The Hibbards: A Portrait of Missionary Zeal

A letter from Cobbie and Dessa Palm, serving in the Philippines

September 2017

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Silliman University is celebrating its 116th founding anniversary as I write this. An invitation from the Silliman School for Basic Education to pay tribute to Dr. David and Mrs. Laura Hibbard, early Presbyterian missionaries to the Philippines, allowed me an opportunity to read through books and archives about the early years of the Silliman journey. I wrote this letter to the Hibbards as a way of expressing gratitude for their legacy.
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Dear Dr. David and Mrs. Laura,

When I first came to Dumaguete for a Philippine Educational Theater Association performance way back in 1997, the name Hibbard was a street that marked the Protestant side of the town, and Laura was the name associated with the best oatmeal cookies I have tasted in this part of the world.

Having married into a Presbyterian mission family whose roots in mission can be traced back to Cobbie’s great grandfather, my curiosity about your legacy in Silliman University and in the Philippines grew. Cobbie and I have been part of the Silliman community for some years now. He manages the Silliman Water Ministry and serves as spiritual formator at the Divinity School, and I teach drama and direct plays for the seminary. As I researched you and your legacy, I gained deepened understanding and a sense of admiration. You came to represent what missionary zeal can look like.

Both of you could have pursued a comfortable life in the US. Dr. Hibbard, you could have decided to stay on at your pastorate in Lyndon, Kansas, at the church you served for three years after being ordained by the Presbyterian Church in the US in 1896. You, Mrs. Laura, could have pursued a steady career as a teacher, for you were clearly a driven young woman. Though you were only 23 when you came to the Philippines, you had already earned your master’s.

But you accepted the invitation for service shortly after “Dewey’s guns had cooled in Manila Bay.” You took on the challenge of Dr. Horace Silliman’s vision of establishing an industrial school, even as you recognized your lack of experience. You must have had a strong faith in God and Dr. Silliman’s vision of establishing an industrial school through the Presbyterian Board for Foreign Mission.

Dr. Hibbard, your generous, bold spirit was clearly accompanied by a sense of humor. Your humor did not escape me when you described the newly purchased property for Silliman Institute that fronted the sea. You immediately picked up on local folklore about the presence of asuangs (a local version of a vampire) on the property. I imagine you saying:

Well, y’all, what do you know. We have the perfect location for our school by the sea. The lot is covered with brush and bamboo clumps, and, what do you know, even the asuang is thrown in free.

Could this have been the precursor of various ghost stories here at Silliman?

When Dr. Ewing, visiting principal of Forman Christian College in British India, visited to share his educational expertise, he was clearly impressed with your work and pronounced: “Mr. and Mrs. Hibbard seem to be possessed of the very qualifications which the situation at Dumaguete now demands. They will go into the work of the school with enthusiasm, practical sense, and the ability to teach well.” He was so awed by you that he declared, “Mr. and Mrs. Hibbard together are worth any three single men.”

Students of the Silliman School for Basic Education recreate a scene of the first of classes in Aug. 28, 1901 with David and Laura Hibbard.

And so on August 28, 1901, you met 15 barefoot students and taught your first classes in the house you had rented, a former post office. It is telling that in September, enrollment had reached 30 students, the youngest seven to eight years old, and the oldest 24 years of age. Students spoke so highly of you that total enrollment by the end of the first school year was over 60.

How did you each teach 10 classes daily? How were you able to balance the needs of students at different academic levels? I cannot imagine how difficult preparing your lessons was.

And it must have been quite intense to live where you also work! I know that not only were classrooms on the ground floor of your rented home, but students and teachers also lived in your home. But you were determined! I bet you had to make yourselves available most of the time to deal with relational dynamics of having students and faculty under one roof. Whew!

Your patience and determination were surely motivated by faith in your students’ potential. As you wrote in 1902, you believed they were “bright boys” and would “be an honor to … (the) school, though they … (were) not at all angelic in character or appearance.” You saw them through the eyes of love.

Your students clearly appreciated you. Mr. Viliran, one of your students who was 12 at the time he enrolled, sang your praises. Mrs. Laura: “(She) taught us very well. Her teaching was so effective that when I left school in 1906, I passed the junior teacher examination.” He also recalled that you spoke the dialect and could make explanations to students whose English was deficient. Clearly you were committed to ensuring all students’ success.

Mrs. Laura, you are quite a role model for women! I wish I had been one of your students in the early days, soon after Silliman began accepting women in 1912. You exuded strength! You even stepped up when Dr. David suffered from dysentery for a few months and was on sick leave in Japan. He left you in charge. It is amazing that, for a few weeks, you were “station treasurer, president of the school, director of the evangelistic work, and taught from nine to ten classes a day.” Talk about multitasking—you are truly my Wonder Woman.

I was excited to learn that during the second year, attendance grew to more than 100 students, and there was a waiting list to boot! However, I was so sad to learn, Dr. David, that you soon became fell ill again and went back to the US with Mrs. Laura to recuperate. Your students missed you! During your slow recuperation, Silliman Institute’s enrollment ebbed. It is said that 50 young men refused to enroll until you returned.

Your devotion to the school was unparalleled. You could have chosen to stay in the US and be replaced by someone else. But even while regaining strength, you wrote from Kansas, “The school is the pride of my heart and I do not ask any other work in my life than to carry on this, and to see Christian men and women, scattered through the islands in centers of work of God.” Your commitment never flagged.

Dessa Quesada Palm paying tribute to the Hibbards beside a statue of David Hibbard fronting Hibbard Hall, which was built in 1932.

Your colleagues, too, recognized the strength of your leadership. One wrote, “Hibbard has won the hearts of the people! Let us try to keep him as the head of Silliman Institute.”

Writing in 2017, I know more than your colleagues could, more than you could, the depth of gratitude we owe to you. You navigated Silliman through many challenging years. Students who enter those Gates of Opportunity still enjoy the possibilities Silliman’s holistic approach to education provides. This is still the spirit that keeps Silliman University going, shaping young people’s lives in character, competence and faith. Many of them have emerged as important servant-leaders on the island, in the nation and around the world.

Today, with great love, respect and admiration, we salute you both, Dr. David Sutherland Hibbard and Mrs. Laura Hibbard, for being the first parents and leaders of our beloved Silliman University.

May we be as faithful and steadfast in making our lives a testimony to Christ’s love and teachings. Via Veritas Vita. Christ as the Way, The Truth, The Life. Now and Always.

In Christ,

Dessa

References:
Carson, Arthur. Silliman University: 1901-1959. United Board for Christian Education in Asia. NY, 1965.
Hibbard, D.S. The First Quarter: A Brief History of Silliman Institute During its First Twenty-five Years of Existence, Philippine Education Co, Inc, Manila, 1926.
Kwantes, Anne C. Presbyterian Missionaries in the Philippines: Conduits of, Social Change (1899-1910), New Day Publishers, Quezon City, 1989.

Please read this important message from Jose Luis Casal, Director, Presbyterian World Mission

Dear Friend of Presbyterian Mission,

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