by Bethel University
Dr. William Lee Odom, President of Bethel College from 1975 - 1991, passed away peacefully on May 9, 2020.
Dr. Odom was born on December 28, 1934, in Richmond, Virginia, the son of an AT&T telegraph operator and part-time minor league baseball pitcher and a business secretary. He graduated from John Marshall High School in 1953 and Hampden-Sydney College in 1957 where he was captain of the tennis team. He earned a Master's degree in Greek from the University of Virginia and, after successfully petitioning the UVA Board of Trustees to initiate the program, received a Ph.D. in Greek in 1964.
His first position was as a Greek professor at Randolph Macon College where he earned tenure his first year. He soon returned to Hampden-Sydney where he added tennis coach to his teaching responsibilities. It was the mid-1960s and during this time he and Carol took strong stands on the civil rights movement, sending both of their children to public school in Prince Edward County, Virginia, and actively protesting against local efforts to support the private academy at the public schools' expense.
In 1969 he pivoted to becoming a college administrator, becoming the Academic Dean and Vice-President of Keuka College in Keuka Park, New York. At the time, this all women's college was intentionally integrating their campus, and Dr. Odom's work in civil rights in Virginia was partially responsible for his selection to this post.
In 1975 Dr. Odom was installed as President of Bethel College in McKenzie, Tennessee. At his installation service, the keynote address was delivered by his friend, Representative Barbara Jordan, who became famous for work during the Nixon impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives. Dr. Odom is credited with turning around the college, which was struggling financially when he arrived. He is honored on campus with a building named for him, Odom Hall.
In 1991 Bill and Carol moved to Americus, Georgia where he became Director of Development for Habitat for Humanity International. They worked alongside President Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn building houses and were frequent visitors to the former President's Sunday School class at the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains. Georgia. He also became a fan of the Indigo Girls when their song Hammer and Nail was sung at a Habitat fundraiser event.
In 1994, Dr. Odom was named Director of Development for the Washington D.C. Salvation Army. Bill and Carol, who worked at the Smithsonian, took full advantage of the culture DC had to offer during their years there. In raising money for the Salvation Army, he was perhaps most proud of his work for the Harbor Light Center, a residential addiction recovery center, and Turning Point Center for Women and Children that provides transitional housing for single mothers and their children.
In 2001, Bill and Carol retired to Memphis, Tennessee to be near their son and Bethel friends. Never one to take a real vacation without a fight, Dr. Odom stayed active during his early retirement, doing consulting work for Memphis Theological Seminary, volunteer consulting work for Church Health, and leading a group who published a book of sermons written by Rev. Harold Davis, a Cumberland Presbyterian minister.
The common thread of Bill's life was his deep and abiding faith as a life-long Presbyterian and his love for his wife Carol, with whom he fell in love at age 13. All of the organizations for whom he worked in his long career are faith-based institutions. He intentionally sought to have his faith life shine through his professional life. He often put his faith in action as a choir director which he loved doing and took as seriously as any of his jobs.
To his family, he was known for his work ethic, sweet nature, sense of humor, athletic abilities, love of music, love of family, intellect, and perhaps most importantly, his honor and integrity.
In 2015, Bill and Carol moved into Kirby Pines Lifecare Community in Memphis. The family extends a special thanks to the many kind employees there who cared for and supported him.
A memorial service will be announced after the current health challenge abates. Dr. Odom will be interred in College Church cemetery on the grounds of Hampden-Sydney College.
Memorial gifts can be made to Bethel University or Church Health, or to the charity of the donor's choice.