ABILENE—Jesse Fletcher, president emeritus of Hardin-Simmons University and originator of Southern Baptists’ missionary Journeyman program, died June 14 after a lengthy illness. He was 87.
Fletcher served the university as president from 1977 until 1991 and as chancellor from 1991 to 2001.
“From the first day I met Dr. Fletcher, his prayers and encouragement poured down on me,” HSU President Eric Bruntmyer said. “As an older and wiser brother, Dr. Fletcher’s humility and kindness modeled how a follower of Christ lives.”
Longtime HSU President Lanny Hall called Fletcher “one of my all-time heroes and a very special friend.” He praised Fletcher as “a remarkable individual who excelled in so many fields.”
“He had a brilliant mind, was a gifted author and possessed the ability to relate to all types of people,” Hall said.
Former HSU President Craig Turner noted he could not think of Fletcher without smiling.
“Jesse Fletcher was a friend and a mentor who always had a smile and a warm greeting whenever we met, invariably addressing me with, ‘Hello, Mr. President,’” Turner said.
“What a remarkable legacy he created, full of a wide variety of accomplishments and brimming over with wonderful memories for those who were privileged to know him. Personally, I admired him, I respected him, and I loved him.”
Fletcher was born April 9, 1931, in San Antonio, where he graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in 1948.
At Texas A&M University, where he was an honor student, Fletcher served as a lieutenant colonel in the Corps of Cadets and twice lettered with the golf team. Upon graduation, he received a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserves.
During his senior year, Manor Baptist Church in San Antonio ordained him to the ministry. He subsequently enrolled at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned both his master of divinity degree and his doctorate of philosophy degree.
Fletcher was pastor of Wellborn Baptist Church in College Station and First Baptist Church in Kopperl during his time as a seminary student.
His post-graduate studies included terms at the Chaplain’s School at Fort Slocum, N.Y., the Institute of Religion at the Texas Medical Center in Houston and the University of Richmond.
In 1953, he was introduced to Dorothy Jordan on a blind date, and he proposed after that first date. They married in February 1954. She preceded him in death in 2013.
In 1960, Fletcher went to work for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Foreign Mission Board. In the mid-1960s, inspired both by the popularity of the Peace Corps and by student involvement in summer missions, he founded the missionary Journeyman program. The program enlisted recent college graduates to serve two years in overseas missions service.
After holding a series of administrative posts, he resigned from the Foreign Mission Board in 1975 and became pastor of First Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., where he served until 1977, when he became the 12th president of Hardin-Simmons University.
During his 14 years as president at HSU, Fletcher established and raised the funds to endow schools in education, theology and nursing. The university added seven new facilities and renovated numerous others during his tenure, and its endowment quadrupled.
He also led the institution into the NCAA’s Division III athletic programs, including football in 1989. During his years as chancellor and president emeritus, Fletcher held a professorship in the Logsdon School of Theology, aided development efforts and represented the university in numerous academic and community roles.
Beyond his work at Hardin-Simmons, Dr. Fletcher was a key force in organizing the NCAA Division I Trans America Athletic Conference, now the Atlantic Sun Conference.
Abilene’s Chamber of Commerce recognized him as Citizen of the Year in 2002.
He wrote 11 books, including the official sesquicentennial history of the Southern Baptist Convention, and after he retired as university president, he became an accomplished landscape artist whose works have been exhibited in several museums.
Fletcher is survived by a son Scott and his family of Rockport, Maine; daughter Melissa Fletcher Dupree and her family of Abilene; five grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.