by Greg Massey
Photograph of the 1940 Spring Junior-Senior Banquet, held at the conclusion of Wayne Poucher's first year at Freed-Hardeman College.
Author's Note: The history of Freed-Hardeman University and its predecessor institutions has featured important changes but also enduring continuities. One of those continuities has been perseverance amid struggle. Currently FHU, like other institutions of higher learning in the United States, is in the midst of an unprecedented shutdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, and spring semester classes are being completed online.
As we long for the day when students are back on campus, it's important to remember another continuity: The essence of Freed-Hardeman resides in relationships. Those relationships persist in memories—countless stories of people meeting, interacting, and leaving lasting impressions. At its best, the school has been a force of enduring good, a place where relationships with Christ and in Christ have been forged, relationships that have served as springboards for lives of service.
The story that follows is the Prologue of the recently published By the Grace of God: The Story of Freed-Hardeman University, the comprehensive history of FHU and first of the 150th anniversary publications. It will be followed later this spring by the publication of a commemorative edition, For His Glory: Freed-Hardeman's First 150 Years. The story told in the Prologue of By the Grace of God stands as just one example of how enduring relationships are formed at Freed-Hardeman. The story also serves as a reminder that while most of the administration, faculty, staff, and students go through their daily routines, some individuals on campus are experiencing changes that are life-altering and life-affirming. For student Wayne Poucher, the early days of October 1939 were such a time.
Wayne Poucher wanted to attend Freed-Hardeman College (FHC). It had not always been so. In June 1938, he traveled to Gainesville, Florida, to compete in the state’s Future Farmers of America (FFA) public speaking contest. When he failed to win, he was bitterly disappointed. He desperately wanted a chance to redeem himself. Before departing for his home in rural Largo, he visited the University of Florida’s library and did some research. His subject? Great orators of the past. Poucher figured he could learn from the examples of others and improve his own ability as a speaker. In the library’s collections were recordings of great orators, including the greatest orator of the recent American past, William Jennings Bryan. While listening to a recording of Bryan, Poucher heard something that captured his attention. “N. B. Hardeman,” said Bryan, “is an orator without peer.”
Only a few months earlier, Poucher had been baptized. He returned to Largo and spoke to his minister, Fred Walker, who told him that Hardeman, famous in churches of Christ because of his Tabernacle Sermons preached in Nashville, could be found in Henderson, Tennessee, where he was president of Freed-Hardeman College. “Hardeman was the man at whose feet I wanted to study speech,” Poucher remembered later, “but in 1938, Henderson, Tennessee, might as well have been on the moon.”
The day after his defeat in the Florida FFA speaking contest, Poucher began work on his next speech—writing, editing, practicing—all the while planning to attend school at Freed-Hardeman College and perfect his public speaking ability under the tutelage of Hardeman. The United States, however, was still in the grips of the Great Depression. Like many rural Americans, Poucher had no cash. His plans rested on winning the local, state, and regional speech contests and getting a berth in the national FFA finals, held in Kansas City in October 1939. His hard work paid off: At every stage, he won, qualifying for the trip to Kansas City. Just by competing, he would win $100. A first-place finish would earn him $300. Poucher still had no cash in his pocket, but the promise of future earnings was enough for him to risk the trip to Henderson.
Fred Walker drove Poucher and another prospective Florida student, J. J. Crews, to Henderson, Tennessee. They arrived on a Saturday, exactly a week before Poucher was scheduled to travel to Kansas City. They found Henderson to be a quaint town of around 1,700 residents. In the middle of town on Main Street was the eight-acre FHC campus, composed of five brick buildings: a main classroom and administration building, separate boys’ and girls’ dormitories, a two-story cafeteria-gymnasium, and the most recent addition, a small two-story science building. On White Avenue, two blocks north of campus, was Hardeman’s stately two-story home. Walker took the Florida boys directly there, and they met FHC’s president and his wife, Joanna Hardeman, a music teacher known to the students as “Miss Joe.”
Poucher got right to the point. “I have only fifty cents in my pocket," he told Hardeman, “but a week from this Monday, I’ll have $300. If you give me a bale of hay to sleep on this week, enroll me, and give me a meal ticket to the cafeteria, I’ll have the money to pay you back in just ten days.” Hardeman could not help being amused by the youth’s confidence. He smiled and then asked, “Wayne, what if you lose?” Poucher was stunned. Only seventeen years old, he had the brashness of youth but not the wisdom of experience. He had not even considered that possibility. Undeterred, he gathered himself and said, “If I lose, I will still have $100. I will have the Folds family from Florida bring me back by here, pay you for the week, and go back to plowing.” Hardeman responded not with a bale of hay but by escorting Poucher to a boarding house across the street. He enrolled Poucher and gave him a meal ticket.
