A close friend once described Frank Gaebelein as “a true Renaissance man. “And for good reason. A popular lecturer, a talented musician, an accomplished Bible expositor, and an avid mountaineer, he was truly a tower of evangelical talent whose breadth of understanding led people to seek and trust his wisdom on a variety of matters.

Known primarily as an educator, Gaebelein was the founding headmaster at the Stony Brook School, a Christian college preparatory school in Long Island, which has become a prototype. He held the post for 41 years and considered his work there his most important accomplishment.

When once asked what counsel he wished to pass on to the next generation of Christians, Gaebelein replied: “Maintain at all costs a daily time of Scripture reading and prayer. As I look back, I see that the most formative influence in my life and thought has been my daily contact with Scripture over 60 years.”

Indeed, the consistency displayed in his devotional life was Frank Gaebelein’s hallmark. And in the following article, daughter Gretchen Gaebelein Hull reflects upon that legacy and its ongoing impact on the lives of those who knew her father best.

Long before i knew how to spell the word or even knew what it meant, I realized my father was a man of integrity. Later, I would learn phrases like “Christian commitment” and “devotion to duty,” but from my earliest years I simply knew that Frank Gaebelein “rang true.”

As founding headmaster of the Stony Brook School and its leader for 41 years, Dad chose and was himself challenged by the school’s motto: Character Before Career. He knew that when career advancement precedes character development, not only could the career founder when the going got rough, but one’s character would all too often never mature. Even in so-called full-time Christian service, pursuing a career goal must never displace the individual’s personal walk with Christ. It is only when Christ is truly Lord of our lives that we are liberated from an unhealthy preoccupation with career, and are content to be placed where our Master can use us best. As Oswald Chambers observed, “God puts His saints where they will glorify Him, and we are no judges at all of where that is” (My Utmost for His Highest, p. 223).

The decision to bow to the lordship of Christ involves more than verbal commitment; it must govern our every action. My sister and brother and I saw that as our dad sought to obey the commands of his Lord, his private life was consistent with his public imageas a man of moral and intellectual integrity.

Article continues below

Tied To Truth

The word that I associate most closely with Dad’s name is “truth.” His unswerving affirmation was “Thy Word is truth.” Long before my father presented the 1952 Griffith Thomas Memorial Lectures in Dallas that led to the publication of his book The Pattern of God’s Truth, our home life celebrated the concept that “All truth is God’s truth.” Yet this truth was far more than a Platonic ideal. In a little American Tract Society publication entitled Looking Unto Him, Dad wrote:

“No Christian truth is merely abstract, least of all the truth of Christ’s transforming power. Either He has touched your life and changed it or He has not. Being a Christian means personal contact with the Savior.…”

And so Dad’s lifelong practice was to begin and end each day with Christ who is the way, the truth, and the life. My childhood memory of his quiet time includes a worn chair and kneeling cushion, surrounded by shelves of well-used Bibles. My adult memories include one of his visits to my home when he spent days quietly reading and rereading Ephesians “because it’s so beautiful”; and then sharing with me at night verses from an ancient dog-eared Daily Light.

My father’s conviction that “All truth is God’s truth” opened up for exploration and enjoyment the entire range of Philippians 4:8. In a 1980 letter he wrote:

“Intellectually I should describe myself as a Christian humanist. I am, of course, using the term in its classical renaissance sense, rather than in its contemporary usage, as ‘secular humanism,’ for example. I am a generalist, not a specialist, and my interests are not restricted to just one discipline.”

This breadth of interest is reflected not only in the variety of his many published works, but in his personal memorabilia, which include a New York University track medal, a Phi Beta Kappa key, programs of his concerts, mountaineering gear, a much-treasured press card from his assignments as associate editor of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, and a picture of him meeting with President Jimmy Carter.

For Dad the commitment to truth also meant the pursuit of excellence in all activities. As a youth he stuttered badly, but overcame this and was able to represent the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the 1921 Harvard University commencement by delivering an address entitled “In Behalf of Music.” Indeed, he never stopped trying to improve his public speaking. I can recall his working and reworking sermons, delivering them to an audience of one—my mother—and then reworking them some more after her critique.

