JACKSON, Miss. — He was, by all accounts, a quiet man, humble, even timid, "an outstanding Christian gentleman" who worked tirelessly on behalf of the small Baptist college he had led for a quarter century.
As president of Mississippi College, Lewis Nobles was more than an administrator--he was a figure of rock-solid moral authority, responsible for both the academic and spiritual well-being of his nearly 4,000 young charges.
Students and staff at the small campus of brick Colonial-style buildings were shocked 18 months ago when Nobles was forced to resign over allegations of financial improprieties. That was bad enough. But then the details of his alleged secret life began to trickle out: hints of offshore bank accounts, tales of far-flung liaisons with prostitutes and a mysterious vial of strychnine found in his office.
As Nobles went into seclusion, college officials accused him of embezzling more than $3 million--nearly $400,000 of which allegedly was paid to expensive hookers whom he supposedly flew to secret rendezvous around the country.
His friends couldn't believe it.
"I know of no one who really knows the man who thinks he's guilty," said Ed McDonald, a lifelong friend. "He might be unorthodox in the way he conducts some of his business, but as far as using any of the college's money for his personal use, I don't believe it. And I won't believe it unless he tells me he did it."
Nobles hasn't told much of anything to many people lately. Two days before his last court hearing, the 69-year-old college president went on the lam. He fled to San Francisco under an assumed name. When FBI agents found him in a Union Square hotel room, he collapsed into seizures after swallowing cyanide, authorities said.
After suffering a stroke last week, Nobles remains hospitalized in California, his family by his side. "He is in very serious condition," said his attorney, Amy Whitten, adding that the stroke left him partially paralyzed.
If the allegations prove true, the rise and fall of Lewis Nobles would seem to be the story of a modern-day Bible Belt Jekyll and Hyde--the saga of a man known for his rectitude and having the respect of his peers, but whose placid demeanor hid an out-of-control inner-self.
It would also be a story about the seductive, corrupting influence of power. For in his 25 years at the helm of Mississippi College--during which he increased the school's endowment, launched an ambitious building program and started new athletic programs and a law school--Nobles wielded virtually unchallenged authority.
The college's board of trustees, critics say, was packed with Nobles' friends and bowed to his wishes--as did the Mississippi Baptist Convention, under whose authority the school ostensibly belonged.
"He \o7 was \f7 Mississippi College," said Charles Willibanks, who served on the law school faculty from 1977 to 1981, when he resigned, he said, in disillusionment over Nobles' dishonesty. "He did everything--he had full and complete and absolute power."
Nobles' rock-solid image began to unravel in August, 1993, when a college staff member approached a longtime benefactor about making a donation, only to be informed that it already had been made.
After a preliminary investigation, it was discovered that many donations made to the college through Nobles had not been reaching school coffers.
When trustees confronted him, the balding, heavy-set Nobles said that he had deposited the money in a secret bank account but had spent it for proper purposes. A complaint filed by the college in civil court alleges that the documentation he produced to back up his claim was forged.
Nobles is lauded by longtime friends for his brilliance. But school officials describe a series of clumsy attempts to cover up his alleged crimes.
"Nobles produced a relatively few possibly legitimate checks payable from his account to Mississippi College--and a mass of forged bank statements and checks," the complaint said. "The bank statements were fakes in that they were typed on a photocopy of a real bank statement."
University officials said they found the real bank statements in Nobles' office--along with the rubber stamp that they claim he had used to imprint "PAID" and the bank numbers on the stack of allegedly fake checks.
Also found in his campus office were $27,844 in cash and numerous empty bank cash wrappers. Although authorities will not confirm it, there were published reports that they also found photographs of scantily clad women--and this on a campus where nude magazines are confiscated from students who try to sneak them into dormitories.