Alma Hunt, longtime WMU leader, dies

by Noel Forlini & Julie Walters, posted Monday, June 16, 2008 (10 years ago)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)--Alma Hunt, a passionate and influential leader who served as Woman's Missionary Union executive secretary for 26 years, died Saturday, June 14. She was 98.

The WMU family and extended Christian community remember her as the face of WMU as she led the national missions organization from October 1948 until October 1974.

In her autobiography, Hunt mused, "Work never allowed me time to take trips for pleasure only, yet it afforded me great pleasure. It never allowed me to take much time with my friends, but it kept me in touch with friends all the time. It never allowed me to have hobbies, but it became my hobby. In reflection, the years as WMU executive secretary seem one continuous string of adventures."

Under her leadership, WMU membership rose to more than 1.5 million as she propelled WMU into the future.

Several other events also marked Hunt's tenure: the first National Acteens Convention was held at Glorieta, N.M.; the first issue of WMU's Spanish-language Nuestra Tarea was published; the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering goal first exceeded $2 million; and "Community Missions" was renamed "Mission Action." There were other significant renaming projects as well: Woman's Missionary Society, Young Woman's Auxiliary, Girls' Auxiliary and Sunbeam organizations were reorganized and renamed as Baptist Women, Baptist Young Women, Acteens, Girls in Action and Mission Friends.

"Alma Hunt was an energetic and dynamic leader who helped move WMU forward, expanding its reach into Baptist churches with record growth for the cause of missions," said Wanda S. Lee, executive director of national WMU. "She was a truly amazing woman who selflessly served others and actively sought to develop women leaders. Her efforts directly helped to shape WMU into the premier resource for missions education and involvement that it is today in Baptist churches."

Hunt was born on Oct. 5, 1909, in Virginia's Appalachians, the daughter of William and Mary Hunt -– Virginia natives who helped spark her fire for missions. Her ardor took root at First Baptist Church in Roanoke, where Hunt's father served as a deacon. Hunt participated in Sunbeams, Girls' Auxiliary and every other activity the church offered. It was here that Hunt's understanding and fervor for the mission of God started growing.

"My family nurtured me in a wonderful way, and the best thing they did was establish our family in church," Hunt wrote. "I can't remember an early day when I didn't belong to Sunbeam Band." This involvement precipitated Hunt's decision for Christ and baptism at age 10 and spurred her to teach Sunday School at age 12.

Eventually, these experiences became the catalyst for choosing teaching as a profession. Her first class was composed of 52 third- and fourth-graders, and this auspicious start prepared her to accept the greater responsibility of principal when the position was offered two years later. In the midst of her professional success, however, another passion was stirring just beneath the surface.

At age 21, she ventured out of her home state for the first time to attend the Young Woman's Auxiliary in North Carolina. There, Hunt's knowledge and enthusiasm about missions skyrocketed. "I felt like I was abroad with leaders in missions, with missionaries to distant lands, and with girls from all over -- even from faraway Texas. I found that I enjoyed new places," Hunt said. "Mission study set my sights on places and people so far away that I could see them only in print and through missionaries' reports."

Through YWA, Hunt met several influential women who tried to direct her course away from teaching and toward missions. Juliette Mather, young people's secretary for WMU, tried to persuade Hunt to drop teaching and enroll in the WMU Training School in Louisville, Ky. This steering was perhaps divine foreshadowing of what was just a few years away. Although Hunt acknowledged that her "heart was in missions above all else," there was no real thrust yet in that direction. All that soon changed.

When then-WMU executive secretary Kathleen Mallory announced her retirement in 1948, the WMU family was astonished. As the nominating committee scrambled to find a replacement, several candidates were suggested, but each refused the position. After several failed attempts, Cora McWilliams, chair of the nominating committee, brought Hunt's name to the table.

Meanwhile, Hunt was in her fourth year as William Jewell College's dean of women in Liberty, Mo., a position she cherished. She quickly declined and even sent a list of reasons why she was unqualified. Still, God continued to knock on Hunt's door through women involved in WMU.

A few weeks later, McWilliams went to see Hunt, and she slowly began to change her mind. Hunt agonized for days, not wanting to leave William Jewell College. But, she eventually felt "a sense of rightness" about the job. Hunt began work at WMU in Birmingham, Ala., at age 38 and ushered in a new era for the national missions organization. Throughout her years in Birmingham, she was an active member of Southside Baptist Church.

