A Promise Kept
In an era of brands, platforms, and celebrity, Robertson McQuilkin’s example is worth remembering
I did not know Robertson McQuilkin well, and even though he died seven years ago this summer, I still think of him a lot.
We met only a few times, when he was in his late 70s and early 80s. But even then, I could see his passion. It did not surprise me to learn that in his younger days McQuilkin was a focused and powerful leader. His leadership was perhaps most evident during his 22-year tenure as president of South Carolina’s Columbia International University. During his tenure there, the school grew dramatically, developed new programs, and built a national and international reputation in the evangelical world.
But when Robertson McQuilkin died, in 2016, his accomplishments as a university president did not make the first line of his obituary. Instead, most remembrances began with his love for his wife Muriel.
Muriel McQuilkin was — according to Robertson, the man who knew her best — a smart, creative, articulate woman. She served faithfully by her husband’s side for a half-century as his career moved them around the country and the world – including 12 years as a missionary in Japan.
But in the 1980s, something strange started happening to Muriel. Her personality changed. Her creative spirit dimmed. She would become fearful, even angry. It did not take long for doctors to discover that a disease had descended on her: Alzheimer’s.
For a while, Robertson McQuilkin continued as president of Columbia International University. But as Alzheimer’s Disease continued its terrible work in Muriel’s body and mind, he found that only he could care for her. “Muriel seems to be almost happy when with me,” McQuilkin said. “And almost never happy when not with me. She seems to feel trapped, becomes very fearful, sometimes almost terror. And when she can’t get to me, there can be anger. She’s in distress.”
For Robertson McQuilkin, the solution became obvious: he would resign as the president of Columbia International University to care full-time for his wife Muriel.
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When he announced his resignation (in a speech you can now hear on YouTube), he said, “I promised that in sickness and in health till death do us part. And I’m a man of my word.”
McQuilkin went on to say, “This was no grim duty to which I stoically resigned, however. It was only fair. She had, after all, cared for me for almost four decades with marvelous devotion; now it was my turn. And such a partner she was! If I took care of her for 40 years, I would never be out of her debt.” He emphasized that caring for Muriel was not something that he “had to” do. “It’s not that I have to. It’s that I get to.”
When McQuilkin resigned his post at CIU in 1990, Muriel’s Alzheimer’s Disease was already well advanced, so it is possible that Robertson thought he was making a commitment of a few months, or perhaps a few years at the most. However, in part because of Robertson’s attentive care, Muriel lived another 13 years, until 2003, before she finally succumbed to the terrible disease at age 81. When she died, Robertson McQuilkin said, “I don’t see how I could have any more grief.”
Robertson McQuilkin lived another 13 years. It was during this season of life that I got to know him a bit, and got a taste of the vigor, the love of life, that both led to his success and caused him to want to help Muriel hold on to life as long as possible. After Muriel’s death, and despite his advanced age, he returned to something of a public life, writing and speaking and – after a few years – even re-marrying. One of his books was A Promise Kept, about the season of his life in which he cared for Muriel.
Eventually, though, Robertson McQuilkin himself succumbed. He died on June 2, 2016. He was 88 years old.
We live in an age in which we warehouse old people in trailers in sunny climates, or we make sure they know they have the right to die, sometimes even providing the means of death. We live in an age in which “serial monogamy” and “follow your bliss” has replaced “till death do us part.” We live in an age in which we argue over “what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” We live in an age in which even platform and celebrity matter more than actual accomplishment or character.
It is in such an age that we most need to remember men like Robertson McQuilkin, a man of his word, who counted sacrificial service to the one he loved not as something he had to do, but as something he got to do.
So, yes, I do remember Robertson McQuilkin. I think of him a lot. And I pray when I am gone some of the same things that were said about him might also be said of me.
Indeed, may they be said of us all.