HIGH SCHOOL YEARS (con'd.) AND APPLYING FOR COLLEGE
John B. Isom
AS A SUNDAY SCHOOL "EXPERT" AND A REMARKABLE CONGREGATION IN THE PIEDMONT HILLS OF ALABAMA ABOUT TWENTY MILES NORTH OF ANNISTON
LIVING WITH THE BUCKNERS.
I lived with the Buckners during the first two and a half years of the agonizing depression. There were times when there was no money to pay the teachers, not even the lowly janitor. The Buckners never burdened me with their financial problems. They must have been in debt at least for their home. People were losing their homes and farms on all sides. One day, when everything looked hopeless to him, Mr. Buckner made this observation: "Why don't we just abolish all debts and start over!" At the time I was too ignorant to have any idea as to the cause or cure for the depression. But I never forgot his suggestion. Many years later, after Work War Two, I was driving through the Sycamore community in Virginia. In a peanut field by the road I saw Mr. Wiggins, an old friend. I stopped to speak to him. Before the depression he was a well to do farmer, a stockholder in one of the Franklin banks. The bank closed, and being a stockholder, Mr. Wiggins lost everything he had, even his family farm. He saved it only by being able to buy it back on the installment plan. As the depression wore on he was able to get control of other farms without risking any money by simply agreeing to keep up the payments on the mortgage held against farms whose owners had lost due to being unable to keep up such payments. When I asked how well life was treating him, he waved his hand in a circle, pointing to the horizon, encircling the large farm on which we stood, and said: "You see this beautiful farm. It's mine. It's paid for. It didn't cost me one red cent. I just picked up the mortgage on it, and during the war, the rent more than paid it off." His success story reminded me of Mr. Buckner's observation, made back in the early thirties. - "Why don't we just abolish all debts and start over!" I now think it would have been more just to have acted on his suggestion than what actually happened. Millions of homes and properties that were lost by those, who could not keep up the mortgage payments, were bought up for a song by those, during the depression, who had money or access to credit, as Mr. Wiggins had done.
Mrs. Buckner was a beautiful young woman, only a year or so older than I. Yet, I never thought of her as being so young, not because she looked old, but because she seemed so much more mature than I and far more knowledgeable. One of her older brothers was a minister and she herself was more than devout enough to be one. She was a very kind and patient person, more stable and dependable than Mr. Buckner. I do not mean that he was irresponsible. But there was a tiny part of him that never grew up. It grew very little while I lived with them. It was still a little boy when I went off to college. But it was the boy, in the handsome six foot man he was, that gave his personality its charm and made it all but impossible not to forgive his minor faults, however irritating one of them might be at times.
It was very hard for him to get to a place - any place - at the time he would promise to be there. In fact, more than otherwise, it was just impossible for him to do so. Every morning, the first thing done at the breakfast table was the reading of a few verses of scripture, followed by a prayer. Now less than half the time, I would think, he was unable to get ready for breakfast in time for us to get beyond the devotion before he would have to leave to see that school began properly and on time. This he would have been on time for, I think, if he would have had to go in his shirttails.
There was hardly a week, it seems, that I did not go to Cullman with him. He would always have a number of things to do, and I might have a few things I wanted to do. "Well," he would say, "let's met at the Piggly Wiggly Supermarket by four o'clock. The first few times I made it a point to be there before four. Slowly I realized I would be ahead of time if I arrived at five. I often wondered how many hours Mrs. Buckner patiently waited for her husband every year of their life together and then , out of pity, or in response to the humor of his boyish excuse, forgive him without a fuss.
Once someone in the community shot a big water fowl, only breaking one wing. No one was ever sure the name of the bird. His wing had to be amputated. We sunk a container near the well and kept it filled with water for the bird's swimming pool. We fed him and he stayed around for some time before he wandered off. One afternoon the Buckner's pre-school daughter, Gwendolyn, and I were playing around near the well. She wanted to go swimming in the bird pool. I picked her up, holding her upside down. I lowered her head into the dirty water far enough to get her hair wet. She thought it was great fun. I know her mother must have thought otherwise when we went into the house and Gwendolyn told her mother what we had been doing. Forcing, I'm sure, a little grin on her face, she said to me, without the slightest tone of irritation, "I washed her hair this morning." She must have felt like wringing my neck.
