“The bank would lend me money any time I wanted it because they knew it was either going for education or farm expenses,” Potter said. “I would take out loans to pay for fertilizer or machinery in the spring and college in the fall. I never borrowed more than I had to, so I always had a good credit rating. We trusted in the Lord, and we used common sense.”
That wise combination allowed Donald and his brother, Wesley, to see six children graduate from Maranatha. Those six children have produced 11 grandchildren who are Maranatha graduates. Katie Potter, Donald’s granddaughter, is on track to become the 19th Potter with a degree from the college—21 if you count two unrelated Potters.
Those numbers and unwavering support and loyalty combine to qualify the Potters as Maranatha’s First Family.
“We always wanted our children to go to Maranatha because it is true to what we believe,” said Cecile Potter, Wesley’s wife. “As for the grandkids, it was their final decision—probably. We encouraged it, and I’m pretty sure their parents encouraged it.”
Friends from the first day
While Donald tended to his farm, Wesley pastored several Baptist churches in Illinois. He befriended college founder Dr. B. Myron Cedarholm when Cedarholm was director of the Conservative Baptist Association. Potter was a member of Maranatha’s first Board of Trustees, attending the first board meeting on Sept. 14, 1968. He remained a board member until 1990.
“Maranatha gave Wesley an honorary doctorate the same year  they gave one to Dr. Bob Jones III, and Wesley always felt like that was pretty important,” Cecile Potter said with a chuckle. “Our church in Decatur was the first church to take up an offering for Maranatha when it started.”
Wesley’s son, David, graduated from Maranatha in 1971 and is now a missionary in Hungary. Five of David and Jean Potter’s children are graduates as well. A sixth child attended but did not graduate, and a seventh is studying at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest.
Alumni records indicate only one other couple, Dr. David Cummins and wife Mary Lee, has five children with Maranatha degrees.
“I always had confidence in the faculty there and in knowing our children would be in a controlled environment with the same kind of standards we have in our home. It was a good transition between home and being out on their own. They were also very involved in fine arts, and I thought the extracurricular opportunities would be really good.”
David Potter, like his uncle, had to embrace frugality to help fund his children’s education.
“There aren’t any sacrifices in the Lord’s work, just tradeoffs,” David said. “What we got out of sending our children to Maranatha was more valuable to us than what we would have otherwise spent on, say, a vacation trip or nice new furniture for the living room. My wife still has never had any new living room furniture. Somebody did give us some secondhand furniture a few months ago, and we got it recovered. Hey, from the outside, it looks like new.”
The Cummins: Five daughters, five graduates
Dr. David Cummins, like Wesley Potter, was present at the first Maranatha board meeting in 1968. Maranatha awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1969. He pastored eight churches from 1950 to 1997, when he began to serve with Baptist World Mission.
Dr. Cummins and wife Mary Lee had five daughters. All five graduated from the college—Mary (1973), Martha (’75), Miriam (’77), Michal (’80) and Myra (’83). All five married Maranatha grads, and 11 grandchildren are also alumni.
“My sister and I were there at the same time for two years,” Mary (Cummins) Gearhart said. “We lived across the hall from each other, but that was not a problem. We probably did share some clothes.”
Dr. Cummins did give his daughters a choice, although a qualified one.
“People who know my dad will laugh when I say he told us we could go anywhere we wanted, but he would be paying the tuition at Maranatha,” Mary said. “We were not quite that dogmatic with our children.”
Still, Mary and Gary Gearhart sent four children to Maranatha. All four graduated and are in full-time Christian service.
“We did give them a choice, but our goal was always to put them someplace where the most significant focus would be on ministry,” Gary Gearhart said.
Carrying in the bed
Gary Gearhart is part of a significant family legacy as well. He and his sister, Kathy (Gearhart) Jaspers, have combined to send six children through Maranatha. Kathy is the wife of former Maranatha president Dr. David Jaspers.
“I was there at Maranatha on the first day, when we literally carried our beds into Old Main and set them up,” Gary Gearhart said. “Kathy came four years later.
“My father ran a food distribution route to local grocery stores. Both mom and dad (Kenneth and Frances) sacrificed significantly for us. They remortgaged their small country home so that we could be involved in ministry during the summers. My mother drove school bus for the local school districts for 25 years. I spent one summer (with missionaries to the Navajo Indians) in New Mexico and two at Camp CoBeAc (in Houghton Lake, Michigan). None of that would have been possible without their sacrifice.”
This bus goes to Watertown
Bill Peterson was a pastor for more than 50 years at Baptist churches in Illinois, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Colorado. He would often pick up part-time work as a bus driver for both the local school district and Greyhound. He was a Maranatha board member from 1976-91 and was given an honorary doctorate by the school in 1980.
“We were close friends with the Cedarholms,” Grayce Peterson said. “Also, our children were friends with young people at other churches in the Denver area. When they would travel to Maranatha, our daughter, Cookie, would go with them. Sometimes your oldest child leads the way, so when Cookie picked Maranatha, the others just followed.”
Colleen (Cookie) Peterson Klus graduated from Maranatha in 1974. She was followed by Randy (’75), Cindy (’77) and Tim (’80). Another daughter attended but did not graduate.
Colleen, known as “Miss Cookie” to her pupils when she taught at an elementary school in Germany, now teaches English to German businessmen. Randy was a Christian school administrator and football coach for more than 30 years before becoming a pastor at a small church in Colorado. Cindy is a stay-at-home mom in the Denver area. Tim is a missionary to Germany.
Four Peterson grandchildren have also gone to Maranatha. They include Tim’s son, Aaron, who is raising support to also become a missionary to Germany.
“I knew my children were being taught the Word of God at Maranatha,” Grayce said. “I was very happy to see them go there. It was a safe, wonderful place for them to be trained.”