RADFORD, Va. -- Martee Buchanan was invited to the Wesley Foundation as an 18-year-old college freshman in 1968.
She loved it so much that she didn't leave for five decades. After 48 years of serving as secretary, assistant director, and then director of the Wesley Foundation at Radford University, 70-year-old Buchanan retired from the campus ministry on June 30.
“I had the best job in Holston Conference,” she says. “There’s not another thing I would have done this long. I could count on two hands the days I got out of bed and said, ‘I don’t want to go to work.’”
She leaves behind a campus ministry where she cooked thousands of meals while inviting students to join her in the kitchen, listening and counseling as she taught them how to roast a chicken or simmer a sauce.
She leaves behind a campus building where she organized hundreds of student dinners, worship services, and mission trips --and even lived in the onsite apartment for 15 years, from 1973 to 1988.
“I’m so grateful for seeing how students can grow and flourish,” she says. “They become aware of their gifts and skills, and God helps them to find those and use them.”
A native of Kenbridge, Virginia, Buchanan grew up in Kenbridge United Methodist Church. Although she was a devout Methodist, she had never heard of the Wesley Foundation – a ministry serving students on college campuses – when she arrived at Radford.
Yet, she and her roommates were immediately invited to the activities at 1022 Downey Street, where the “Doughnut Discussions” on Sunday morning were attended by 75 to 100 students. “There were a lot of people there, and we had a really good time,” she says.
Buchanan graduated with a bachelor’s degree in special education, working as a schoolteacher for a year before returning to Radford for a graduate degree in guidance and counseling. She was hired as Wesley Foundation’s part-time hostess and secretary, living onsite and assisting Director Carol Dunsmore.
The meal-planning started then for Buchanan, since food was a big part of campus ministry and she had already developed a love for kitchen work while cooking with her grandmother as a child.
“My office was open. There was nowhere for people to sit and talk,” she explains. The Wesley Foundation kitchen became an ideal place for her to do “informal counseling” with students, while Dunsmore took on more intense work.
“It was right at the height of the gay and lesbian awakening,” Buchanan said of the 1970s, “so Carol did a lot of counseling at the time.”
Whenever Buchanan considered finding a new job after completion of her master’s degree, the Holston Conference Board of Higher Education promoted her to assistant director, then associate director. When Dunsmore retired as director in 1994, Buchanan stepped into her role.
Both Dunsmore and Buchanan would go on to win the Francis Asbury Award from the Holston Board of Higher Education – about 10 years apart -- for their longtime ministries at Radford. When she announced her retirement earlier this year, Buchanan was moved by the many letters and cards that came from her former students.
“So many students are still involved. Time after time they are still in Methodist churches,” she said. “I received so many nice notes and messages saying, ‘Thanks for what you’ve done.’”
The decision to retire became more certain for Buchanan when the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted many ministries beginning in March 2020. Student attendance at Wesley Foundation had cycled up and down over the decades – between 85 and 20 -- before dropping to fewer than 10 students the past year.
“I had begun to feel it was time. I wasn’t doing as well as I had been, wasn’t relating as well,” she said. “COVID gave me the assurance that I needed to know, that I could live my life without the Wesley Foundation. This has been my life. It has consumed so much of my time.”
The Rev. Jan Nicholson Angle, pastor at nearby Grove United Methodist Church, was appointed to lead the Wesley Foundation in a dual appointment effective July 1, 2021. Buchanan is a member at Grove and has shepherded many Radford students to worship services and other activities at the church over the years.
She counts many ministries among those that make her proud. Her background in special education – and growing up with a father challenged by paralysis – led her and her students to create a space where other students with disabilities felt comfortable and welcome.
“We still are the only accessible campus ministry building at Radford for people with mobility disabilities,” says Buchanan, noting that a ramp was provided at the Wesley Foundation as early as 1993. “It was all about hospitality for us. Our students have always rallied to the need ... That was just who they were.”
In addition, hundreds of elementary students benefited from an after-school tutoring ministry at the Wesley Foundation that began in 1995 and commenced every Tuesday and Thursday until the pandemic halted it. Radford students were involved in helping the children identified by teachers -- picking them up at nearby schools, feeding them a snack, doing homework, and playing games.
The campus minister’s culinary contributions, however, might be most missed by the community. Every spring, the Wesley Foundation received a fundraising and visibility boost when Buchanan and her students presented a themed benefit dinner for as many as 100 guests. Buchanan laughs as she recalls planning the themes (“my favorite part”), including Country Western Night (with fried chicken tenders and “cowpoke potato patties”) and Broadway Night (with New York cheesecake). The last dinner, which ended up being a drive-through meal due to the pandemic, netted $7,500.
In earlier days of her ministry, Buchanan says she didn’t realize the power and potential of reaching people through food, even though hers was widely known to be delicious.
“I didn’t value the role of my life skills and cooking," she said. "When people asked, ‘What are you cooking?’ it used to upset me. I thought, ‘I do a lot more than cook.’”
About 20 years ago, she realized “this was a gift that was mine to pass on.” Besides teaching students and supporters the importance of sitting down together at the table (“We’re creating a new family together. That’s what we want to do. Bringing people together is our mission.”), Buchanan also taught many a teen or twenty-something how to fend in the kitchen.
“So many students came here not knowing how to boil water or make pasta,” she says. “There were a lot of people who had decent food when they got out of school because of the Wesley Foundation.”
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.