Mercer University Icon ‘Papa Joe’ Hendricks Dies at 81


MACON – One of Mercer University's longest-serving and most beloved faculty members, Dr. Joseph M. Hendricks – affectionately known as “Papa Joe” – died late Saturday night. He was a 1955 graduate of the College of Liberal Arts and a faculty member and administrator at the University for more than 40 years.

The family has planned a private burial. A public memorial service will be held on campus early next year, and details will be released when they are finalized.

Dr. Hendricks, 81, was an instrumental figure at Mercer during the Civil Rights Movement, as he helped bring the first black student, Sam Oni, to campus in 1963. With the enduring belief that Mercer is a family rather than just an institution, Dr. Hendricks worked relentlessly to make diversity an asset for the University community. He also helped start Mercer's Upward Bound program, one of the first in the nation. For his efforts, a group of alumni, faculty and staff created the Joe Hendricks Minority Endowed Scholarship Fund in his honor to help minority undergraduate students afford a Mercer education.

“As the Mercer family mourns our loss of Joe Hendricks, we remember that Papa Joe continues to live on through the lives of the thousands of students he nurtured, through the work of scores of colleagues he shaped, and through the character of this University which he inspired,” said Mercer President William D. Underwood. “The soul of our University will forever bear the imprint of Papa Joe; his legacy will endure as long as students walk the halls of Mercer.”

A native of Talbot County, Georgia, Dr. Hendricks led the Mercer student body as Student Government Association president during his senior year from 1954 to 1955 and was presented with the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award, the highest non-scholastic honor a Mercer student can receive. After completing his undergraduate work at Mercer, Dr. Hendricks earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He then began postgraduate work at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, and after joining the Mercer faculty, he later earned his doctorate from Emory's Institute for the Liberal Arts. He also received an honorary Doctor of Laws from Atlanta Law School in 1972.

Following his seminary studies, Dr. Hendricks returned to Mercer in 1959 as director of religious activities. During his long Mercer career, he also served as dean of men, dean of students, general assistant to President Rufus C. Harris and acting vice president of academic affairs. Also a faculty member, Dr. Hendricks taught as a professor of Christianity and founded the Freshman Seminar program in 1970 with his sister Dr. Jean Hendricks, who also taught at Mercer. In 2010, the Joe and Jean Hendricks Award for Excellence in Teaching was established to honor their life's work as educators and to recognize an outstanding faculty member. Later in his career, Dr. Hendricks served as the University marshal and as a faculty adviser to Mercer University Press before retiring in 2000. Even in retirement, he continued to serve as an ambassador for the University, traveling to numerous alumni events across the Southeast.

“Joe Hendricks was a singularly compelling figure in the history of Mercer University. For a generation of students, he was not only their most influential teacher but also became their moral compass. He taught with passion and he embraced students with a listening ear and genuine respect. He taught all of us that coming to the University was not only a journey of learning, but also a journey of wrestling with the values that should shape our lives,” said Mercer Chancellor Dr. R. Kirby Godsey, who served as the University's president from 1979 to 2006.

“Joe was fearless in addressing the social ills of our community. He challenged and inspired each of us to take responsibility for confronting prejudice and bigotry whether in race or religion or sexual identity,” Dr. Godsey said. “On a personal note, Joe Hendricks served President Rufus Harris as well as my administration with both diplomacy and good judgment. Joe Hendricks was a university and a community statesman whose courageous and sometimes prophetic voice surely made Mercer a better university and made Macon a better community.”

At commencement in 1991, Dr. Hendricks received the Spencer B. King Jr. Distinguished Professor Award, presented annually to a faculty member who embodies high standards of scholarship and teaching. In the fall of 1994, he was awarded a certificate of merit from the National Academic Advising Association in recognition of his excellence in academic advising and was honored at the organization's annual conference. Annually, the Student Government Association recognizes a current Mercer student with the Papa Joe Hendricks Award for Positive Contributions to the Mercer Community.

An ordained minister, Dr. Hendricks pastored several churches, including Bland Memorial Baptist Church in Louvale, Junction City Baptist Church in Junction City, Geneva Baptist Church in Geneva, and Alpha Baptist Church in Deputy, Indiana. He also served an interim pastorate at First Baptist Church in Gray while working at Mercer. With Will Campbell, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton and other dissenting Christians, he helped form the Committee of Southern Churchmen to bring a radically theological perspective to addressing the racism built into human nature.

As a human rights activist, Dr. Hendricks staunchly believed in the equality of all people and was a force for good in the local community. He served as president of the Macon Council on Human Relations from 1961 to 1963, president of the Georgia Council on Human Relations from 1964 to 1967, and worked with the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as the State Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In 1976, First Baptist Church recognized Dr. Hendricks with an award for his outstanding contributions to race relations in Macon, and he received the inaugural Kaplan-Kalish Good Neighbor Award from Temple Beth Israel in 1979.

Additionally, Dr. Hendricks served as an Olympic torchbearer when it passed through Macon before the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta. On Feb. 23, 2000, the Georgia State Senate unanimously voted on Senate Resolution 603, commending Dr. Hendricks for his exceptional commitment to scholarship and to community service and conveying him their heartfelt appreciation and admiration.

“Dean Joe Hendricks embodied the spirit of Mercer University – as a student, as a professor, as an administrator and as a distinguished alumnus,” said former Mercer Board of Trustees Chairman David Hudson, a 1969 graduate of the College of Liberal Arts. “He devoted his life to Christ-like service for equal rights, for expansion of knowledge and understanding, and for loving his neighbor. Like thousands of other Mercerians, I am personally grateful for his contributions to Mercer and how he enriched my life.”

Dr. Hendricks is survived by his wife of 60 years, Betty McGahee Hendricks; their three children, Catherine Hendricks, Joseph Hendricks and his wife, Kelly, and Barbara Jean Hendricks Barkley and her husband, Ron; in addition to four grandchildren.

Dr. Hendricks once told an interviewer, “I want to be remembered as a Mercerian.”