My father was a Baptist preacher. A graduate of Wheaton College, he was a man of deep faith. My mother once related a story about their poverty during the first years of their marriage. My father had accepted his first ministerial post at a tiny, poor, rural church in northern Texas. They couldn’t pay him in actual money, but they supplied a few vegetables and an occasional chicken for their meals, and provided a one-room shack in the middle of a goat pasture for a “parsonage.” My mother complained that the goats tore up their pathetic little garden and then ate the clothes hanging from the clothesline. When she became pregnant with my sister, my father attempted to assuage her fears, saying, “Don’t worry, honey. God will provide.” Shortly after, God provided a move back to Oklahoma City, where he had met my mother, and to a job delivering milk.
In 1941, the family (of which I was now part) moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where my father took a job in an ordnance plant of some kind in support of the war effort. Soon after that, we moved to Wichita, Kansas, where he worked for the Coleman Company (yes, the same Coleman that now dominates the outdoor recreation business). As far as I know, he had not indulged in preaching, except for an occasional “guest sermon,” since leaving Texas.
Shortly after settling in Wichita, my father found a tiny, poor, rural church, about 20 miles southwest of Wichita, in need of a pastor. The Viola Baptist Church was to be his calling for the next nine or so years. The church could not afford much of a salary or any part of a residence, so my father supported the family, and his preaching addiction, working at Coleman. When he wasn’t at work, he was in the bedroom studying, working on his next sermon or on a self-improvement correspondence course. If he wasn’t studying, he was at one of the area hospitals, visiting sick church members.
The man wasn’t getting paid for this. It had to have been an addiction. We would even visit other churches on Sunday evenings – Viola couldn’t sustain evening services, even when the Baptists and Presbyterians joined congregations – and frequently my father would be invited to preach. We also attended Black churches and some churches where services were conducted in Spanish (several times) and Chinese (I think just once).
For as long as I remember, until just before he died, we drove a 1934 Plymouth 4-door sedan to and from Viola every Sunday. Sunday afternoons we visited one or two members on their farms. My sister and I became adept at feeding chickens and gathering eggs, and finding our own entertainment around the farmyards.
My father died of a heart attack in church on Sunday, February 18, 1951, at the age of 41, after stoking the coal furnace. That was five days after my 12th birthday.
With my father working at Coleman, we were not destitute, but we were not terribly well off. We moved to a different house about every other year because the rent on our current house was raised. As a result I went to four elementary schools between kindergarten and sixth grade.
I have only a few memories of us doing anything that might be regarded as “father-son” activities. The most consistent thing we did together was for him to send me into the back yard to cut a switch from a bush for him to use to punish me for some offense my mother had perceived during the day. (On the other side, he was instrumental in getting me interested in radio and electronics, by helping me build a crystal set and, later, a one-tube radio.)
He lived his faith in all aspects of his life. At Coleman, he worked in the “Inspection” department (these days called “Quality Control”). In most cases, Inspectors are reviled because their job is to find the workers’ mistakes. My father earned the reputation of being honest, fair, and reasonable. He held an elected position in the union, and was on good terms with the owner, W.C. Coleman, himself. (If being high in the union and friendly with the owner seems a contradiction, you can get a glimpse of the kind of man my father was.)
Right after my father died, I believed that I would become a preacher like him. I attended church regularly, joined youth groups, sang in the choir, and read a lot about religion for more than a few years, but ultimately lost faith.
The closest I ever came to being a preacher was teaching. Those two professions are not altogether different. My mission was to warp young minds; to challenge young people to a different view of the world and to help them understand how things all fit together. I loved teaching – probably as much as my father loved preaching. You might say that I was addicted.