One of the common tendencies that characterizes the fatherless is that every male authority figure that comes into his or her life is entertained as a potential father figure. This can include persons such as stepfathers, principals and teachers, coaches, band directors, pastors and deacons, and even the patrolmen who give us our first speeding ticket. The contributions can either be great or small, and they tend to impact our lives in indelible and extraordinary ways. They provide us with a small window of how our own fathers may have interacted with us, were they given the opportunity.
As a fatherless son, there have been several of those “father figures” who have made their way through that revolving door of my experience through the years. Of course there was the pastor I referenced in an earlier post, Johnnie Floyd, who rescued our family during the time we lost dad, and nurtured me early in my faith. I am grateful for Mark Beauchamp, who was my manager at the restaurant where I had my first job. Mark placed a lot of confidence in me and I truly enjoyed working for him and his family. Falling in love with music early in my life was due in large part to my two band directors, Frank Widenhouse and Seth Kirby. The first solo I ever sang was in my home church, and it was Henry Scarborough who gave me that opportunity and encouraged me with many more. It was Bob Greene who first opened the door to the world of theater and drama, having produced the first three plays that I appeared in during high school.
Most of my 30 years serving in the ministry have been spent as an Associate Pastor, and I had the opportunity to serve some wonderful Senior Pastors. I was blessed to work with Jeff Coker at the First Presbyterian Church of Natchez, MS, with Sibbald Lambert at Grassy Creek Baptist Church in Spruce Pine, NC, and with Kenneth Ridings at Grassy Branch Baptist Church in Asheville, NC. The Pastor who holds the biggest place in my heart is Benny Turner, the Pastor of my home church during the most influential years of my life. Benny officiated our wedding ceremony and my ordination service, and was the very first Pastor I served in the ministry. Benny passed away in 1996 at the early age of 59, but his mentoring and shepherding-style of ministry made an indelible impression on me and will forever be a part of my pastoral DNA.
However, the father figure that stands head and shoulders above the rest would have to be my father-in-law, Joe Smith. Joe was the quintessential everyman who spent most of his life in the town of Rock Hill, South Carolina. It was there that he met and married Judy Gaulden, and spent almost 47 years with her as a loving husband and father. Joe had a very sharp and practical mind, was gifted with a large dose of common sense, and spent his career as a quality control specialist at a local textile plant.
I was a college freshman, a music and theater student, when Jeannie first took me to her home to meet her mom and dad. In the normal flow of our conversations, Joe asked me what I was studying and what I planned to do in life – natural questions any father would want to know about his daughter’s prospective beau. What I remembered about that conversation was, while he may have wondered inside how I would make a living in the world of music and theater, he never articulated that. I walked away from that first visit feeling that he had accepted me and encouraged me in my endeavors. Of course, majoring in Religion and having stable employment in church staff positions may have given him more reassurance about me. But when the time came to leave church staff in 1997 and pursue the drama and music ministry on a full time basis, he and Judy were our biggest cheerleaders.
In those early years of our marriage, I sought Joe’s counsel for any major decision we faced. I would also seek his advice for the less urgent things, as well. I watched him as he led his family with a mild manner and a firm resolve. He was even-keeled and temperate, and seemed to have the patience of Job. He loved working in his garden and harvesting fresh vegetables each year to put on the dinner table. Joe was so loving and generous, and had a keen sense of humor that kept the family gatherings lively and a mature wisdom that kept us together. I learned much from what Joe said, but I learned the most valuable life lessons from my father-in-law by the exemplary way he lived his life.
In 1991, Joe was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and over the next 10 years, we watched as his quality of life diminished. He spent his final days in Asheville at the VA Hospital and Nursing Home, and passed away in 2001 at the age of 73.
The wisdom of my father-in-law and the legacy he created lives on through the wonderful family he left behind. I have often told Jeannie that I have the blessing of being the recipient of the best thing I believe Joe ever did in life…bringing her into this world.
True father figures don’t necessarily have to be directly attached to our family trees. Instead their connections to us transcend the bloodline and reach to the very depths of our spirit and our soul. Joe Smith was like a father to me, and the indelible impressions he made on my life will live with me forever.