When the job as president of Memphis State University opened to V. Lane Rawlins, it just "felt right."
The state Board of Regents in Tennesee voted unanimously last March to appoint him to the post. He assumed the position full time at the end of May.Five years in the South had spoiled the 6-foot-4-inch Westerner. He had grown fond of golfing during the mild winters and of seeing the azaleas blossom in the spring. More important, his service as bishop of the Tuscaloosa Ward, Bessemer Alabama Stake, had proved one of the pivotal experiences of his life.
Before accepting the job at Memphis State, Brother Rawlins considered two opportunities to lead universities in Montana and Washington. The opportunities appealed to him because accepting either job meant returning to his native Northwest.
For more than 17 years, he had worked at Washington State University - first as professor, then as department chairman and finally as vice provost. Now the university wanted him back to oversee academic affairs as the new provost.
But he could not rule out Montana State University, which was looking for a new president. Bozeman, Mont., was only 70 miles from his family cabin in Island Park, Idaho, and about twice that distance from his boyhood home of Labelle, Idaho.
The opportunity at Memphis State won out, however, because of the love he had developed for the South. The feeling was mutual. He received unanimous support from Memphis community leaders, faculty and students - diverse groups that usually fail to agree on anything, said Sam Ingram of the state Board of Regents.
In fact, Brother Rawlins' strength is bringing people together. As vice chancellor of academic affairs for the University of Alabama Systems, he helped unify the University of Alabama campuses in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Huntsville. As bishop, he helped to create a feeling of family among people from various economic, cultural, racial and geographical backgrounds. That was no small feat, declared former Bishop Legrand Hutchison, now a high councilor.
"The thing I thought [Brother Rawlins] was good at was being able to take a group of people who had very few common threads and make them one," Brother Hutchison said.
One of the keys to his effectiveness stemmed from his ability to make people feel like whatever contribution they made was valuable, said Jerry Izatt, Brother Rawlins' first counselor in the bishopric.
"He also has this sort of down-home quality that he could defuse a tense situation and make it appear very natural and spontaneous," said Brother Izatt, a laser physicist at the university.
The new Memphis State president attributes this "down-home quality" to a "wonderful" childhood. He grew up on a farm bordering the South Fork of the Snake River in south-central Idaho. His father worked the fields and his mother taught school.
"My dad and I didn't play ball together, and we didn't go fishing together," he recalled. "What we did do together was work - we milked cows, dug ditches and built fences."
The lessons learned from these experiences on the farm left lasting impressions. For example, he recalled a day when he built 100 yards of fence by himself.
"Dad came out the next day and sighted down the fence," the son remembered. "It wasn't a lot out of line - only a couple of zigs and zags. But he said, `This fence is going to be around for 25 years, and every time you look at it, it will be crooked.' So we had to tear it out and do it over again. He was a great believer that if you are going to do something, do it well and do it right."
At home, his mother cultivated his mind. He read many of the classics, including The Yearling, Black Beauty, and everything by Robert Louis Stevenson. His maternal grandparents also emphasized reading. In fact, his Grandfather Brown read books while irrigating, often coming home soaked because he kept on reading even after the water had surrounded him.
As a boy in the Church, young Lane Rawlins "was kind of hard to manage," hanging around with a crew of boys who gave Sunday School teachers a bad time. But when Lola Reed came along she took control of the hardened farm boys when they were Scouts and moved up with them each year until they graduated from high school.
"I have tremendous memories of studying the Book of Mormon with Lola Reed," he said. "She made the great Book of Mormon prophets live for me."
That preparation proved critical in times when doubts and questions challenged his faith. "I envy those who say they never had questions about the Church," Brother Rawlins said. "I have struggled in lots of ways." For example, he said, when the bishop first asked him if he would consider serving a mission, "I said no!"
However, while attending Idaho State University in Pocatello, he read the Book of Mormon and dated a strong-willed LDS girl named Mary Jo Love, who planned on marrying a returned missionary. When he returned home for Christmas break, he told the bishop he was ready to serve a mission. In March 1958 he left for the Southern Australia Mission.
His mission changed him. He learned that the "Lord cares about what you're doing." For example, he related how he and his companion, Jim Sherren, ran into a problem while teaching Brian and Yvonne Harbeck. Harbeck would later serve as a bishop in Hobart.
"He had talked to some anti-Mormon group and had some questions," Brother Rawlins recalled. "We felt we didn't handle it well. We went home and prayed that night and asked for help. About 2 a.m. I woke up and just lay there. Suddenly, I knew what we should tell them. . . . I knew then we had help."
After his mission, he married Mary Jo and attended BYU, and later the University of California at Berkeley for his doctorate in economics. He arrived at Berkeley when the civil rights movement dominated the campus. Later, the "real student-based" free speech, anti-war and drug movements rocked Berkeley. "It was a heavy dose of life; a very intense experience," he recalled. Although he didn't participate, he became emotionally involved, focusing his doctoral dissertation on training programs for disadvantaged youth. As a professor, he would publish research on unemployment among minorities.
Late in 1968, Brother Rawlins started teaching economics at Washington State University in Pullman. The family had grown to include two boys, Brad and Wade. Later, a daughter, Sandra Kate, joined the family. Pullman proved profitable as a career move, but he stagnated in the Church.
"It seemed like they had a lot of talent in the ward," he lamented. "I was more interested in my career than the Church." A year in Washington D.C. working for the Department of Labor helped renew his commitment to the Church. When he began looking to make a career move in 1985, he wanted a place where he could serve the Lord in the Church and in higher education. He's not sure why he chose Alabama.
"I came to Alabama and just felt right about it," he recalled. In February 1986, he received a call to serve as bishop. "That was probably the most surprised I had ever been in my life. Pres. [Samuel G.] Fletcher told me, `Now you know one of the reasons you moved to Alabama.' "
The Rawlins also opened up their home to the ward, hosting monthly youth firesides and other meetings. "The youth love him," Brother Izatt said. "He can operate on their level, and it's not play acting. He just really gets there."
Now his focus will change as he oversees the education of 20,000-plus students at Memphis State. It's an opportunity, he said, to do things "that feel good to me."
"I do feel the promise I've made to try to serve the best I can is consistent with my decision to teach and stay involved in higher education," he related. "Personally, I feel the hand of the Lord in our lives. My criteria for success is to make sure every decision I make counts for good. And I plan to just have fun while involved in a good cause."