The Stillman family has a long history with Cairn University. With only eighth grade educations, Bill and Evelyn Stillman graduated in 1935 from the Bible school that would eventually become Cairn University. Bill’s grandson, Ed Stillman, is a member of the Board of Trustees and Chair of the Advancement committee. Alumni Director Nate Wambold sat down with Ed Stillman and his father Bill, to learn more about this long-standing and historical relationship.
Nate Wambold: So where does this story start?
Bill Stillman: Well, my mom and dad got married just before her 19th birthday. My dad rode the #11 trolley to work and one day a lady handed him a tract, and because of this he was convicted that he needed to trust Jesus. After he trusted in Christ, my mother responded the same way, and they started attending a church in Collingdale.
Nate: And then to Cairn University?
Bill: Yes, the University was on Spring Garden Street across from the Philadelphia Mint in those days. My dad was very active in the church, except in the choir (that would have been a big mistake). I remember, many times, he’d bring people home and talk to them about Jesus. He was always witnessing to everyone he worked with at the bus company. Some of them responded; most didn’t. He always wanted to be a preacher. For years he went to the Sunday Breakfast Association up on Race Street where he would preach, but in those days, as a kid, I was embarrassed about that.
Bill: I was embarrassed that my dad was preaching. When I was young I didn’t want to go to Bible school, even though my parents wanted me to, and even though I was a Christian. I thought only nuts went to Bible School.
Nate: But you did?
Bill: Fortunately, my intellectual doubts were satisfied early. During my time at Drexel University, where I studied civil engineering, I finally submitted to His authority. Doris, my wife-to-be, and I came to agree that we wanted to be missionaries, so during my senior year at Drexel, I took classes at Cairn at night. Eventually, I got a Ph.D. in Engineering from Ohio State after working briefly for Boeing and serving for four years with the Navy. God led me into a teaching career that began at the University of Tennessee and ended in China at the Wuhan University of Technology, but I’ve always loved and been involved with missions. Before entering Cairn, I found that I already knew a lot about the Bible because of my parents. My dad continued to preach throughout his life, and when he was young he would lead a Bible study every day at lunch time in a hardware store in Prospect Park.
Nate: Was that his first business, a hardware store?
Bill: In 1946, he opened up an auto repair garage in the back of a hardware store, and later converted a chicken coop near his home into an auto body shop. At that time, he had a set of tools, money for the first month’s rent, and a lot of faith in God. He had some troubles early on—there was a fire for instance—and it looked like they would not be able to continue, but in 1950, he and his two brothers reopened in Glenolden with a gas station. By 1963, the gas station had turned into a Volvo and Saab dealership.
Nate: Now, Ed, this is sort of where you come into the business picture, right?
Ed Stillman: I grew up in Tennessee where I wasn’t a very good student with the exception of math. On winter break, during my senior year in high school, I went on a campus crusade retreat where I decided to commit my life to the Lord. After briefly studying at the University of Tennessee, I moved to PA where I could work on cars with my grandfather. I lived with my grandparents for about a year and became increasingly impressed with my grandfather’s gift for retaining Scripture and living it out. I enjoyed reading the Bible with him and was amazed at how he could often identify the book and chapter of the Bible that I randomly selected. Fortunately for me, he was a very patient man, providing me with training in auto mechanics and an opportunity to watch him manage his business. Some of the mechanics he employed were often a bit rough, and I remember asking him, “Grandpop are you running a car business or a rehab center?” He responded by explaining how he felt God wanted him to share Christ’s love by giving these men an opportunity to work when they had nowhere else to go.
Nate: He must have been a major car guy, your grandfather? First, he sold Studebakers, then Volvos, right?
Ed: Yes, Studebakers in ’56, then Volvos in ’63, but no, he wasn’t really a car guy. I was really into cars at a young age and since my grandfather had been a mechanic, I knew that we had a lot in common. I once asked him what his favorite car was, and he said he didn’t have one. That was hard for me to believe because he was a car dealer. He said the reason he was a car dealer was that it gave him the resources he needed to raise a family, and the opportunities to meet people who might be reached for the Lord. My dad would say, “If your grandpop didn’t manage to sell someone a car, he would at least talk to them about the Lord.” That made a huge impression on me. My grandfather never made a lot of money, but he helped his employees provide for their families, and led a lot of people to the Lord. His spiritual maturity clearly began with the biblical training he received at Cairn. His education gave him a tremendous understanding of God’s Word and what it meant to live it out. It gave him the confidence to teach those biblical principles to his children, which in turn were passed on to me, and to the rest of his grandchildren.
