Born in New Zealand in 1907, the eldest of five children, Gordon McDowell was raised Presbyterian but he attended church less regularly after the death of his mother when he was aged 14.
Gordon did well in school and became head prefect and dux, showing early his academic potential. Gaining a scholarship to the University of Otago, he graduated in 1930 with a BA degree and secondary teaching credential. A committed sportsman, he was also a proficient boxer.
Jobs were hard to find in 1931 so Gordon spent most of the year tutoring before becoming a sole charge primary teacher near Wanganui.
While there he met Laurie Naden, a young Adventist pastor. In time Gordon became an Adventist, even though that seriously limited the tennis, golf, cricket and skiing which had filled his weekends. After his baptism in a freezing mountain stream Gordon became interested in the history of the local area, with his findings later incorporated into his MA degree studies. In June 1934 Gordon took up a high school teaching position near Timaru. When he began attending Timaru church he found a rather attractive young lady there—pastor’s daughter Rita Whitaker—and they married in 1935, a union that lasted 64 years.
In 1936 Gordon took up leadership of the Adventist school at Papanui—beginning a career in Adventist education that was to last four decades. This was a landmark decision—not only for Gordon but the Church itself. He was only the second teacher in the Adventist schools of Australia and New Zealand to hold a bachelor’s degree. In 1937, when he completed his MA degree, he became the first Adventist educator in the South Pacific to ever hold that award. His work load at Papanui was huge, teaching most of the secondary subjects with little time for preparation during the school day.
Greatly influenced by the book Education by Ellen White, Gordon developed into a mature Christian, learning to have a balanced life with stimulating academic and spiritual growth, and physical activity. He loved mountain climbing and classical music. During these years Rita taught dressmaking to the girls at Papanui.
From January 1942 Gordon was principal of the schools at Wahroonga and Burwood in Sydney until 1946, when he was sent by the Church to undertake doctoral studies at Columbia University in New York.
For a brief time, Dwight Eisenhower was president of the university, after retiring from the army and before becoming the president of the United States. It soon became a delight for Gordon to show students his Columbia University Ed.D testamur, framed and hanging in his office, and signed by a US president!
A committed sportsman, he was also a proficient boxer.
After finishing at Columbia, though he received lucrative job offers, Gordon remained in denominational service, first teaching at La Sierra College, California, before becoming registrar at Avondale College until 1951 when he became the principal of Longburn College, back home in New Zealand. The main administration and classroom block was built while he was there.
Next “Doc” served four years as education director for the then Australasian Division. From 1959 Gordon began a remarkable 12 years as Avondale College principal. With the Division president, L C Naden, being not only chairman of the College Board but also the pastor who brought Gordon into the Church, a formidable partnership was formed that led to some major upgrades at Avondale, with the White Memorial Building and Watson Hall being two of the larger projects of the time.
Dr McDowell got along well with the students, who found him personable and congenial but, as is often the case with visionary leaders, not so well with those on his team who typically found this man, who was always in a great hurry, quite demanding to work for.
After four more years as the Division director of education, “Mac” retired in 1977, still maintaining his interest in educational issues by regular catch-ups with his successors at the Division office. Rita died in 2000 and Gordon continued on for another year, vision impaired but as mentally alert and sharp as ever before going to his rest at 93 years of age. There will never be another Gordon McDowell!
* The main source for this brief synopsis was a life sketch by Dr Trevor Lloyd.
Lester Devine is director emeritus of the Ellen G White/Adventist Research Centre at Avondale College of Higher Education.