That was Mrs. Buckner - a patient, - very patient and kind woman. I never could call either of them by name. Her name was Ruby. She called him just Buckner. His mother called him Edwin, or that is what it sounded like. Most people of the community simply called him by his initials, E.L or as Ruby, Buckner.
Mr. Buckner had a great respect for Ruby's feelings and convictions. And you had to forgive him for his little boyish sins which were motivated by his respect for her. I never heard her say so, but I assume she did not believe in gong to movies. I say that for, just once, when we were in town, he looked at his watch and said, "Let's go to the movie." On the way home he said, "John, don't tell Ruby we went to the movie."
One Saturday afternoon, Alabama's football team was playing in Birmingham. He looked at his watch at a time after the game had already begun, and said: "Let's go to the game." We arrived at half time. He paid six dollars for our tickets. We watched the last half sitting on the top step of the grandstand. On our way home he said, "John, don't tell Ruby where we have been." My guess is that he wanted this trip to be our little secret, because he was beginning to feel guilty for letting the little boy in him waste six precious dollars on a ball game. I kept those little secrets, as Ruby will tell you. And if and when she reads this, I'm sure she will find it as funny now as I did then.
Mr. Buckner died a few years ago. I wish he was still alive to forgive me for betraying him. Our paths had not crossed for many years. Even so, his absence from the earth diminishes me. I loved the man.
THE UNCLE BILL STORY (My first encounter with racism)
One Easter I went with the Buckner's to visit his parents, who lived in Prattville, a small town a few miles north of Montgomery. His parents lived in a big rambling house amid a scope of woods at the edge of town. It was chilly when we arrived. We found the family in a very large room that served as the kitchen and dining room. They were sitting around a very large wood-burning cook stove that sat some three feet from one of the walls. I was introduced to Mr. Buckner's parents and to his younger brother, who was out of college and was pursuing his profession in Prattville. I was then introduced to Uncle Bill who was sitting against the wall, half way behind one end of the stove.
As the members of the family were talking about family stuff, Uncle Bill and I got into a discussion of our own. Unconsciously I was saying, "Yes sir", and "No sir" in response to his questions, just as I had been taught to do when talking with an old person. Presently Mr. Buckner's brother got my attention and motioned for me to follow him. He led the way to another room. "You don't," he said, with a mixture of anger and disgust in his voice, "say 'yes sir', 'no sir' to a nigger." Whatever else he said did not register. At that point the "something else" - the best part of me - silently began protesting, saying that such an attitude is inconsistent with the best the human heart knows and feels.
As I remember it, I listened to him in dead silence, thinking this college educated man must know a lot more than I did. yet, I left that room knowing, in my guts, that he should be, and must be, somewhere in his heart and mind, ashamed of himself for saying what he was saying to me. I felt no guilt or shame for having spoken to Uncle Bill in a manner consistent with the love and equality principles as taught in the Bible. I know I had talked with Uncle Bill the same way I would have wanted Uncle Bill's son to talk to my father.
Uncle Bill was the first Black person I ever met and had the opportunity to talk with. In Mr. Buckner's brother I had my first encounter with the sickening race prejudice, which I was to learn later, infected many people in the South and North - a sickness of the mind and heart that I have resisted and fought, if sometimes cowardly, and never too successfully, to this day.
In the parts of Alabama, where I was born and lived my first twenty-two years, there were no Blacks for the poor whites to exploit or with whom to compete for bread and status. There were no plantation sites to be found where slaves once did the work of their masters. No slave at whom the "poor white trash" could look down their noses and feel superior.
In the hills and hollows where I was reared, I doubt, except on hunting trips, any Indians had ever spent the night. The people there, from the beginning, had only equals by whom to measure themselves. All had been the "poor white trash" and their descendants. It was, perhaps, for this reason that I learned first to think of, and look upon, any other person as an equal, before taking note of such differences as color of skin or speech. I never told the Buckner's about the lecture his brother gave me on how to talk to "niggers". If he told them they never broached the subject with me. I believe they would have had he told them.