Article continues below

His ability to play the piano at a near-professional level was also the result of sheer hard work. And so another of my childhood memories is of falling asleep to the sound of classical music as Dad put in his two or three hours of daily practice. Both piano playing and his other beloved avocation, technical rock climbing, were indicative of someone who strove for personal excellence. Both require great, disciplined preparation, and both rapidly expose either sham or ineptitude. Just as Dad was quick to detect “phonies,” so he shrank from anything phony in his own life. He wanted everything he did to stand the closest scrutiny.

As the Bible stresses, a person’s greatness does not reside in any hereditary privilege. Real greatness is in the individual’s own godly character in action. Although Dad came from a prominent Christian home, he realized that he himself had an obligation to be a doer of the truth. He was always interested in the right answer, never in the superficial or the expedient one. While he certainly welcomed fair recognition, the first question he asked about a course of action was never “How will this enhance my career?” but rather, “Is this the right thing to do?” In sorting his papers, I found a lengthy memorandum to himself evaluating whether or not he could maintain his integrity in a certain situation. In the pros and cons of that memo, nowhere did he consider the fact that this situation would have been career-enhancing.

Because he demanded so much of himself, he could be very critical of what he considered to be shoddy or careless work. He did not “suffer fools gladly.” I was amused to come across this penciled note on an article about a mountaineering book: “An uninformed review, written out of monumental ignorance.”

He deplored the second-rate, especially that done under the aegis of “Christian.” This attitude sometimes gave the impression of harshness, and as he grew older he tried to project a more irenic tone. He often agonized over exactly how to do the right thing and how to be winsome while maintaining his integrity. This precarious balance was expressed in a letter Dad wrote to me in 1953. It concerned one of his dearest friends, Christian philosopher Emile Cailliet:

Article continues below

“I’m about to review Cailliet’s The Christian Approach to Culture.… It’s a remarkable book but hardly fundamental. Some things in it I disagree with, much I think is splendid. I’m on the spot. If I praise the book highly, the fundamentalists will jump on me; if I criticize it, Cailliet, who is very sensitive, will be hurt. The only thing to do is to try to be completely honest and fair and at the same time tactful.”

Willing To Pay The Price

In my father’s last years, his most difficult trait for me to deal with was also one of his greatest strengths—his single-minded devotion to duty. He’d call up and ask for prayer, or perhaps a personal visit to help him prepare for a particularly pressing project, and express his tremendous frustration with how little time he had. I’d say, “But Dad, you didn’t have to accept that speaking engagement” or whatever it was. I came to realize he was driven to give 100 percent of himself even in a 50 percent body simply because he cared so much about God’s truth being rightly divided. Indeed, he kept on doing editorial work right up to his last days at the Mayo Clinic, exemplifying the psalmist’s words:

Since my youth, O God, you have taught me,

and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds.

Even when I am old and gray,

do not forsake me, O God,

till I declare your power to the next generation,

your might to all who are to come”

(Ps. 71:17–18, NIV).

Of course, such a life of Christian commitment doesn’t “just happen.” Once grounded on the one firm foundation, Jesus Christ, the person of integrity who puts character before career must be willing to pay the building costs. The phrase “truth hurts” doesn’t only apply to the exposure of untruth. “Truth hurts” applies to the price paid by the person committed to being a doer of the truth. That person risks misunderstanding and possible ridicule, forgoes the easier way of compromise, and puts the concerns of Christ before worldly prestige, monetary gain, and personal pleasure.

When the Stony Brook School was initially planned in 1921, there was, on the part of many Christians, a mistrust of traditional educational standards, and therefore, little concern for accreditation. On the part of secular educators, there was doubt that evangelical faith could be integrated with first-rate scholarship. Dad endured hostility from those who felt he was betraying fundamentalism, and was patronized by those who initially wrote off the school as a quaint religious experiment. However, he did not yield to peer pressure. Nor was he afraid of the world’s disapproval or even rejection. That is not to say these things didn’t hurt. Dad experienced real heartache when others did not share, much less understand, his zeal to present the very best to the Lord.

