Tom Olbricht significantly contributed to theological education in Churches of Christ and to the broader world of scholarship in rhetorical studies, church history and congregational life. He served vital academic and administrative roles during his years at Harding (1954-55), Dubuque (1955-59), Penn State (1962-67), ACU (1967-86), and Pepperdine (1986-96). In these contexts his scholarly work and leadership brought national and international recognition to each university.
Stories of Tom’s impact abound.
When I took my first class with Tom Olbricht he asked questions I didn’t know we should ask, pointed to books I didn’t know we should read and raised “paradigmatic” issues. Then with the door opened, Tom enlarged the world by setting us on a path of discovery and engagement.
I’d been warned about Tom before sitting in his classroom. “He’ll tell you what von Rad & Bultmann think, but he won’t tell you what you are supposed to think.” Which proved true and was one secret to his genius.
Tom’s students were famous for doing imitations. His voice, his hand movements. Some of us, like Mike Casey, Dave Bland and others imitated Tom’s academic training with PhDs in rhetoric along with an MDiv.
But Tom was sui generis. A renaissance man whom no one could imitate.
Some years ago, when we were doing the Rochester Sermon Seminar and producing annual volumes on preaching, we had all the writers to our home for a luncheon meeting. Biblical scholars, theologians, historians, homileticians and practitioners gathered in the living room for conversation on the forthcoming book. That year the subject was Preaching from the Gospel of John and Gail O’Day, who’d soon become Dean of Wake Forest School of Divinity, was in the room, as was Tom.
We had no idea they knew one another until Gail said, “Tom, I’ve always wanted to thank you for taking seriously my work when you responded to the essay I presented at my very first SBL meeting.”
To which Tom immediately replied, “I’ve always said, ‘Be kind to people on their way up, so they’ll be kind to you on your way down.’”
Of course, despite his failing physical health, Tom was never on his way down.
His stunning intellect, curiosity and correspondence were evident to the very time of his passing. Book reviews, sermons, essays and other writing projects in publication are still forthcoming from this remarkable man, who at 90 continued to engage us all.
We are better for his life and work and in his passing are encouraged, not to imitate him, but be emboldened and sustained by the life and work of our mentor and friend.
In the words of Carl Holladay, “Somehow this towering intellect has resided within the body of an authentic minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ – this child of the Church of Christ, who sings its songs, prays its prayers, presides over its Lord’s Supper, preaches its doctrine, studies its Scriptures, ministers to its sick, comforts its brokenhearted, laments it divisions, and enacts its code of love.”
Indeed, Tom Olbricht is a man to whom we all owe much.
Rest in peace.