I COULD NEVER REPAY THE BUCKNER'S
The Buckners' second daughter, Carolyne, was born while I was living with them. I do remember, during that time, I was of some service to them by helping with the washing. Remember, there were no washing or drying machines then. The water was pumped, by hand, from the well, heated in a pot, and the washing done on a washboard, by hand, rinsed through two tubs of cold water, by hand, and hung on an outside line to dry. The rinsing and hanging out are cold jobs in winter.
I also helped Mr. Buckner to dig a well, fifteen or twenty feet deep. One night, because of a big rain, the well caved in. All that work was of no value to them. Mr. Buckner and I grew a garden during two summers. However, I don't remember that we ever had an abundant harvest. I doubt if we grew enough vegetables to pay for the seed and fertilizer.
Did we keep a cow for a spell, and I was the milker? I think so. If so, that was a real service, summer or winter. Milking a cow is a hot job in summer and a cold one in winter.
Nevertheless, when you give me credit for everything I did, and then double that, the fact remains I contributed very little toward meeting the financial budget of the family. Even so, my financial expense to them was, perhaps, a less problem than other things.
They had, as I remember, only two bedrooms. There may have been a small nursery off their bedroom. I'm not sure about that. There was no basement. The rest of the house consisted of a small kitchen, dining room and living room. I had to be more than a little bother and inconvenience to them just by the space I occupied, if for no other reason. Yet, I don't remember their actions ever making me feel so. They were really doubly good to me.
THE HOLLY POND BAPTIST CHURCH AND I
When I went to live with the Buckners I transferred my membership from the New Hope Church to the Holly Pond Church. Right away I was asked to teach the intermediate boys' Sunday School Class - boys from 13 - 14 or 16. I taught that class until I left for college. I still remember the faces of many of the boys and a few names. The family name of one was Foot. I believe his father was dead. For some unremembered reason I felt closer to him than to any of the others.
(Any one who has played any kind of game with me will tell you I play to win. I lose interest in any game as soon as it is clear that the one I am playing with doesn't seem to care if he wins or loses. I feel it is a bit dishonest to let a child, deliberately, beat me. If a child hardly knows more than how to follow the rules of a game, if I am any good at all, he has sense enough to know that I can beat him. In letting a child best me I'm only kidding myself, hopefully. Otherwise I am encouraging the child to think he is better than he is, which will lead to a big let down when he gets beaten by someone who is no more skilled at the game than he actually is.)
One day Foot and I were playing a set of tennis. He was about as good a tennis player as I. He knew that the record of games won and lost between us showed that the odds were a bit in my favor that I would win this deciding game of the set. It soon became obvious to me that he really wanted to win this game. He would get a big bang out of doing so. He might very well have won the game had I done every thing I could to win. However, I deliberately did a thing or two to make sure I would not win. His joy in winning gave me far more pleasure than winning it could have. Yet, his joy and my pleasure would have been gutted had he known I did not do my best to win. I would have been ashamed of myself had he detected my little deceit.
As the name suggest, the B.Y.P.U. began among Southern Baptist as a program for young people - a training program that gave young people some experience in expressing themselves in public and to learn, by doing, the art of being a useful member of a group. By the time I moved to Holly Pond B.Y.P.U. had expanded to include adults and the name was changed to Baptist Training Union, B.T.U. Some of the adults of the church wanted a union of their own and I was asked to master mind the project - that is, do the arm twisting and leg work. A meeting was announced inviting all adults interested to attend. Enough came to decide to proceed in organizing a group. An ad hoc committee was elected to find and recommend officers for the organization.
The committee met and agreed upon prospective people for each office. Each member of the committee was assigned the duty of finding a person who would agree to serve as one of the officers, if elected. I was asked to twist Doctor Sandlin's arm until he agreed to be president. I remember one other person. I think her name was Mrs. Shaw, but it might have been Chandler or Crumby. Anyway, she was to be asked to serve as secretary-treasurer. She was a little woman, as quiet as a mouse, who never missed a church service.