Article continues below

Because of his vision that Stony Brook should become a combination of forthright Christian testimony and academic excellence, he was personally willing to make a sacrificial, long-term commitment to the fledgling school. He even rejected offers to move to more prestigious positions. Stony Brook’s current headmaster, Karl Soderstrom, wrote this to me when the National Association of Evangelicals honored my father with the Faithful Servant Award in 1981:

“Perhaps with some kind of divine humor, the occasion ended with an hour and ten minute discourse by a Korean pastor who has a church of 150,000 going for one-half million. I’m glad your Dad had a vision for 80, 90, and 100 young men in a world impressed by numbers.”

Possibly because he was an educator, Dad was a “people person.” From the early days at Stony Brook, he was friend and mentor to a host of school alumni and colleagues in Christian ministry. So often a prominent, achieving person sees other people as objects to be manipulated, but to Dad, people were always precious and to be treated with respect. Thus, as he became better known, he also became more approachable, more open to the needs of individuals, and more available to offer counsel. That most valuable of all commodities, time, was freely given to others at the cost of putting off his own projects.

Truth does not change, but our understanding of it does. Being a doer of the truth also means paying the price for the hard work of “going where the evidence leads.” Dad knew that a person of integrity can be well-meaning but rigid—even legalistic—if he does not understand that maintaining integrity includes the difficult and continuous effort of discerning truth. Discerning God’s truth requires an openness to new light, fresh translations, and the latest in biblical research.

Dad was unyielding in his affirmation of the authority of Scripture and the basics of salvation, but he was willing to take time to re-examine the hard questions of conscience over which many Christians differ today. He wrote this in an article published in CHRISTIANITY TODAY in 1981:

Article continues below

“Sometimes evangelicals tend to be afraid of newly discerned truth. If so, they may have been equating some cherished doctrinal formulation or historical position with final truth. So when some hitherto unrecognized truth, some breakthrough into wider knowledge, faces them, it may seem a threat and they may react in fear and anger.”

As my father became increasingly convinced of the need to study issues of justice, human rights, and social concern, perhaps the hardest burden he bore was the easy criticism, “You’ve sold out to the liberals.” He received “hate” mail when he was involved with Bread for the World—not just because he was “mixed up in politics,” but because the board included a Roman Catholic. What these critics missed was his passion for balanced exegesis of the whole Bible, and his conviction that preoccupation with emphasizing a particular narrow interpretation of the gospel was preventing many groups from reaching out in Christlike compassion to help a hurting world. I heard Dad wistfully echo Paul’s words in Galatians 4:16, “Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?”

A poignant memory for me is Election Day, 1980. My mother had died the evening before, and yet my father insisted that I drive him to the local high school so he could vote. He was not “showing off,” but going to stand up for his convictions by ballot. Last winter, Horace Fenton, former president of the Latin America Mission, shared a similar memory with me:

“About a year ago, [your father] called me [late] one night … to express his concern over some of our government’s policies in Nicaragua, and I stumbled back to bed thankful to God for such a heart of compassion. His solid stand on the authority of the Word, coupled with his deep sensitivity to social issues, meant much to me—as it must have to many others.”

And so I saw Dad as a man of courage, willing to take a stand—beginning with his lonely pioneering days in Christian education to his last public lectures where he urged all believers to recognize their responsibility to “the least of these.” In 1980, when I was facing a difficult decision of my own, I said to him, “It’s very lonely to stand for what you believe is right.” His rejoinder was, “It always will be.”

Article continues below

So there are indeed those building costs for the man or woman who places the cause of Christ before career—costs that the family often pays as well. First and foremost in supporting Frank Gaebelein was my mother, a wife who was fully committed to being a partner in ministry. On their fifty-fifth Christmas together, my father wrote her the following:

“Dearest Dorothy, Without your constant loyalty, your unselfish devotion, and above all your steadfast love, I could not have done whatever I have been enabled to do for the Lord.”

Establishing the Stony Brook School demanded the complete dedication of the founding couple. It is fair to say that both my parents were in full-time Christian service. Wrote alumnus Stephen Kurtz, principal of Phillips Exeter Academy:

“How great a reflection on the mores of our civilized world that your mother has not been accorded public honors. She was a good one.”