Nate: Your family has a rich heritage overall in missions and service to the Lord, yes?
Ed: My brother Peter and his wife have been working in various locations for over 35 years and have been doing cross-cultural work in Southeast Asia since 1990. Their oldest daughter met her husband while studying in Syria, and he is now a pastor at a church in Tennessee. Their second daughter majored in Arabic and Mandarin in college and is now working for an NGO in Central Africa. While working at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in CA, my brother Douglas is currently studying at Western Seminary. He’s an active leader in a Chinese-American church in Fremont, CA and is considering full-time ministry.
My cousin Jerry Wisneski worked with me for several years before leaving to attend Westminster Seminary. After graduating, he sensed God leading him back to our family business where he’s become my management partner and found his seminary training to be a great resource. Originally, we expected that sharing our faith would be principally directed to our customers; however with about 60 employees today, we find that living out our faith is even more important with our employee relationships.
Then there’s my cousin Bobbi Donaldson who met her husband Kevin on a summer missions trip in Peru. After getting married, Kevin and Bobbi returned to Peru where he grew up, as his parents were missionaries there for many years. With a single engine plane equipped with floats, Kevin and Bobbi started a flight ministry on the Amazon River. Years later, in a tragic mistake, he was shot down by the Peruvian Air Force. Since the CIA was involved, this incident became international news (Read more about this story at: www.articles.philly.com/2001-04-23/news/25332010_1_peruvian-officer-single-engine-plane-peruvian-fighter-jet).
After Kevin’s recovery, they relocated their flight ministry to the Middle East for another 10 years. Bobbi’s sister Judy and her husband JD are both psychologists and together they set up a counseling office outside of the University of Delaware with a goal to provide Christian counseling. Their youngest sister Elizabeth married Howard Hickey who is the pastor at the First Baptist Church of Medford, NJ.
All this to say that grandchildren and great-grandchildren are believers and many are in ministry, and I think this is a result of my grandparents attending Cairn University so many years ago.
Nate: How has your support for the mission of Cairn grown over the years?
Ed: Around 1989, Dr. W. Sherrill Babb came to visit us and shared his vision for building new dorms at what was then PCB. They challenged me and my family to consider making a sizable gift to fund the construction of a building in memory of my grandfather. At that time, doing any giving much beyond a tithe was difficult, but God showed us that if we would accept that challenge, He would bless us and enable us to give much more. That experience became a revelation for me to be willing to recognize opportunities to serve the Lord with giving plans.
Nate: You’ve served in other ways too?
Ed: It’s been my privilege to be on the Board since 1996 and to be a part of carrying forward the mission and biblical principles that have been so important to my family.
Nate: So your grandfather…?
Ed: My grandfather passed away in 1976 and unfortunately didn’t have a succession plan. Several years later, I was given the opportunity to manage the family business. With no business experience or education, I was in way over my head. I started each day praying for wisdom and, with the help of other family members, God graciously guided me through the learning process. In 1986, we moved 22 miles from Glenolden to West Chester where we were able to build a beautiful new facility. Today we’re almost finished the second major renovation of our building as our business has grown from being one of the smallest Volvo dealerships in the country, to now being ranked in the top ten. Looking back, we can certainly see so many ways where God was watching over and blessing our family through the business that my grandpop started 68 years ago.
Nate: Your grandfather was not a car guy, but you are. What’s your favorite car? A Volvo I assume?
Ed: Actually, my favorite car is a Porsche 911. My wife Karen and I discovered that we had a common interest in high-speed driving years ago and spent a couple weekends together driving my older 911 with the Porsche Club at Pocono Raceway and Watkins Glen. One morning I had a close call at the Glen when I accidentally entered a turn too fast which sent me into a dangerous spin off the track. Later that day Karen took the same turn way too fast, and as I watched her, I closed my eyes and prayed. Remarkably, she stayed on the track proving that she could very well be a better driver than me.
Nate: Well then, I guess next time we’ll interview Karen! If your grandfather could visit Stillman Volvo today, in 2014 (especially once your remodeling is done, what would he say?)
Ed: What would make him smile would be seeing how we conduct business—that’s what really matters, how you conduct yourselves with your business, and how you live out your faith.