A drive through the campus of Emmanuel College in Franklin Springs illustrates the huge impact Rev. John Swails Jr. has had on the school and the community.
Atop a hill across U.S. Highway 29 from Emmanuel's entrance is the John W. Swails Center, an auditorium the college opened in 1998 to meet its expanding needs for chapel services, convocations, musical and theatrical performances.
“They don't usually get around to that kind of thing until after the fella's gone, but somehow they got to me before then,” jokes Swails, who also has a street on campus named after him. “They asked if I'd like to have that building named after me, and it was really needed for the college. It's a great honor.”
After teaching at Emmanuel for 31 years, Swails retired in 1982.
“I really enjoyed teaching at Emmanuel.” says Swails, who also was pastor of the college's church for 23 of those years and served three-year preaching stints in Elberton and Royston. “It was a great experience in the classroom. It's been very fulfilling and I've enjoyed my work. I had large classes in Bible Survey and Bible Interpretation. .. and I was preaching on the weekends. It was two full-time jobs for a lot of years.
"When we first came, the area appeared to be static. If you did away with the TV antennas, you'd be projected back to antebellum days. But it's really dynamic now, and all for the good. The college has enjoyed phenomenal growth. When I came here it had 200-plus students, and it's really grown and developed.”
Hailing from Andrews, S.C., Swails and his siblings were raised by their father after their mother died in the flu epidemic of 1919 when Swails was 4 years old.
He became a Christian in 1932 and graduated from Holmes Bible College in Greenville, S.C., in 1941. While at Holmes, he took his first pastoral post at Lee's Tabernacle Pentecostal Holiness Church, just outside Lake City. It was during his pastorate at Lee's Tabernacle that he met his wife.
“A preacher friend and I stopped at her house, and I saw her standing at the mailbox with her sister,” he says of the then 12-year-old Glenda Baldwin. "I said, 'That girl may be my wife someday.’"
"It took him quite a bit longer to tell me,” points out Glenda, who married him 10 years later after she graduated from Emmanuel and the University of Georgia and became a teacher.
In September, 2003, the Swails, married for 57 years, were honored at “John and Glenda Swails Day” at the Lee's Tabernacle church. The Swails were recognized for “living model Christian lives, having proclaimed the Gospel to multitudes of people, having labored diligently and effectively in the Kingdom of God, having been spiritual mentors to many; having great influence and impact on many lives in the church and community, and continuing to live and labor for God.”
Swails graduated from Newberry College in 1944 and the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in 1946. After a year of preaching in North Carolina, he went to the University of Oklahoma and taught for three years at Southwestern College in Bethany, Okla., before arriving in Franklin Springs to teach at Emmanuel in 1951.
“I was first called as dean, but that was not my cup of tea,” says Swails, who notes the beautiful moral climate of the area is exceptional and has been one of his favorite things about living in Franklin Springs. He taught English, Spanish and Bible classes at the high school academy that was affiliated with Emmanuel at the time. At the college level, he taught government, political science, and Old and New Testament survey courses. After Emmanuel developed a School of Christian Ministries, he taught upper level Bible courses, including Biblical Interpretation, Minor Prophets, Major Prophets, New Testament, Romans and Galatians.
“I would say that John Swails is the foremost living theologian in the Pentecostal Holiness Church,” says Dr. David R. Hopkins, President of Emmanuel College. “He is a legend in the minds of many college graduates who sat under his teaching.” Hopkins adds that when it was time to name the school's grand new auditorium in 1998, Swails was the Board of Trustees' first choice for the honor.
Building their home on Swails Street in 1959, John and Glenda raised three boys who each attended Emmanuel and went on to UGA: Johnny, head of the history department at Oral Roberts University; Joe, intramural director in Emmanuel's Student Life Department; and Jim, a pediatrician in Athens. They have five granddaughters, three grand- sons and a great-grandson.
“I had two full-time jobs, and Glenda was teaching while she was the housekeeper and cook and looked after three boys and her husband.” Swails says of his wife, who earned a master's degree and specialty teaching credentials from UGA before ending her academic career a few units short of a doctorate.
These days, retirement hardly seems like a good word to describe the Swails' life. She enjoys reading and he works around the house during the week, but almost every other weekend they are on the road traveling to speaking and preaching engagements, often as fundraisers for the college.
“I run into a lot of those students that I taught,” says Swails. “They make me feel more important than I am. And I'm very proud of them.”
And Franklin Springs and Emmanuel College are rightfully proud of John Swails.
By Angi Christensen Harben, Clarke County, Ga