No first day back on Aug. 1, no delivery trip through the dorms four days later, putting a Bible and a welcoming note on new students’ desks. No freshman tour of campus.
And no more directing the band to “YMCA.”
“That’s going to be weird,” he said, smiling.
He and his wife plan to travel and spend time with their four grandchildren. DeSpain also will continue to preach twice a month at Lake Quivira, something he’s been doing for more than a year.
As for his alma mater, he plans on going to only one event next year, an away football game.
He plans to sit across the field from the Baker crowd. He’ll wear his orange hat — representing Baker’s school colors — and quietly cheer for the school his entire family graduated from and where he crafted that art of connecting to young men and women, away from home for the first time.
To reach Laura Bauer, call 816-234-4944 or send email to email@example.com.