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Finding Your Roots

Fourth-generation alum uncovers clues about her alumni relatives
  • Linda Piepenbrink
  • October 1, 2019

A few days before her graduation from Moody, Lydia Townsend ’19 tries to pick out her mom in an old photo of 40 young women on “Cloud 9,” the nickname for the Houghton dorm’s ninth floor. “Oh, easy!” she says, pointing to a student with long hair in the second row. “She’s right there in the glasses!”

Lydia has long hair and wears glasses too. And pictures of her grandma also resemble her.

“Exactly,” Lydia says, smiling. “My grandma, my mom, and I look alike.”

Besides their similar appearance, all three women are Moody alumnae—three generations, three different eras. Lydia graduated from Moody Bible Institute in May 2019, exactly 40 years after her mother, Conni Kaye (Syring) Townsend ’79, and 70 years after her grandma, Winifred Louise (Hillegas) Syring ’49.

But that’s not all. Lydia’s aunt Deborah (Syring) Olson ’78 met her husband, Kenneth Olson ’77, at Moody. And to add another generation, her grandma’s uncle, Harold Hillegas ’39, enrolled in Moody’s Evening School way back in 1924 and ’25, attended Day School in ’37 and graduated in December ’39.

Lydia is thrilled to be part of a legacy family of Moody alumni, but she’s missing details. What was their time like at Moody? Like the investigator on a TV genealogy program, she sifts through old yearbooks in the Alumni office and collects facts from her mom.

A google search turns up her great-great-uncle Harold’s obituary. He was born in 1901 and married in 1922, she discovers.

After he graduated from Moody, Harold Hillegas went on to serve as a pastor and director of the Independent Fundamental Churches of America and the Baptist General Conference. In addition, he cofounded Crescent Lake Bible Camp in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, which he directed for 40 years. His niece, Winnie (Lydia’s grandma), served at that camp and also served with him at Rural Bible Crusade for several years until she married. Much later, Lydia got saved through the ministry of Rural Bible Crusade and began volunteering with the ministry in 2013. A few older church folks who had known Winnie said, “You look just like your grandma!”

Lydia smiles. “Apparently I take after my grandma a lot. I look like her, I’ve done what she did, I went to the school she went to. It’s funny. I wish I could have known her.”

Grandma Winnie passed away nine years before her daughter Conni gave birth to Lydia and her twin sister, Danielle. Searching for clues, Lydia examines a picture of Winnie in a dorm room at Moody and recognizes the “random plumbing pipes in the corner.” She surmises her grandma must have lived in Smith Hall, just like her.

In an old yearbook, Lydia discovers that her grandma was the Student Council secretary at Moody and prayed with the Prayer Band. As a Missions Major, Winnie chose Deuteronomy 31:8 as her senior yearbook verse: “The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”

In 1963 Winnie left for Nigeria with her husband, William Syring, under SIM. She worked as a librarian at Kagoro Secondary School while her husband taught Bible, science, and history. Three of their five children, including Debbie, Conni, and Bill, attended Kent Academy, a boarding school near Jos, Nigeria. When Conni completed third grade, they returned to the States, and her dad began pastoring a church.

After high school Conni planned to attend a college in northern Wisconsin, but when her older sister, Debbie, went to Moody, Conni changed her mind and chose the same school. Besides, Conni says, “My mom had also gone there, and Moody had a good reputation and was known for their good biblical teaching.”

Conni was not disappointed. “I loved it! I would not have gone anywhere else,” she says. She was in awe of her professors, such as Dr. Robert Goddard, who taught Historical Geography and kept the class in stitches. “We called it Hysterical Coloring,” she says with a laugh, “because we had to draw all these Bible maps and because he made it such a fun class.”

After Conni’s graduation from Moody, Alumni News came in the mail and on the cover was a long-haired woman getting her diploma. “That sure looks like me,” she said. It was.

After Moody, Conni completed her bachelor’s in Bible from Calvary Bible College in Kansas City, Missouri. Then she went back to Nigeria as a dorm mother for girls at the boarding school she’d attended as a child. She was homesick until she ran into the teacher she’d had in first grade and two Moody alumni on staff. “My Moody training in Bible and theology was very useful when doing devotions and teaching Sunday school classes,” she says.

After three years Conni returned to Wausaukee, Wisconsin, and met her husband, Gerald, at Immanuel Baptist Church, where her dad was the pastor.

Conni and Gerald raised six kids in Wausaukee, including four boys and Lydia and her twin sister. Conni has been involved in church ministry ever since—as a children’s ministry volunteer, the church pianist, and a treasurer. “I still have a lot of my notes from Moody that I keep looking at. My husband always teases me that I still have my college notes.”

She kept her notes for good reason, she says. “I look into them a lot to jog my memory or go back to see just exactly what I was taught in different classes, whether it’s Bible Study Methods or Bible classes on Daniel and Revelation or Historical Geography.”

When it came time for Lydia to consider college, she wasn’t sure what to study. “One of my friends said, ‘Lydia, you love the Bible. Why don’t you go study the Bible?’” Lydia, who’d grown up doing online schooling, was accepted into Moody’s First Year Online Program in 2015. During spring break she came to campus for a special week of classes. “That was my first experience being in a classroom and learning, and I loved it,” she says. Lydia spent her remaining three years on campus, with happy memories of living with the other “Peacocks” on Smith 5 and interacting with her brother floor, the Culby 4 “Gentlemen.”

Lydia also enjoyed working the desk in Public Safety. Her favorite PCM was serving for three semesters at Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, Illinois, as a middle school youth leader. No surprise there, since she graduated with a BA in Biblical Studies with an emphasis in Youth Ministry. Then Lydia taught VBS with Rural Bible Crusade (for the sixth summer), and in August she began an online master’s degree as well as a residency in youth ministry at Appleton Alliance Church in Appleton, Wisconsin. “The youth group has on average 500 kids a week!” she says. “I’m excited to gain experience working in a large youth group with students from a variety of backgrounds and hope to continue doing ministry in the future.”

Like those alumni in her genealogy who went before her, Lydia trained at Moody to impact lives for Christ. She found her roots at Moody—and rejoices that their names are in the Lamb’s Book of Life.

About the Author

  • Linda Piepenbrink

Linda Piepenbrink is managing editor of Moody Alumni News and senior editor for Moody’s Marketing Communications department.