That Monday morning, Poucher attended his first class, taught by President Hardeman at 7:00 a.m. Afterward, Hardeman asked his newest student to come to his office, where he offered to help Poucher prepare for the speech. For the rest of the week, in the free time available, beginning in the early morning hours before class and continuing for two hours after the evening meal, Poucher had one-on-one lessons from “the orator without peer.” On Friday night, just before Poucher left for Kansas City, the two went over the speech a final time. Hardeman decided to prep his young charge, reviewing questions the judge from the Department of Agriculture would probably ask.
A man of political bent, with influence in the Nashville state government, Hardeman was aware of the organizational culture of the Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC. He believed that Poucher’s topic, “Soil Conservation, Man’s and Nature’s,” would elicit a predictable response from the judge. “At least one question,” he said, “will be on the ultimate ownership of land. This is probably the way the question will be phrased.” He proceeded to coach Poucher on the question and on a suitable answer.
The next day, Saturday, October 14, Hardeman and Poucher both went on road trips, each headed for quite different competitions. Hardeman drove to Memphis, where his three-year-old walking horse, June Rose, competed in the Memphis Horse Show Association’s annual fall show. Hardeman was an expert horseman whose love of horses and walking horse competitions was exceeded only by his passion for preaching and educating young preachers. He rode June Rose that evening, and she won a third-prize ribbon for junior walking horses. Poucher, meanwhile, caught a ride to Kansas City with the Folds family.
On Monday evening, October 16, Poucher gave his speech at the Future Farmers of America national convention in Kansas City. The Department of Agriculture judge asked one question worded almost exactly as Hardeman had predicted. Without hesitation, Poucher replied, “Private individuals may hold a deed or title to a piece of ground, but the earth was created by God for all ages. Our deed gives us the right to use the land but also the responsibility to conserve God’s creation for generations to come.”
A few minutes later, a breathless Poucher made a collect long-distance telephone call to tell President Hardeman the news: He had won first prize! But there was more—the next day at noon he would present his prize-winning speech on the National Farm and Home Hour radio program.
Proud of his young charge and aware also that Poucher’s personal achievement honored FHC, Hardeman changed Tuesday’s schedule. At noon that day, the students assembled at Chapel Hall to listen to Poucher give his prize-winning speech on the radio. For the students, it was exciting to experience a departure from the day’s routine, exciting also to hear one of their own speak on the radio, albeit a new peer not yet well known. Of all the students, members of the Philomatheans, the oldest of three literary societies at FHC, perhaps beamed brightest. Poucher had joined the Philomatheans rather than their rivals, Sigma Rho, or the new upstarts, Phi Kappa Alpha. The Philos claimed his achievement as their own.
The nationally broadcast speech was not the only high point Poucher experienced on that momentous day. He was also interviewed for two other NBC radio programs. In ensuing years, he would give meaning to the memories of those days in October 1939, reflecting on how he began his relationship with N. B. Hardeman, how his mentor instilled in him the importance of pursuing excellence, a pursuit that was a godly imperative he tried to pass along to others.
While Poucher basked in his hard-earned victory, the rest of FHC’s student body departed Chapel Hall. They engaged in conversations, ate lunch in their new cafeteria, attended afternoon classes, studied in the library, played on the athletic fields, and hung out in their dorms, creating their own memories, involving themselves in the everyday activities of life at Freed-Hardeman College.
 This account relies mostly on J. Wayne Poucher, “Great Men I Have Known: Nicholas Brodie Hardeman,” March 1992, University Archives, Freed-Hardeman University. And for minor details, it relies on “Freshman Boy Wins National F. F. A. Contest,” Sky Rocket, November 1939; “Philomathean,” Sky Rocket, November 1939; “Hardeman Walking Horse in Money at Memphis, Booneville,” Chester County Independent, October 19, 1939; James Marvin Powell and Mary Nelle Hardeman Powers, N. B. H.: A Biography of Nicholas Brodie Hardeman (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1964), 306–14; “Population of Henderson, TN,” Population.us, accessed December 5, 2017, http://population.us/tn/henderson; and R. J. Martin, “The Weather of 1939 in the United States,” Monthly Weather Review (December 1939), accessed October 25, 2017, ftp.library.noaa.gov/docs.lib/htdocs/rescue/mwr/067/mwr-067-12-0444.pdf.
Wayne Poucher went on to national renown as a preacher, political operative, and radio show host, an example of what historian Michael Casey has called the “political pulpit.” In 1954, he managed Strom Thurmond’s successful campaign for the U.S. Senate. From 1958 to 1963, he was the announcer of Life Line, a rightwing radio program sponsored by Texas billionaire H. L. Hunt. Among traditional a cappella Churches of Christ, Poucher became suspect because of his affiliations with Christian Churches. See Michael W. Casey, “The Kingdoms of This World: The Rise of the Political Pulpit,” Leaven 6, no. 3 (January 1998): 151–55; Heather Hendershot, What’s Fair on the Air? Cold War Right-Wing Broadcasting and the Public Interest (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 44–50; and Cecil Willis, “Straws in the Wind: Reviewing The Mirror of a Movement (IV),” Truth Magazine, March 1966, 2–5.