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New Kid in Town

Updated: Dec 22, 2019

Rev. J.L. Vass

One of the ways in which God never ceases to amaze me is in how He prepares people to be in the right place at the right time to receive His call for service. The Rev. J.L. Vass played an important role in getting the Connie Maxwell Orphanage up and running. He oversaw getting the first buildings built, hired the first child-caring staff, admitted the first children into care and took on the daunting task of raising ongoing support for the orphanage at a time when the nation was suffering through a depression that wouldn't be matched until the Great Depression hit nearly 40 years later.

But as the orphanage prepared to move into the 20th Century, Vass knew he wasn't the one to carry the ministry forward. According to Dr. Alan Keith-Lucas in his book, "Hope and Healing: The First Hundred Years of Connie Maxwell History," various vexing conflicts arose during Vass's years as superintendent. Although he was the top administrator, he had to navigate his job with a board that was very much hands-on and involved in the daily affairs of the work in those early years. Dr. John Maxwell, the orphanage's chief benefactor served as president and J.K. Durst as secretary-treasurer. Both were caring, committed men but also apparently quite formidable as well. Both the 12-member board of trustees, which met monthly at Maxwell's house, and Greenwood Baptist Church became divided over Vass's leadership early on which created drag throughout his administration. An almost new board was elected in 1896 in an effort to resolve the issues although Dr. Maxwell was prevailed upon to stay on after saying he would not serve. (Maxwell ended up staying two more years before health issues led him to retire.) Despite these efforts, however, things continued to be so rocky for Vass that he declined to be reelected to the superintendent's position in 1899.

The exact nature of the conflict is not really known. Vass's strengths seemed to have been in promoting the orphanage and managing the budget but he apparently struggled in the day-to-day management of staff and children. It is known that he had a major run-in with the home manager and his wife over the opening of a letter but it is likely that there were deeper reasons than that for the divisions that arose. Keith-Lucas speculates there may have been conflicts over punishments for children and the condoning of poor performance by staff.

Whatever the exact nature of the conflicts, they led Vass to leave some interesting nuggets of advice in a letter to his successor. "You will will get lots of advice, some wise and some otherwise," he wrote. "Don't expect to please anybody except the Lord." In another part of the letter, he said, "Don't believe everything you hear and only half of what you see."

Dr. Atha T. Jamison

With such conflict, it could have been expected for the organization to struggle or possibly even fail. But even as Vass was stepping away to return to the pastorate, God was preparing the young man who would lead the orphanage for nearly half a century -- Atha T. Jamison. The pastor of the Baptist church at Camden, the 36-year-old Jamison hadn't been involved in the wrangling over Vass's leadership. He was considered to be "no man's man and every man's man" who was serving as the assistant secretary of the South Carolina Baptist Convention in 1899 and emerged as a compromise candidate for the position. Jamison wasn't looking for the job and didn't expect to receive it, according to Keith-Lucas. And he didn't take the job right away either. Despite being elected by the Convention after being nominated by Vass himself, he didn't accept the position until two weeks later.

But once he accepted the call, Jamison poured his heart and soul into learning everything he could about modern childcare and became an innovative player in the field both at home in South Carolina and on the national stage.

The snippet of "The Connie Maxwell Story" included above deals with the transition from Vass to Jamison. As you can see, there's a great need for additional photographs of Jamison and the staff at work during his years at Connie Maxwell. If you are reading this and aware of additional material, please send me an e-mail. It will be greatly appreciated.


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