News and Events
The Texan & the Belle: Chancellor Charles B. Runnels
By Bill Henegar
He is tall, lean, and straight. His soft Texas accent and cordial manner contribute to his warm, winning charm. Many hundreds of people consider him a close personal friend—because he cultivates friendships like some people cultivate roses: with consistent and persistent care.
But that is only the dignified exterior of Charles B. Runnels, chancellor of Pepperdine University. Inside is a certain sturdiness and toughness of character that has been forged by hard work, hard times, and a heritage of honor. He is not someone born with a proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. He’s a man accustomed to earning his way, determining his own fate.
Charles was born and raised in the country, near Nacogdoches, in the “piney woods” of east Texas. To say that Charles is a Texan is an understatement. His hometown, Nacogdoches, is known as the “Cradle of Texas.” While the state of Texas boasts that it’s been under six flags, Nacogdoches has flown no less than nine. The city was the place where Texas liberty was born. As the oldest city in the state, it is considered the gateway to the frontier.
His parents worked a small farm, which was, in some ways, a “safe” occupation during the Great Depression as Charles grew up with his brother and two sisters. By working from dawn to dusk, the family always had food on the table. But little else. Charles remembers, “We weren’t rich, but we had enough.” There were no luxuries and not an overabundance of necessities. However, he doesn’t remember it as “the Depression”—it was simply the way they lived.
Charles rose before daylight to milk the cows, then picked the cotton that his father grew in the small fields, along with corn and peas. In his spare time, he cut firewood and sold it to neighbors. It brought money for shoes and school supplies. He occasionally found time to drop several lines in the river and watch for trout nibbles, or to hunt for rabbits and squirrels with his shotgun or .22 rifle.
Dad bought a service station and moved the family to town about the time Charles started high school. So the young man worked part time pumping gas in the afternoon. At age sixteen he entered Stephen F. Austin College (now a state university). He also worked as a bellhop at a hotel in town to meet college expenses. But the year was 1941, and his life, along with millions of others, was about to change forever. The United States was plunged into a world war when Pearl Harbor was attacked in December. Charles convinced his parents to sign his enlistment papers for the armed forces.
On a Greyhound bus to Dallas at age seventeen, he wondered about his future. It was an uncertain world. Accepted by both the Army and the Navy, Charles chose the Navy and was allowed to return to finish his first year of college. But when the summer of ’42 came, he was called to serve.
He first entered the “V12” program, in which younger men could continue their education for one additional year. He was sent for his sophomore year to Southwest Louisiana Institute. After that, it was preflight training in Austin. Five months later, he attended midshipman’s school at Columbia University in New York to become a naval officer. The next six months were spent in flight training in Ottumwa, Iowa. At that point the Navy analyzed its need for single-engine or multiple-engine pilots. It was decided that Charles should finish his flight training as a multiple-engine pilot in Pensacola, Florida. “I admit to some disappointment,” he says today. “I wanted to be a carrier fighter pilot, but that’s not the way it turned out.”
He was to fly the PBY and PBM seaplanes, used for rescue and transport. After six months of flight training, he was ready to receive his “wings.” But that was the moment Japan surrendered—the war was over. Ensign Runnels was faced with a decision: to accept an honorable discharge and go home, or to accept his wings and spend another year in the Navy. He chose his wings—and was shipped to Tokyo Bay and, later, Okinawa.
Amy Jo Cole was born and raised in Oxford, Mississippi, the home of the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss). It was the years of the Great Depression, but she was far too young to remember those difficult times. Her father worked for an oil company, and her mother was a bookkeeper for the campus store at Ole Miss.
Oxford was a small town, even though it hosted a major state university. Times were simpler: she grew up in a house with an extended family—one set of grandparents lived in her parents’ house, the other set of grandparents moved next door. Amy Jo remembers her childhood as an idyllic time, without the threats of the modern world. There was freedom to run and play ... or just lie back and discover cloud pictures in the sky.
The family home was about a mile from the center of town, and Amy Jo attended elementary school with Jill Faulkner, author William Faulkner’s daughter. Amy Jo clearly remembers seeing the famous writer around town.
She was an avid reader of everything “age appropriate” as the librarian would say. She loved the big bands of the 1940s. And, as all girls in that era, she enjoyed the crooning of Frank Sinatra.
By the time she was twelve, she had learned to sew well and was making many of her own clothes. It didn’t always save money, but it assured that Amy Jo had the dress styles she wanted in her small Mississippi town. She grew to be a beautiful southern belle, winning the Miss Oxford and other local contests.
When it was time for college, she attended Ole Miss, graduating with her bachelor’s in chemistry. But while still a college junior, she met a handsome, twenty-four-year-old businessman from Texas. A former naval officer, he had attended a year of law school at the University of Texas—until his father became ill and he had to drop out. He now worked for Tenneco, a company that was planning to build a natural gas pipeline from the Gulf area to the northeast. Their “land man,” Charles Runnels, was sent to buy real estate access for the project. He was headquartered in Oxford. The year was 1950.
The belle and the Texan met at a dance, and began to date. As they fell in love, Charles’s attitudes about marriage, children—nearly everything—dramatically changed. Today he chuckles, “I was pleased that she wasn’t in a sorority—at that time, sorority girls were sort of snooty. She was good-looking, and I always did like pretty girls.” He confesses that Amy Jo is the only one he ever fell in love with.