When the committee was ready to make it's report another meeting was called to consider the report of the committee. The committee's report was accepted: thus electing Dr. Sandlin, Mrs. Shaw and the other nominees. We divided the members into groups and decided what Sunday of the month each group would be responsible for the program. I then gave each officer a small pamphlet in which were written the requirements and duties of each officer of an Adult Training Union. The meeting then adjourned after announcing our next meeting which would be our first program at the beginning of the next quarter.
Two or three days after that meeting Dr. Sandlin called. He had just read the requirement written in the pamphlet saying all officers must be members of the Baptist church. In no uncertain terms he wanted to know why Mrs. Shaw was elected as secretary-treasurer when it is written that all officers must be members of the church.
"Do you mean to tell me Mrs. Shaw is not a member of the church?, I asked. "Yes I do", he said. "She is not a member and therefore cannot be an officer." My reply was that I just assumed she was a member, having seen her in church every Sunday since I had been a member. "And that", I observed, "is more than can be said of a lot of members I know. Anyway, I did not think that rule was meant to be as rigid as the laws of the Meads and Persians." But old Doc was a stickler about rules and flatly refused to be president if we did not elect a member of the church to be secretary-treasurer. I suggested he take something for high blood pressure and stay hitched to the wagon while I tried to do something about it.
How was I to break this bit of news to little Mrs. Shaw. This was, perhaps, the first thing she had been asked to do by any group in the church. I hated the thought of doing anything to deflate her willingness to do the job. At the same time I wondered how sensible it was to be as stubborn as Old Doc and refuse to yield to his unreasonable demand, and in doing so cause a big fuss by making a mountain out of a mole hill. I was in a quandary, not knowing what I should do, and not knowing how to do whatever I decided to do. While I was procrastinating and hoping for some miraculous solution I saw Mrs. Shaw coming, at a fast pace, toward the house. I was sure Old Doc had already informed her, in his blunt way, of the problem. But no, she too had been reading the pamphlet to discover she was not qualified to be an officer in the B.T.U.
I met her at the door. She was obviously upset. I had already given her the tools she needed as secretary-treasurer. With a trembling hand, with tears in her eyes and voice, she handed me the tools and said: " I can't be secretary-treasurer, I'm not a member of the church." I said the first thing that came to my mind, which was what I honestly thought and felt. I said: "That makes no difference as far as I am concerned. Besides you are a much better member than many of those whose names are on the Membership Book". But, as Dr. Sandlin, she too, seemingly, took that membership rule to be as unbendable as God's Holy Word. She insisted that she could do no other than resign the office.
The rest of the conversation has gone with the winds of time, except what I said when she got up to leave. I cannot say just what motivated me to say what I said. I have an idea it was not beneath me to have been motivated by the thought that there was one thing she could do to silence Old Doc's criticism and deny him the pleasure of having his stubborn way. Anyway, I said: "One way to solve our problem would be for you to join the church." She made no response to that suggestion and left.
The next Sunday when the minister, Virgil Sizemore, asked for those wishing to join the church to come forward, Mrs. Shaw walked down the aisle and said something to Rev. Sizemore when he took her hand. At the close of the invitation hymn Sizemore asked the congregation to be seated and reported that Mrs. Shaw wished to become a member of the church and be baptized that afternoon. The church voted to respect Mrs. Shaw's wishes. That January afternoon some of us drove some three miles to Duck Creek and watched Mrs. Shaw and Rev. Sizemore wade out to a depth up to the waist, and saw her immersed in water that was something less than 50 degrees. That was my first effort at trying to resolve a petty church problem before it caused a big fuss. And I should add, it was one of my very few successful efforts.
MY FIRST SERMON.
Sometime during my Junior year in high school I confessed it was my intention to study to be a minister. I was 21 years old at the time. Shortly thereafter the minister, Virgil Sizemore, asked me to give the Sunday evening sermon. I had been a Sunday school teacher for four or more years, and had spoken in a few churches here and there, but never as a minister. I selected my Scripture for the service and thought of the many wonderful things I would tell the people about what the scripture teaches us. However, I made the mistake of not writing those wonderful things down. I had heard it said that the great preachers just prayed, got up behind the pulpit, and trusted the Lord to tell them what to say.
