Moments that define and refine the heart of a leader
By Shelly Barsuhn
In his senior year of high school, in the middle of a Friday night football game while thousands of people cheered for the home team, Alan Cureton sat alone on the team bench and rededicated his life to serving Jesus. “Until that moment,” he said, “I had completely focused on becoming a football star.” At the start of his senior season the coaches had slotted him to be on the field for every play. But on the first defensive play of the first game of the year, he was blocked below the knee and injured. With a severe high ankle sprain, he sat out a long week of practice. On the very first defensive play of the next game—his first chance to be back out onto the field—the same thing happened to his other ankle.
Detours and new destinations
His injuries caused him to see that he had placed his hopes and dreams on the vanity of playing football. “Due to my injuries and inability to play,” he recalled, “my coach changed the lineup and replaced me as a starter. God used that to recapture my heart.”
God brought “an overwhelming presence of the Holy Spirit” into Cureton’s life. Although he eventually continued to play as an offensive lineman during college, he decided that “the goal of big time athletics was a thing of the past for me.”
It was time to focus on ascertaining his calling in life. It was time to think about college.
Although his high school guidance counselor discouraged his college dreams, Cureton pushed forward at the urging of his pastor and enrolled at Sterling College in Kansas, where he found professors who supported and invested in him. “They said, ‘You have a brain, you have a mind. Use it.’ I studied a variety of courses, like Greek and British Literature, and thought, ‘Oh wow, this is fun.’”
He had intended to be a pastor but after a church internship he was surprised that he didn’t find his calling being fulfilled through work in the local church. “I thought, ‘Okay, Lord, now what?’”
Several of his friends suggested a career in Christian higher education. When he graduated with a degree in Bible and Christian education, the seed was planted. The dream would follow him through his first jobs (lumberjack, carpenter, restaurant manager), into graduate school and into a variety of college and university roles.
Cureton was first contacted by Northwestern College while serving as vice president of university advancement at John Brown University (Arkansas). The interview was “delightful” but when first offered the position, he turned it down. Life was comfortable. The family was settled. The university was experiencing growth and success. Why leave?
When other colleges began contacting him about their presidential vacancies, he and Gayle continued to pray for understanding and sensed God saying to them, “How can I lead you if you’re not open?”
Contacted again by representatives of Northwestern, the Curetons agreed to further conversations and later accepted an invitation to an on-campus interview.
“We were overwhelmed by the entire interview process and the quality of the organization,” said Cureton. “After dinner in the president’s conference room with members of student government, each student laid hands on us and prayed for us.” This time when the offer came, both he and Gayle said “Yes.”
While it has been exciting to help Northwestern mature into a solid, comprehensive academic institution with a growing media ministry, change can be uncomfortable, creating strong emotions and some opposition to moving away from the intimacy of a small college. So “leadership can sometimes be lonely,” he acknowledged.
Today he isn’t too far afield of his original plan of becoming a pastor. “In many respects what I do is pastoral,” he said. “I lead an organization that has physical requirements but also spiritual requirements. I try to relate to people on the deepest level and to reflect—maybe not always successfully—the fruit of the Spirit. I’m accountable.”
Cureton shares his life with Gayle, his college sweetheart, and they make a balanced team. He is extroverted; she is introverted. He loves to travel; she prefers home. He likes activity; she loves to read and
reflect. But they agree on their love for Northwestern College. The two greet arriving families at orientation and regularly attend Northwestern College theatrical, musical and athletic events. They host student dinners and donor gatherings and are very much the face of Northwestern to a variety of constituents. “We’re in this together,” said Cureton.
The Curetons have three children, Luke, Rachel and Michael, now grown and married. Grandchildren—toddler Jack Alan and baby Isabelle Rose—have added an extra layer of joy to their lives.
But there has been difficulty, too. Last March, their son-in-law and daughter, who was 36 weeks pregnant with their first child, experienced the stillbirth of their daughter Anna Kay. The family has had to face the challenge of trusting God even in blinding sorrow, when there were no answers to their questions.
Cureton has sought to accept refining moments, such as this, in his life. “When I look back I see God’s hands. I see how He molded and shaped me for this life. It hasn’t been all praise songs, but I’m glad God has deepened my walk with Him, even through trials and adversity.”