Amy Jo reflects, “That decade of 1951 to 1961 was the busiest in our lives. It began with my college graduation in 1951.” Less than a year later, after a two-year courtship, Charles and Amy Jo were married on March 2, 1952. They had the distinction of being the first couple to say their vows in the Oxford Church of Christ’s brand-new building.
With the pipeline project completed, newlyweds Charles and Amy Jo Runnels moved to Houston, Tenneco’s headquarters. Their first son, Duke, was born the next year. The year after, Raleigh was born. Two years later, Tyler made his entrance in 1956. And finally, daughter Susan was born in 1958.
On top of building a family, Charles began night law school during their second year of marriage. Church friends were of tremendous support during those years. He finished his J.D. degree and passed the Texas bar exam. In 1959, when the company decided to build a pipeline on the West Coast, Runnels was their man.
Charles and Amy Jo packed up baby Susan and her three big brothers (Duke, now 6; Raleigh, 5; and Tyler, 3) and headed for Los Angeles. So the 1951-1961 decade ended in Brentwood, where they would live for a number of years. But the following decade was almost as busy.
Amy Jo fondly remembers when her boys were playing Little League baseball. She brags on her husband: “Charlie coached Little League when our kids were playing, from 1965 to 1970, and never lost a game!” The Runnelses were also very active in the Inglewood Church of Christ, where Charles served as an elder.
But from a business standpoint, things did not go so well. The federal power commission refused to approve the pipeline that Charles had come to help build. However, something else was brewing: the Runnelses were becoming involved with Pepperdine College in Los Angeles. From the time then-president M. Norvel Young met Charles, he tried to hire him to help Pepperdine. With the Tenneco project lost and with Pepperdine feeling pressure to find a more effective campus, Charles requested that he be “loaned” to Pepperdine during this critical time for the college. It was Vice President Bill Teague (later president of Abilene Christian University) who specifically urged Charles to serve on the search committee for a new campus. Teague and Runnels became fast friends. After a couple of temporary years with Pepperdine, Dr. Runnels came aboard on a permanent basis in 1967.
He was an integral part of the committee that researched more than forty possible campus sites, eventually settling on the Malibu land offered to the University by the Adamson family. It was a courageous and visionary decision.
Amid the exhilarating days leading up to the opening of the Malibu campus, tragedy struck the Runnels family: their second son, Raleigh, was diagnosed as having malignant melanoma. He received treatment and was in remission for a year. But the illness returned, and he succumbed in his senior year of high school. He had planned to be a freshman in the first year of the new college in Malibu. Friends of Charles and Amy Jo donated the funds to build an Olympic-sized pool next to Firestone Fieldhouse, naming it Raleigh Runnels Memorial Pool. It opened in January 1975.
Raleigh’s untimely passing could have caused a deep rift in the marriage of his parents. Amy Jo says that the loss was the most difficult time of her life; the foundation of her faith was shaken. Charles says that one never gets over such a tragedy. But they clung to one another, and with God’s help they survived with their marriage intact—and strengthened. The foundation shook—but didn’t break.
In 1971, Dr. Runnels was named vice president for business relations. A little later, he was appointed vice chancellor, about which Howard A. White, fifth president of Pepperdine, said, “He provided effective liaison between the University Board and the administration of the University.” Throughout these years, Dr. Runnels was a key player in finding funds for the building of the Malibu campus.
In 1977, Vice Chancellor Runnels started a program that is still going strong. The Youth Citizenship Seminar brings approximately 250 high school juniors to Malibu to hear eminent spokespersons (such as George Foreman, Art Linkletter, Tommy Lasorda, Tom Selleck, leading public servants, and various heroes) on the subjects of good citizenship, free enterprise, freedom, and faith. The young participants are selected from schools all over California, and both they and their parents speak in glowing terms of how the program impacts their lives.
On December 31, 1984, Dr. M. Norvel Young resigned as chancellor, and the Board of Regents unanimously elected Charles B. Runnels to succeed him as chancellor of the University. At Dr. Runnels’ inauguration, Howard A. White said, “Noted for his total loyalty to the institution and to each of the four presidents of Pepperdine with whom he has worked, Dr. Runnels has carried out his duties with the highest degree of effectiveness.”
In October 1985, Chancellor Runnels joined Regents Chairman Thomas G. Bost in administering the oath of office to the incoming president, David Davenport. Just as he had a close relationship with President White, Chancellor Runnels served closely with President Davenport during the fifteen years of his administration. In the year 2000, President Andrew K. Benton was inaugurated, and continuity was provided by Chancellor Runnels. Dr. Runnels has now been in the key role of chancellor for twenty years, and with the University for more than thirty-seven years—years that saw Pepperdine move from a small, unknown college in Los Angeles to a major multi-campus university headquartered in Malibu, ranked among the most prestigious institutions in the nation.
Of what things is Amy Jo Runnels most proud? Certainly her list would include earning her M.S. in gerontology from USC in later years; her relationships with Blanche Seaver, Odell McConnell, George Page, and other friends of Pepperdine; and of course, her husband, children, and six grandchildren.
And of what things is Charles Runnels most proud? The list is simple and modest: winning his naval “wings of gold;” passing the bar exam; serving as a church elder; helping to build the Malibu campus for the students (“always the students,” he would say); discovering wonderful friends; his family; and most of all, “having a wife like Amy Jo.”
It has been an adventure of faith, a remarkable partnership for Charles and Amy Jo Runnels. And thousands of us are the beneficiaries of their lives. In a day when heroes are often denigrated or diminished, these two lovely people have taken their rightful places in life’s hall of honor.
This story first appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of Pepperdine People. To read the entire magazine, please click here.