When Auburn University was chartered in 1856 it was known as East Alabama Male College and was strongly affiliated with the Methodist Church. When the institution reopened some ten years later following the Civil War, its president was Dr. James Dowdell, a Methodist minister. Auburn’s United Methodist Church, just a block from campus on the corner of Magnolia and Gay Streets, erected its first building on that site in 1836, and the 34 original founders of Auburn were – you guessed it – all Methodists.
So it comes as no great surprise that one of the best-known and best-loved Methodist ministers to serve in Alabama over the past 50 years is himself an Auburn graduate – Dr. Karl Stegall. Stegall has served with distinction at four separate United Methodist Churches, and is closely associated with the First United Methodist Church of Montgomery, Alabama, where he served 23 ½ years prior to his retirement in 2007.
Following graduation from Livingston High School, Stegall took his undergraduate degree in English Education from the nearby University of Alabama and began his career.
“My first job was as a high school teacher and basketball coach in Flomaton, Alabama, in Escambia County, in 1958,” he said. “I was most fortunate to have the opportunity right away to be part of a unique program led by Dr. Bob Saunders, who was the associate dean for the College of Education at Auburn, serving under Dean Truman Pierce.”
This satellite master’s program foreshadowed the College’s innovative and award-winning distance education programs that are now such an integral part of the College. Stegall said Auburn professors would travel to South Alabama for classes during the school year, and the master’s cohort enrolled in on-campus classes during the summers. Their tuition was paid out of a grant from the Ford Foundation, and Stegall lived in old Noble Hall dormitory which was located near what is now the Harbert College of Business.
“Education is so important to my family and me,” Stegall said. “We grew up in extreme west Alabama, in the town of Emelle in Sumter County. My father was a faithful and hard-working man but he only achieved an elementary school education. Both he and my mother worked very hard to make it possible for all of their sons to attend college. My parents supported all of our teachers and principals 110 percent – if we had a problem at school they did not want to hear our side of it. They just knew we were there to get an education and not to get into trouble. We understood that very clearly from an early age.”
One of five sons in a rural family whose business was running a filling station and small cattle farm, Stegall had a deep respect for Auburn from an early age.
“In our farming community so many of our people went off to Auburn to study agriculture and engineering,” he said. “My two oldest brothers went to Auburn and I cannot count the number of times we drove east on old Highway 80 to visit them, spend time in Auburn, and go to football games.”
People often ask Stegall how, as an Alabama graduate, he can maintain his love and respect for Auburn.
“I am strange duck in that way,” he said. “As a high school coach I had a player on our team, as well as players that were sons of my neighbors and friends, who played football at Auburn. Down through the years, I have maintained a high school coach’s attitude in supporting both Auburn and Alabama. For me, the best season imaginable is for both Auburn and Alabama to go undefeated until the final game. I just do not understand people who seem to hate the other school. I love them both.”
Stegall has little choice but to love Auburn since so much of his family life is tied up here. His older brother, Joe, studied engineering at Auburn, where he met and married his wife, the former Eleanor Allen of Demopolis. In his first coaching job, Stegall had a star tackle, Roy Tatum, who went on to play football for Shug Jordan at Auburn. He also had the unique experience of serving as the pastor for both Marvin Trott, who played at Auburn in the 1970s, and Marvin’s son Tommy, who played during the last decade.
“Of course, so many of the families in the churches I served, as well as many of my closest friends, have been devoted Auburn people,” he said. “I officiated at the funerals of the two best-known ‘voices of Auburn’ in Jim Fyffe and Carl Stephens. Both of my daughters graduated from Auburn, and met their husbands there. My daughter Stacie, in fact, is also a College of Education grad and taught school for several years after her graduation. And now it has gone on to the third generation as our beloved granddaughter Hannah enrolled at Auburn this fall.”
Stegall’s career as a minister is quite well-known. Combining aspects of great preaching and liturgical insight, wise and authoritative church and financial administration, and loving pastoral care to those in need, his congregation wanted to do something special upon his retirement in 2007. Long an advocate of supporting struggling seminarians in Methodist institutions, the church founded the Stegall Seminary Scholarship Foundation with a gift of $2 million.
“Our mission is to encourage more young men and women to consider God’s call upon their lives to enter church-related vocations,” Stegall said. “Most people do not understand the enormous pressure that is on these seminarians, who often have young families, to not only do well in rigorous academic environments, but also to pay for it all. It is not unusual for these students to graduate with $100,000 in student debt.”
Having struggled himself to pay for seminary experiences while working as a coach in Louisville, Kentucky, Stegall early on took an active interest in raising money to support seminarians, and it has now become his full-time duty in what he laughingly calls his “retirement.”
Under Stegall’s leadership, the Foundation has raised a total of $8 million, most of that coming since he became volunteer president in 2007. Effective January 1, 2014, the Foundation provides annual cash stipends of $10,000 to each full-time seminary student in the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. At age 77, Stegall is as passionate and vigorous as ever in his life’s work.
“I have been so fortunate in my life in so many ways that it is simply a joy to have this unique opportunity to give back to the people and places that have done so much for me,” he said. “And allow me to add one more thing. More seminary students of ours have graduated from Auburn University than any other college or university in our conference. I am proud of this but it is something I have always known – there’s just something special about Auburn!”
To learn more about the Foundation, visit http://stegallscholarship.com/.