By Rob Bradfield
Baylor graduate Dr. Cleophus LaRue has nearly a lifetime of books, research and academic honors to his name. If it wasn’t for his own drive and the willingness of a few people in power to take a chance, however, he might not have come to Baylor at all.
LaRue, Princeton Theological Seminary’s professor of preaching and rhetoric, was among this year’s recipients of the Baylor Alumni Association’s Distinguished Alumni Award, an award given every year to former students that have gone on to live extraordinary lives.
LaRue earned two degrees from Baylor and has become one of its most academically prestigious graduates. LaRue said he first learned about Baylor from Bunny Steele, a high school journalism teacher in Corpus Christi. LaRue said it was Steele, a Baylor graduate, that first inspired him to study journalism, and it was her enthusiasm about Baylor that drove him to apply.
“I just got it in my mind that I wanted to go to Baylor,” LaRue said.
Before he applied, LaRue spent several years working for KIII-TV3 in his native Corpus Christi, preaching at South Texas Baptist churches and attending Texas Arts and Industries University in Kingsville.
LaRue openly admits his grades at Texas A&I were not exceptional, even though he graduated in the top 5 percent of his high school class. This proved a problem when he finally decided to apply to Baylor and was initially rejected. LaRue said his grades in junior college didn’t meet the standards for transfer students at Baylor.
LaRue, with help from Steele, appealed to local school official Glen Huston, who decided to give LaRue a chance. Huston set up an appointment for LaRue with Dr. Ralph Storm, a Baylor regent. Storm remembers their conversation to this day.
“He came to me and I saw a man that was struggling,” Storm said.
Storm said he was most impressed with LaRue’s strong desire for education.
“He told me, ‘My people are becoming more educated and they expect their pastor to be more educated as well.’ That seemed reasonable to me,” Storm said.
Storm sent LaRue’s case to future Baylor President Herb Reynolds, who sent LaRue a personal letter telling him he had to succeed or go home. LaRue did not disappoint.
During his time at Baylor, LaRue studied both journalism and theology, excelling at New Testament studies. Eventually, LaRue earned a master’s degree in theology and entered Baylor’s church history doctoral program.
Just before beginning his doctorate at Baylor, John B. Davidson, a religion professor LaRue became close to during his undergraduate career, began talking to LaRue about expanding his doctoral options beyond Baylor. At that time, the Texas Baptists were embroiled in what LaRue calls the “battle for the soul of the Southern Baptist Commission.” That conflict and the urgings of his professors led LaRue to apply to the Princeton Theological Seminary. LaRue said his decision to leave Texas boiled down to one big question.
LaRue asked himself, “Would I stay there and be content being a pastor at a reasonably sized church in Central Texas, or make a complete break?”
He made the break and went to Princeton.
During his time at Princeton, LaRue studied under renowned preacher Thomas G. Long, who Baylor named one of the 12 most effective preachers in the English language in 1996. While at Princeton, LaRue came into contact with several prominent individuals, including former Baylor President Dr. Robert Sloan.
After completing his doctorate of divinity, Long approached LaRue about becoming a full-time professor, and LaRue accepted.
Since joining the Princeton faculty 15 years ago, LaRue has become a respected authority on preaching in the African-American community and has written and/or edited five books on the subject.
In 2001, he took a trip to India with students from Princeton and has since traveled around the world teaching and learning about Christianity in other countries. His most recent trip was to the Philippines in January.
His outstanding academic records are what led the alumni association to present him with the 2012 Distinguished Alumni Award. Ella Wall Prichard, Baylor graduate and former regent, was one of the association members who recommended LaRue for the award.
“There’s only a handful of Baylor graduates who have taught at the premiere institutions of the country,” Prichard said. “We have lots of professors at Baptist universities, but he’s up there with the very, very top graduates from an academic perspective.”
LaRue was in Waco on Jan. 27 to accept the award. Even though he has moved on to the heights of the academic world, LaRue still remembers the university that gave him a chance, and the people that believed in him along the way.
“I give God thanks,” LaRue said. “I’ve had a good life because of the foundation that I had at Baylor and the work I’ve done at Princeton over the past 15 years.”