James H. Salley: Generous gift continues legacy of sharing

By Barbara Dunlap-Berg

Growing up on a small farm in South Carolina, James H. “Jim” Salley never dreamed of becoming the associate vice chancellor for institutional advancement at Africa University, the first university founded by the General Conference of The United Methodist Church on the continent. Nor did he expect to give more than $130,000 to establish an endowed scholarship to honor his parents and ensure exemplary education for students from across Africa.

But that’s the story.

“My father was a carpenter and small-scale farmer,” Salley recalls. “Mother was a housewife and protector of her children. They both grew up hard. Mother was the daughter of a big-scale farmer whose father and mother made a living from the farm in Allendale County, South Carolina. Grandmother and Grandfather were not sharecroppers. They owned the farm.

“Mama and Dad fell in love, got married, settled in my father’s hometown of Orangeburg, S.C., and raised my four sisters and me on a small farm.”

They produced much of their food. “We grew sugar cane, made syrup, and everyone in the community received a quart mason jar of syrup,” Salley says. “Vegetables were shared, and if someone was in trouble, [my parents] went to see about them. We were taught to love everybody, and yes, you are your brother's keeper. They sacrificed that we might have a better life.”

They modeled Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:12. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And they taught by example. “When we learned something,” Salley remembers, “we were encouraged to share.” Their philosophy? “Education does you no good if you keep the knowledge in your own brain. Get all the education you can to better yourself and help others.”

Salley took their life lessons to heart. He graduated from South Carolina State University, eventually directing institutional advancement at his alma mater.

By 1986, Salley was a director of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. In Nairobi, Kenya, he participated in initial conversations about establishing a United Methodist university in Africa. Later, as a member of the site-selection committee, Salley participated in planning and presenting the project to the 1988 General Conference. Delegates approved the proposal.

‘A dream come true’

Israel Kamudzandu was one of the first students at the new university.

“I have vivid memories,” he says, “of receiving God’s call on my life when I was training as a teacher at Nyadire Mission, east of Harare. Upon graduation, Bishop Christopher Jokomo encouraged me to join Africa University and enroll in the Faculty of Theology. In 1993, I enrolled at Africa University as the second group of students, together with others in the Faculty of Agriculture. We were 14 in total.”

Most of his professors were missionaries from the United States, with a few from Africa.

“My first week at Africa University opened a new vision … that would see me embracing the global village,” Kamudzandu continues. “It was a dream come true. Africa University became a place of new dreams, not just for me, but also for many students from all over the continent of Africa.”

His introduction to Salley made a lasting impression.

“Right away,” Kamudzandu says, “students fell in love with him. With his oratory voice, we were all convinced that the continent of Africa, through him, was never going to be the same.”

Salley recruited a handful of students to distribute AU flyers around the community.

“Salley was a grassroots organizer and a strategic thinker, whose passion moved him to get to know the people and culture of Zimbabwe. Students, faculty and stuff saw him as a wise steward whose focus was on investing resources for Africa University as an institution whose mission was matchless but unique.”

Kamudzandu credits Salley with being “the first person to clearly communicate the mission and vision of Africa University. He was never afraid to invite people into the future of Africa University. He always had a well-developed public relations program that communicated the case, and he shared a compelling, comprehensive fundraising program.”

Today Kamudzandu is an associate professor at Saint Paul School of Theology, Leawood, Kan. He is confident that had Salley not been a part of his life, he never would have earned a theological degree and, eventually, a doctorate.

“My parents,” he says, “would have been unable to pay for my education at Africa University.” Salley encouraged him and other students to share their stories with potential donors. “My life,” Kamudzandu declares, “is a testimony to the work, energy and networks of Mr. Salley. He is not just a friend to me but [also] a dear brother in Christ. Students love Mr. Salley so much that if he calls for a meeting of all AU alumni, it will not be a surprise that they will all show up.”

