Former star forgoes hoops for higher calling
For most basketball players, making the NBA is a dream come true. But when Chris Thomforde '69, a former All-Ivy center on the men's basketball team, got offers to play for the NBA's New York Knicks and the ABA's New York Nets, he turned them down.
"I was sort of tired of playing," Thomforde said.
Instead, the six-foot, nine-inch Thomforde chose to pursue his other passion — his Lutheran religion. In August 2006, after three decades as a Lutheran pastor and scholar, the basketball star-turned-academic became the 15th president of Moravian College, a small Lutheran liberal arts college in Bethlehem, Pa.
"Moravian's at a good place right now," Thomforde said. "We're in a position to continue to grow and strengthen our academics and our outreach to the community."
Thomforde's presidency comes on the heels of former president Ervin Rokke's highly successful nine-year tenure. After Rokke retired, Moravian — the sixth-oldest college in the country — turned to Thomforde to build on his predecessor's legacy and further enhance the school's selectivity and endowment.
"We believe that Dr. Thomforde will provide the experience, energy and character needed to sustain our current momentum and lift Moravian to a new level of institutional excellence and distinction," Moravian board of trustees chair Priscilla Payne Hurd said in an official press release.
According to Princeton Director of Athletics Gary Walters '67 — a former Tiger teammate of Thomforde's — the Cleveland, Ohio, native exhibited these same qualities on the basketball court.
"He was a great teammate," Walters said. "Tremendously passionate for the game, always put the team first, played with tremendous energy and was an absolutely terrific passer. He made the players around him better because of his passing."
In his three seasons with the Tigers, Thomforde averaged 14 points per game for a career total of 1,120 points, 14th on Princeton's all-time list. Though he shot more than 50 percent from the field, his free-throw shooting was what really set him apart. The former center recorded 382 of his points off free throws — a mark that still stands fourth on the University's all-time list. Thomforde shot a remarkable 89.8 percent from the line in his junior season — the second-best mark ever recorded by a Tiger.
While with the Tigers, Thomforde helped lead Princeton to three Ivy League titles and, along with Walters, made the cover of Sports Illustrated during the 1966-67 season. In Thomforde's final college season, the Associated Press named him an honorable mention All-American.
Thomforde took his Russian and medieval history degree to Taiwan to teach history to local university students immediately after graduation, in conjunction with the Princeton in Asia program. After returning to the States, he briefly reconsidered playing professional basketball with the Knicks. But his career stalled after only two weeks, and he again turned his sights to academia.
After getting his masters from the Yale School of Divinity in 1974, Thomforde moved to upstate New York to become Colgate University's assistant chaplain. In 1978, he became the pastor at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in nearby Danville, N.Y.
In 1986, Thomforde was drawn back into academia when he accepted a position at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania as a chaplain and later as a professor of religion. After 10 years with Susquehanna, the journeyman pastor became the president of Bethany College, a small Lutheran college in Lindsbourg, Kan.
Thomforde's big break came in spring 2001, when the highly selective St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., offered him the school's presidency. He accepted the position and had a successful five-year tenure with the school, which included a concerted effort to increase the school's diversity and a fundraising drive which nearly doubled the school's endowment to $235 million. But when his contract expired in 2006, he chose not to pursue an extension with St. Olaf.
"I think the board of directors and I had different philosophies about the direction of the school," Thomforde said. "So my contract ran out, and we just let it run out without it being renewed."
Thomforde, though, is excited about his future with Moravian. He likes living on the East Coast, close to the bulk of his family, and appreciates the flexibility that Moravian's relatively loose affiliation with the Lutheran Church offers him.
"I'd like to stay at Moravian until I retire," Thomforde said. "I think it's good for a president to be able to stay at one place for six or seven years, at least, to keep the momentum of the school moving in one direction. It's a good place to be."
Walters isn't at all surprised at his former teammate's success, which he attributes primarily to his strong moral integrity and character.
"Chris is a totally inspirational figure. He is one of the few people I know who lives a life totally consistent with his beliefs," Walters said. "Those very attributes that he exhibited on the basketball court are the very same qualities that enabled him to be successful in life."
So while Thomforde might have been tired of basketball by the time he graduated, the values he picked up as a Tiger seem to have never gotten old.
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