In 2001, the last time Oklahoma Christian University conducted a search for a new president, an administrator from Northeastern State University in Tahlequah submitted his application.
John deSteiguer didn’t get the job then — then in his late 30s, he didn’t even make it into the final round of candidates — but he made an indelible impression on members of the search committee.
“We had never seen him before and didn’t know how to pronounce his name, but we were so impressed,” said Kent Allen, OC’s current major gifts officer, who then was a local minister serving on that search committee. “We didn’t know who he was, but we said, ‘That guy needs to be working at OC in some leadership capacity and one of these years, that guy is going to make someone a great, great president.’”
That prediction proved prophetic, as deSteiguer soon joined the OC administration and — 11 years later — has been selected as the sixth president of the 2,200-student university in Oklahoma City, which is associated with the Churches of Christ. On Feb. 4, the university’s 33-member board of trustees picked the 49-year-old deSteiguer, OC’s senior vice president for advancement, to succeed current President Mike O’Neal, who is retiring at the end of May.
“Eleven years ago, the board of trustees made a wise decision to not make me the president,” said deSteiguer, sitting in his campus office. “This is the right time now. It was not the right time then.
“God has given me some innate abilities and he has given me the opportunities to develop those abilities,” deSteiguer said. “He’s given me experiences that have prepared me to be a university president. If I’m going to be a university president, I wanted to be Oklahoma Christian University’s president. This is the place I love.”
The son of a naval aviator, deSteiguer moved a lot as a child, living in California, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia, as well as on the island of Guam. His family eventually settled in his mother’s hometown of Tahlequah, where he caught the attention of Don Betz, who as a professor at Northeastern State was the director of NSU’s President’s Leadership Class. Betz worked hard to recruit the Tahlequah High School product to NSU in 1980.
“John, from the time he was a young man, evoked trust from other people,” said Betz, now the president at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond. “He exhibits servant leadership. He’s the kind of leader who understands it’s not about him, but about the service he provides. That’s what I saw in John when he was 18.”
In 1982, deSteiguer, a political science major, became NSU’s first Truman Scholar. He was active in the Model United Nations program, which took him and his fellow NSU students all over the U.S. He also became the student government president and the president of the President’s Leadership Class before graduating in 1984.
“That should be no surprise to anybody,” Betz said, “because people just naturally gravitated to him.”
DeSteiguer was a Rotary International Scholarship recipient and spent the 1984-85 school year attending the University of Kingston in Jamaica, before moving back to Tahlequah and serving as the youth minister at the South College Church of Christ in Tahlequah. He married his college sweetheart, Darla, in June 1986, not long after she returned from a year of overseas study in New Zealand.
That August, the couple enrolled in law school at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. They graduated with their juris doctorate degrees in 1989 — with Darla ranking first in their class and John ranking second. Soon after, they moved to Dallas to start their legal careers — John with a labor and employment law firm, Darla as the clerk for a federal judge.
By 1993, as they started their family, the deSteiguers decided they wanted to raise their children outside of “the high life of big-city law practice,” he said.
In August 1993, then-NSU President Roger Webb hired John deSteiguer as a senior development officer and the executive director of the NSU Foundation.
After OC trustees hired O’Neal in 2002, he began looking for a chief development officer and thought of deSteiguer, whose time as a student at Pepperdine overlapped with O’Neal’s time as an administrator at the California university.
“When I interviewed John, he was just a natural, and it made a great deal of sense to bring him to OC,” O’Neal said. “He has a natural talent for raising money and he was a great Christian man. John genuinely loves people. He interacts with them so well. He’s thoughtful of other people. When you’re in John’s presence, you always feel like you’re somebody special. It’s why he does well at the work he does.”
Given the opportunity to combine his passions of faith and higher education, deSteiguer left his alma mater and his hometown for the unknown, with his wife’s blessing.
“We always thought that sometime toward the end of my career, we would go to Christian higher education,” deSteiguer said. “Our faith is very important to us and we thought we would be able to serve in some way. When the opportunity arose for us to serve earlier, we prayed a lot about it and we talked a lot about it and we were convinced that God was creating opportunities to move us in this direction.”
During the nine years since deSteiguer arrived at OC, $110 million has been given to the university and a $60 million Higher Learning-Higher Calling fundraising campaign was completed ahead of schedule. OC Board of Trustees Chairman Don Millican said deSteiguer’s “proven track record in the area of development” was a key reason the board tabbed deSteiguer as OC’s next president.
Betz said deSteiguer is “the right fit institutionally for Oklahoma Christian in terms of his personality. He has an affinity to the principles and values that drive Oklahoma Christian. … John lives with the philosophy that the truth drives him. He doesn’t have to say, ‘What did I say last time?’ because he is so consistent. He’s one of those kinds of leaders who isn’t afraid to say, ‘I don’t know the answer, but we’ll figure it out together.’
“John and Darla were the kind of students that you say to yourself, ‘I know exactly why I got into (higher education) 42 years ago,’” Betz said. “He is not my son, but indirectly I feel so proud of him, almost like a child. I’ve had thousands of students come through my life, and if I had to pick the top 50, then pick the top 10 out of those 50, John and Darla would both be in that 10, and pretty high on the list. That’s how I feel about them.”