Phenomenal growth

For more than a quarter of a century, Salley has told others about the university and raised funds for it through United Methodist churches and other venues. Since becoming associate vice chancellor for institutional advancement for AU in 1992, he has been on the Mutare, Zimbabwe, campus at least 114 times.

With his leadership, Africa University has grown from 40 students in renovated farm buildings to 1,600 students, with more than 8,000 graduates and 44 modern buildings. The university endowment fund now stands at $77.5 million.

The typical AU student, Salley notes, is “a first-generation university attendee, rural, multilingual after the first year, international after the second, with a hunger for knowledge and a will to change Africa and the world. The students are ethically and morally grounded and have a different air about them.”

Students must spend a year in their field of study off campus. “More than 90 percent of our graduates remain on the continent of Africa, and we have a 96 percent graduation rate,” Salley says.

The average annual cost for an undergraduate Africa University student is less than $6,000. Yet, most aspiring students come from African countries where the average income ranges from 46 cents to $2 a day.

“Ten thousand dollars,” Salley explains, “endows a named scholarship in perpetuity. The $130,000-plus that I have provided assures that a student matriculates under the name of Marie and James Salley throughout the life of the institution. The interest earned from the gift is given as a scholarship to the students.” The principal is never touched.

“Endowed scholarships,” Salley says, “help educate students now and in the future. Endowed gifts continue to grow and sustain the institution.”

Dr. Don Fowler, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina and a member of Washington Street United Methodist Church, Columbia, S.C., has known Salley for years. He believes the gift speaks of Salley’s faith, compassion, character and deep love for family and community.

Advancing the body of Christ

“It’s not uncommon for rich folks to make large gifts,” Fowler asserts, “but James Salley is not a rich person. For him to have accumulated these funds, devoted them to such a worthy cause, and do so in honor of his parents who were such wonderful people, is very inspiring and truly rare. I’ve known Jim for a long time. He has great empathy for people and especially for those who are in less-fortunate circumstances.”

Salley’s commitment doesn’t begin and end with Africa University, however. Historically black colleges and universities are also his passion.

“I have been blessed to raise and enable the funding of millions for HBCUs related to The United Methodist Church, church entities and other philanthropic organizations,” he says. “I deem it a high privilege and gift from God to be able to enable the advancement of the body of Christ in this way.”

The Rev. Whittaker V. Middleton is vice president of institutional advancement at Claflin University, one of United Methodism’s historically black institutions.

“Mr. Salley has been my colleague, friend and brother for many years,” Middleton says. “He is a loyal supporter of Claflin University and holds an honorary degree from the institution. A few years back, Mr. Salley helped Claflin win a $1 million award from the Peter D. and Eleanor A. Kleist Foundation.”

Middleton says Salley’s gift to AU “tells us where his heart is.”

He continues, “As a United Methodist pastor, I am proud to have worked to support Africa University for many years. The thing that stirs me most about giving to AU is seeing the great young people that it produces. I especially love to see the glimmer in students’ eyes as they begin to realize the opportunity that education gives them to make something great of themselves.”

Such a generous gift of an endowed scholarship may seem impossible to many. “Give what you have,” Salley advises, “and trust God to provide the increase. Give from the heart and do the best you can. Give cheerfully because God loves a cheerful giver.

“You have to start somewhere. I'm blessed to be able to see the fruit of my labor in my lifetime. Others can do the same.”

‘Walking the talk’

Grace Muradzikwa, now in her second term on the Africa University board, says Salley “is walking the talk.” His gift “will make him even stronger in his advocacy work for the university.”

Asked what excites him most about supporting Africa University, Salley says, “The ministry of education – providing the catalyst for a student to enter university, graduate and become a solid citizen of Africa and the world. It's all being done in the name of Jesus Christ. It's an institution that is changing the world.”

Barbara Dunlap-Berg, a retired writer and editor for United Methodist Communications, lives in Carbondale, Ill.

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