Robert Benge to retire after 25 years at Southern Adventist University

Benge poses for a photo with his family, who attended his retirement party. Thursday, April 6, 2023. (Photo by Arlene Leavitt)

“Lord, if you really want me to get a doctorate, you’ve gotta give me a sign,” Robert Benge prayed as he prepared to cross the border between Texas and New Mexico. 

His wife, Debbie, and their two sons were back in Collegedale, where Debbie taught at Collegedale Academy Elementary School, known then as Spalding. Benge said he could not ignore the call to pursue a career as a college professor. Yet, he struggled with the thought of 14 months away from his family while studying at the University of New Mexico. 

He promised himself that when he crossed the state line, when the terrain turned rocky and fell “like dropping off an escarpment,” he’d decide once and for all what to do. So he prayed.

“I opened my eyes — this is a true story, but people won’t believe it — and I was blinded by colored light in my rearview mirror,” Benge said. “What the Lord had done is somehow move a shower [of rain] between my truck and the sun, and there was a rainbow, … the end of it right in the back of my pickup truck.”

Now, after 25 years at Southern Adventist University, Benge, dean of the School of Health and Kinesiology, is retiring this May.

“It just amazes me, looking back and reflecting on [my life],” Benge said. “[God] always looked down on me with favor and protected me for some reason.”

Benge’s years at Southern began in the early 1970s, when he was a student. Phil Garver, his predecessor as dean of Southern’s Physical Education Department, now the School of Health and Kinesiology, had taught Benge physical education at Mount Vernon Academy. His intramural program satisfied Benge’s desire to compete, and his teaching helped inspire Benge to study physical education at Southern, where he attended from the fall of 1973 to the spring of 1977.

Benge immediately got involved with Southern’s swimming pool as a lifeguard. He became certified as an American Red Cross Water Safety and Lifeguard Instructor, a qualification he’s held for 50 years. He also met his wife of 45 years at the pool.

“We had these huge water polo games on Friday afternoons. We’d play across the deep end; we had some goals made,” Benge recounted. “My wife would come in, and we’d play water polo. That’s where I met her, so the rest is history with that story.”

After a stint at Southern, he taught at an Adventist academy in Pell City, Alabama. A couple years later, he and his wife both found teaching positions at Tidewater Adventist Academy in Chesapeake, Virginia. The school was near a large naval base, so the student body was incredibly diverse. Benge considers his teaching experience at Tidewater and later living experience in New Mexico great preparation for working on Southern’s diverse campus.

After nine years, Benge and his wife moved to Collegedale to teach at Spalding, and, in 1998, the university hired Benge to be the aquatic and intramural director. In 2001, Benge completed his doctorate in physical education from the University of New Mexico and became a professor at Southern. Ten years ago, he was appointed as dean of the School of Physical Education, Health and Wellness, but he never forgot where he started.

“I never fully got away from the swimming pool,” Benge said. “I’m still teaching basic swimming and lifeguarding this semester. Every morning I check the chemicals.” 

Benge considers the following to be his three signature accomplishments as a Southern employee: expanding the community swimming program, building the intramural program and creating special rules for intramural sports during COVID-19.

Judy Sloan, professor in the School of Health and Kinesiology, will succeed Benge as dean on June 1. Sloan, a professor at Southern for 22 years, said she is thankful for Benge’s diligent work and plans to have his number on speed dial.

“Benge told us two years ago that he was going to retire this year, which I really appreciate,” Sloan said. “Not everybody prepares their department like he did for us, and that’s a huge blessing.”

Share this story!

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest

Leave a Reply