Hunt's work with WMU led her to 87 countries, and as volunteer consultant for women's work overseas for the Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board), she worked in 45 nations to develop women in leadership and service from 1976-79. Later, she returned to her native city of Roanoke and continued to travel the nation and the globe as an advocate for missions. In all, she traveled to 93 countries.

In addition to her involvement in WMU and with the Foreign Mission Board, she also served as president of North American Baptist Women's Union from 1964-67 and as vice president of the Baptist World Alliance's women's department from 1970-75.

"Alma Hunt was a mentor who became my friend," reflected Carolyn Crumpler, who was named executive director of national WMU when Hunt retired. Crumpler said she first met Hunt in 1956 but had admired her leadership many years prior while active in Young Woman's Auxiliary on the campus of Florida State University. When Crumpler assumed leadership of national WMU in 1974, 18 years after their initial meeting, she said Hunt extended a very warm welcome. "I admired her poise and ability to connect with anybody. She literally went out into all the world and went as someone who sincerely cared."

"I know of no purpose as fulfilling as feeling yourself used for what you believe to be the plan God created for you to follow," Hunt said. At age 85, she took her last foreign trip and decided to retire. However, retirement is a relative term when speaking of Hunt. Throughout her retirement, she still advocated for women's involvement in missions and in the overall mission of God. She continued to speak at various churches, civic groups and religious organizations.

"Miss Hunt was a woman deeply devoted to God and dedicated to engaging others in missions so that others could know Jesus," said Kaye Miller, national WMU president. "Her legacy is one of faithfulness and committed service to the Lord, a missional lifestyle that she modeled all the days of her life."

Hunt continued to serve on several boards and played an active role at Rosalind Hills Baptist Church in Roanoke, where she had been a member since 2003.

Hunt graduated from State Teacher's College in Farmville, Va. (now Longwood University) in 1941. She earned a master of arts degree at Columbia University in 1947 and was awarded an honorary doctor of humanities degree from William Jewel College and an honorary doctor of divinity degree from the University of Richmond.

Several other organizations have honored her lifetime service. The national WMU headquarters in Birmingham, Ala., named its archives the Alma Hunt Museum, which houses her personal missions memorabilia. The John Leland Center for Theological Studies in northern Virginia named its library, Alma Hunt Library, in her honor.

In 1997, Alma Hunt Cottage was built in Salem, Va., as part of the developmental disabilities ministry of Hope Tree Family Services (formerly known as the Virginia Baptist Children's Home). In addition, the Alma Hunt Offering for Virginia Missions was named in her honor in 1998 by Virginia Woman's Missionary Union and the Baptist General Association of Virginia. Since then, nearly $10 million has been given though this annual offering for Christian ministries throughout Virginia and the world.

John V. Upton, executive director for the Baptist General Association of Virginia, said, "Because of her example and faithfulness, Virginia Baptists will always remember her. She has heralded the cause of missions straight from her heart. When Virginia Baptists were shaping a new vision for the 21st century, she was its first champion. She has been a bold and influential leader not only for women, but also for all Baptists around the world and especially for Virginia Baptists."

Dellanna O'Brien, executive director of national WMU from 1989–99, said, "Alma was a giant of a woman, although her frame was small. I was blessed to know and love her and attempt to learn from her experience. We have lost a dear follower of Christ, much loved by a multitude of people."

Hunt is survived by her nephew, William Dickinson "Dickie" Roe Jr. of Roanoke, and niece, Mary Anna Hunt of Indianapolis and numerous great-nieces and nephews.

Visitation will be from 7–9 p.m. (Eastern) Tuesday, June 17, at Oakey's Chapel in downtown Roanoke, Va. Funeral services will be at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Rosalind Hills Baptist Church in Roanoke. Burial will follow at the family plot in Evergreen Cemetery in Roanoke.

The family requests that memorials be sent to WMU, SBC, 100 Missionary Ridge, Birmingham, AL 35242-5235; WMU of Virginia, P.O. Box 8435, Richmond, VA 23226; or Baptist World Alliance, c/o General Fund, 405 North Washington St., Falls Church, VA 22046.

Noel Forlini is a freelance writer and student at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala.; Julie Walters is WMU's communications specialist.

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