For more than 68 years, M. Norvel and Helen Young have been a guiding light of grace and vision for Pepperdine University. Earlier this fall, with the dedication of the Young Center on the Drescher campus, this couple was acknowledged as an invaluable and central part of the University’s history.
Natives of Tennessee and Oklahoma, Norvel and Helen were impacted by Christian education throughout their youth—Helen attended Harding and Pepperdine while Norvel attended David Lipscomb and Abilene Christian. Both later received advanced degrees from Vanderbilt University.
At the threshold of World War II, Norvel traveled to Europe and Asia before returning to the U.S. to take a professorship at Pepperdine, where Helen was a college senior. After their serendipitous meeting and courtship, Norvel proposed marriage and promised Helen that he would make her ‘forever young,’ which later inspired the title of Jerry Rushford and Bill Henegar’s biography of the couple. Hitler invaded Poland the day after their wedding.
While working on his Ph.D. at Vanderbilt, Norvel became a minister at the College Church of Christ in Lubbock, Texas. A few years later, at the age of 28, he took the pulpit at the Broadway Church of Christ. During his 13-year tenure, Norvel, who had been exposed to the darkness of a divided Europe in his travels, started Germany for Christ, a publication that raised half a million dollars to start war relief efforts for the suffering citizens of Germany. In 1949, the Youngs were granted permission by the U.S. Army to rent a mansion in Frankfurt, from which they delivered food and supplies to the suffering community. “Those were very hard times in Germany,” Helen recalled. “There was still so much suffering—even mayors were going hungry.”
In Texas, Norvel later led efforts to finance and build a new 2,200 seat cathedral-style building for the Broadway Church of Christ. He and Helen were involved in the opening of the Children’s Home of Lubbock and Lubbock Christian College as well as the creation of the publications 20th Century Christian and Power for Today. “Norvel found more satisfaction in influencing people to change for the better than in preaching,” noted Rushford and Henegar. It was this devotion and energy that would later influence Pepperdine’s development.
In 1957, Pepperdine asked the Youngs to return to California, where Norvel became president of what was then George Pepperdine College. The college was facing issues of financial insecurity and low enrollment, but Helen recalled George commenting that if he were to die that day he would be a happy man, because he knew that the school was in good hands.
Despite the threat of the school’s decline, Sara Young Jackson said of her father, “His indomitable optimism and belief in the promise of tomorrow kept him continually dreaming of what could be.” Norvel was quoted as asking, “How can you be pessimistic when the future is as bright as the promises of God?”
Helen partnered with Helen Pepperdine to raise funds for the college by hosting a luncheon on the President’s lawn—this was to be the first gathering of the Associated Women for Pepperdine. “We offered more than money, we offered goodwill and encouragement to students,” said Helen. Today, AWP has raised over $4 million in academic scholarships.
It was during this season that Pepperdine became “one of the kids” in the Young family. Evenings were spent creating a community of friends who would eventually build Pepperdine into a university. Warren Curry, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission (URM), recalled the friendship that Norvel and Helen offered the undergraduate school’s namesake, Blanche Seaver. “Norvel would take her out to her husband’s grave time and again, offering a prayer of encouragement and strength,” said Curry. In the end, this personal connection inspired Blanche to leave money to Pepperdine. Encounters such as these mark the Young tradition. “Their legacy was that of personal integrity,” said Jackson. “They taught this through being genuine, deep, faith-filled people who were unwilling to compromise who they were.”
Throughout their lives, the Youngs made the acquaintance of the famous and fortunate. They are pictured in Forever Young with presidents, prime ministers, dignitaries, and stars. “Though the Youngs moved through life in a most regal manner, those with whom they interacted were warmed, rather than intimidated,” said Rushford and Henegar. Their transparent lives offered an opportunity to relate to others amidst the storms and celebrations of life. Over the years, they befriended the Thorntons, Graziadios, Seavers, Firestones, and others who would later become the University’s cornerstones.
In the wake of the Watts Riots, which threatened the existence of the campus on 79th and Vermont Avenue, a committee was formed to begin looking for a new location. “Norvel’s dream was to keep the school alive and my dream was to help his dream,” said chancellor Charles Runnels. With the help of Regent George Evans, financial advisor to the Adamsons, prime Los Angeles real estate owners, a land gift of 138 acres in Malibu was finally secured as the University’s new home. But it was a gift from Richard Scaife that enabled the reconstruction of the Malibu mountainside and made way for the “Miracle at Malibu.”
“Our family has always felt this prime Rancho Malibu land should be held for an outstanding and special use,” said Merritt Adamson. “In making this gift of land to Pepperdine, we were helping to fulfill the destiny of the property.”
In February of 1970, Norvel started a campaign to raise $24.5 million to fund the building of a new campus in Malibu. At the dedication of the site in May of that year, vice president Bill Banowsky said, “What we hope to create here, in these hills, is a spirit of place—a place where minds will be openÂed, where lives will be changed.” In six years, the campus was funded, constructed, and equipped for the arrival of students.
During Norvel’s presidency, the student body had grown from 950 to 9,500. Among the achievements in the years that followed were the creation of a study-abroad program in Heidelberg, Germany and the opening of satellite campuses for the Law School, the School of Business, and the Graduate School of Education and Psychology.
“What I love the most about Pepperdine is our record for training excellent teachers, because through them we impact the world,” said Helen.
“Helen and Norvel were driven by the fact that they knew they were helping young people,” said Runnels. “Norvel wouldn’t have kept at it if he were selling oil—there was something about changing lives for good that kept him getting up every morning until the very end.” Norvel was known for saying “It’s a great day to be aliveâ€¦in Malibu!”
Shortly after the dedication of the Malibu campus, Norvel announced that Banowsky would take over as the University’s president. Norvel became chancellor, and later, chancellor emeritus for Pepperdine and he and Helen moved into and assisted in the restoration of the Adamson-Rindge home, which they turned over to the state 13 years later as a historical site.
Norvel became a member of the board at the URM in 1981, serving as its vice chairman during the campaign for the URM building that opened a decade later. “Norvel was the kind of guy who made everyone feel special. He had a grace about him that made people feel like they were really accomplishing a great work,” said Curry. His role, and later Helen’s, established Pepperdine’s partnership with the URM, where students and alumni continue to work as practitioners of law and psychology.
Norvel and Helen served Pepperdine and countless other organizations tirelessly throughout both the best and worst seasons of their lives. In their later years they both continued to speak, write, teach, and travel. Their passionate partnership and love for their family led to the founding of the Center for the Family in 1996, which provides counseling, workshops, and seminars that promote positive relationships and strengthen family bonds.
When Norvel passed away in 1998, he left a tremendous legacy to his loving wife, their children, and many grandchildren. “Pepperdine has far exceeded our fondest dreams both in terms of strength and reputation,” said Helen.
“It is only appropriate that the Young name will always have a prominent place on this Malibu campus,” said Runnels. “That way their name will be forever etched in the history of our University.” Jackson added, “It is a tangible way of remembering their sacrifice to Pepperdine and a way of carrying on their legacy. I hope that when people see the building, their pictures, and their story, that they will have a sense of who they were.”