My parents’ dedication to Stony Brook involved sacrifice on the part of their children as well. While society was safe in the 1930s, it was still difficult to come home from school to an empty house with both parents busy on the campus. There were many students and faculty members who knew my parents far better than we did. The year-round demands of the school and conference schedules not only left us little family time but, since we were expected to participate in almost every function, placed us under constant public observation as well. Further, the unique nature of the work on campus also made us appear quite different from the community, and therefore distanced us from our peers in our small prewar town.

A Life Filled To The Brim

Depending on your outlook on life, “The glass is either half-full or it’s half-empty.” I could have written this article from a “half-empty” outlook, because in our family there were indeed times of both material hardship and emotional tension, as well as errors in parenting judgment. However, the legacy Dad left each of us—namely, his Christian character—far outweighs these negatives and fills that imaginary glass to the brim.

Thinking back on Dad’s many gifts and talents, I’ve often thought, “He’ll be a hard act to follow.” The real challenge, however, is not in copying his achievements but in putting Christian character before career.

Article continues below

There is a lot written today on family guidance and parenting principles. We are familiar with seeing our priorities grouped under the four major headings of God, family, job, and church, and then seeing suggested rearrangements of the last three. Dad’s life said, “Yes, your relationship with God in Christ is first—and then you work out the next sequence according to your own individual circumstances.” Authors today would decry the order of his life: God, then job and church, and family last. For example, it would never have occurred to him to have said to the Stony Brook board of directors, “I must have ‘x’ amount of free time with my family.”

In saying this I am in no way advocating that parents be insensitive to family needs. Rather, I am suggesting that parents who seek to follow Jesus Christ wholeheartedly can safely leave the results of that decision to him.

The beauty of discipleship is not that it is cost free, but that it is cost effective. The example of my parents’ absolute allegiance to Jesus Christ was undoubtedly one of the most effective spiritual influences in my life. At the graveside service for my father, the Reverend Peter Haile prayed: “We thank You for being Frank Gaebelein’s Savior and Lord. He didn’t bow the knee easily, but he bowed it to You.”

That was a costly surrender; but one measure of its effectiveness is that his children and their children know and love Jesus Christ.

Yes, even small children can rise to personal sacrifice if they too have been confronted with the claims of Christ, have accepted his offer of new life, and have begun to learn to put him first in their own lives. I grew up with personal loneliness, few opportunities for normal childhood contacts, and with very little materially. But on the other hand, I was fed spiritually in the Stony Brook School chapel by the greatest preachers of the day—men such as Harry Ironside, Donald Barnhouse, Clarence Macartney, and missionary statesman Samuel Zwemer. Intellectually I was challenged by such visiting lecturers as explorer Adm. Richard E. Byrd; culturally I was enriched by guest artists such as pianist Jorge Bolet.

And while I remember few “fathering” sessions, I will never forget the example of my father’s invariable quiet time, his diligent preparation of teaching and sermon material, and his high standard of Christian conduct. Underneath it all was the assurance that he loved us. As my sister said after his death, “He never lost sight of the great Christian commandment to love one another. He gave that love to his children. To grow up in the Christian faith was much more than just saying it—it was living that faith. He knew that even with all his accomplishments that if there wasn’t love, well, just forget it.” Although at times there were differences between us, our relationships were never broken because our family was focused on Jesus Christ. Even under the severest strains, we could—parent and child alike—reach out and say, “I love you.”

Article continues below

Again at Dad’s funeral, Peter Haile remarked, “I’m sure Dr. Gaebelein wasn’t an easy man to be wife to, or son or daughter of; but oh! how those of us who were on the fringes of the family rejoiced to see the strong relationships that existed—adversary relationships, some of them perhaps, but lasting, powerful, deeply rooted.”

Such relationships are possible when Christ is Lord, and when character comes before career.

A classic article by Dr. Gaebelein on the subject of integrity in the arts will be reprinted in the next issue of CT.

Tim Stafford is a free-lance writer living in Santa Rosa, California. He is a distinguished contributor to several magazines. His latest book is Do You Sometimes Feel Like a Nobody? (Zondervan, 1980).

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.