Fifty-one years ago this month, cardiologist Donald E. Warren began to wrestle with the idea of starting a Christian college in South Florida, and whether he’d play a part in that venture. As he later wrote, “it seemed like an overwhelming project.”
But after several days “of deep thought, prayer and soul searching,” Warren agreed to join the effort. In 1968 he became trustee chairman for the new Palm Beach Atlantic College, only after much deliberating and much more prayer.
“Central to Don’s nature was to request and then reverently listen to the voice of God,” said Sally Soter, a longtime supporter of PBA. After Warren’s death in March of this year, Soter and others who knew him well recalled the man dubbed PBA’s “friendraiser-in-chief,” the man who had done so much to shape and build the University.
“His dedication to the University was his strong sense of God’s call to do this work,” said PBA Trustee John Greene, who served under Warren as trustee vice chairman for nearly 20 years, and who was chairman from 2007 through 2009. In Warren’s 2009 book “Miracles & Wonders: A Chronicle of Palm Beach Atlantic University,” the doctor explained God's call: that PBA “would serve as a beacon for Christ in the most un-churched, fastest-growing area of the greatest country in the world.”
Warren often described himself as not a fundraiser, but a storyteller. And he believed the best way to tell the University’s story was to bring people here to see the good things God was doing. He had a remarkable way of making connections with people and he personally conducted over 1,200 tours of the campus. “God has led me to build relationships with many wonderful, wise and prosperous people who have, in turn, given large amounts of money to PBA,” said Warren in his book.
“Financial people at the college have told me I’m responsible for raising $100 million to $125 million on behalf of the college.”
How did a busy physician find time to build those relationships and devote so many hours of service to PBA?
"He was a brilliant man, and he organized his time incredibly,” said Greene. “He didn’t waste much motion, and he didn’t waste many words.”
Some called him blunt. His book cited his own “somewhat doctorly directness,” which
he said was
offset by the charm and graciousness of his wife Bebe, “a true Southern lady.”
As chairman of PBA’s trustees, Warren took his efficiency and directness into the boardroom. “I saw him run meetings for a long time,” said Trustee Robert Simpson, who was trustee chairman from 2010 through 2012. “He made them happen and finish exactly on time, no matter what. And if you were late for a meeting, he would let you know it.” Warren also would let the trustees know about more important failings.
Simpson said Warren “was the one who always told us” to make sure the University didn’t stray “from our roots as a Christ-centered university.”
“Dr. Warren had his imprint on every trustee in a profound way,” said Simpson. He recalled a time during Warren’s later years when he snared the doctor at the door of the library elevator, and said, “I just want to thank you and tell you how much of a positive and profound influence you’ve had in my life. I want to tell you that I love you."
Warren responded simply, “Okay.” Then he turned around and went into the elevator. “That’s Dr. Warren,” said Simpson with a laugh.
“There was no pretense about him,” recalled Greene. “He wasn’t trying to impress anyone.”
But obviously he did impress many people. They called Warren “visionary, great man of faith and prayer, multi-gifted, great communicator, incredibly authentic.” The University library bears his name, and PBA awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1988. The listing of his awards and community honors could go on for pages.
With all his honors and gifts, Warren also had his quirks. “He never said goodbye on the telephone,” recalled Scott Hawkins, current chairman of the PBA Board of Trustees. “He’d just hang up on you.” A talkative person might rattle along for some time on the phone, thinking he was still talking with Warren, but the doctor had finished talking and moved on. He had other calls to make and other things God wanted him to do. He was making PBA phone calls until just days before he died.
“I saw in Dr. Warren this great sense of calling,” said Hawkins. “He just had a tremendous will and determination. Grit. Resilience. A desire to do God’s will.” Soter said Warren had “an uncompromising trust in God, Country, family, education and an unwavering vision of the future.” Don and Bebe Warren, she said, “fulfilled their quintessence in Palm Beach Atlantic University.”