Well, on this first try at preaching I thought I would see how good I was. After the hymns and a prayer Rev. Sizemore, who had been my next door neighbor when I was a boy of 11 and 12, got up and told how loud I could holler at a mule, and expressed the hope that in my preaching I would not use some of the words I used, as a boy, when I got mad at a mule. Then he turned the service over to me.
I got up, read my Scripture and paused for a moment to give the Lord time to tell me what to say. But the Lord was silent! He made not even one suggestion. For the life of me I could not remember any of those wonderful things I had thought of in reference to the Scripture. I stammered around, saying a few jumbled up, unrelated things. Finally, after four or five minutes I concluded the sermon, somehow, and sat down.
That was the first and last time I depended upon the Lord to do my homework. Never again could I believe that I was that good as a preacher. It was years later, after this horrible beginning as a preacher, before I came across something that enabled me to look back at that experience with a tiny bit of pride. It was a story that Albert Schweitzer told about himself.
When Schweitzer was a young minister his congregation complained to his Bishop that Schweitzer's sermons were too short. The next time the Bishop saw Schweitzer the Bishop confronted him with the complaint, with some embarrassment. Schweitzer confessed it was true that he usually stopped preaching when he had nothing else to say. After reading that story I felt justified, when I was forced to recall my first attempt as a preacher, to give myself some credit for having had the gumption to stop shortly after I realized I had nothing to say. I should add that Brother Sizemore never asked me again, for which I am grateful, to preach for him.
John McGuire was the head of the Sunday School Department of the Alabama Baptist Convention. His overall duty was to develop and promote programs and activities to enlarge and improve the quality of the Sunday Schools of Alabama Baptist. One of those programs was known as A Sunday School Enlargement Campaign. It worked like this: Through the cooperation of the local leaders of the churches in a given county, say Blunt County, Mr. McGuuire would conduct such a campaign. He would see to it that both arms of every minister and Sunday School superintendent of every church were twisted to get their cooperation. For room and board he offered to send a Sunday School expert to every cooperating church. His experts were told to arrive at a certain church, in a central town of the county, by noon on Saturday before the week-long campaign began. Someone from each church was expected to be there to pick up his or her expert. A short lunch was served, after which John McGuire would give a version of his pep talk. His talk was designed to send everyone away feeling he or she could help double the Sunday school enrollment of the county and greatly improve the quality and strength of the organization in every cooperating church. <BACK> <HOME> <NEXT>
I no longer remember how it was that I got involved in his Sunday School Enlargement Campaign as an "expert". Give me credit that this convinced me there was more truth than poetry in the saying: "An expert is only a person far from home." To this day I am not impressed when someone is introduced as an expert. During my high school years I remember being an "expert" in six of McGuire's Sunday School Enlargement Campaigns. I shall tell you about one of them where the results were such that I can still believe it may have been worth the effort, even though the name of the church I cannot recall.
The small church was in the Piedmont hills of Alabama, some twenty miles north of Anniston. Mr. Smith, the principal and teacher of the one or two room school of the community, came to Anniston to get me. After leaving the one blacktop that ran through those hills, we traveled westward on a country road until it crossed another country road running north and south. There, at the forks in the road, in a clump of trees, the church building silently stood, except for the buzz of many wasps and dirt "dobbers" who made their homes inside and under the eaves of the church. The back and one side of the building was protected from all intruders by a blackberry ticket.
As the description would suggest, the church had no minister or Sunday school. That had been the case for some two or three years. Therefore I would be responsible for teaching the volunteers, using a book which explained in 2000 and more details, how to organize and operate a Sunday school, according to the collective wisdom of Southern Baptists.
It had been decided that I would sleep and have breakfast at the home of the Smiths, and dinner and supper with other members of the church. Being fed in such a style you get to eat a lot of chicken. During my first evening with the Smiths I asked them for the names of church members who might help make a Sunday school possible. Among the names mentioned were Mr. and Mrs. Hortons. They believed it was very important to get the cooperation and help of the Hortons. The Hortons were in their early sixties.
Thirty one people showed up at the church the following morning to hear my pep talk. Most of them were young people, between the ages of ten and twenty. Before I began I thought it wise to find out to whom I would be talking. I asked for a show of hands of the members of the church. After some hesitation one man eased his hand up. He turned out to be the questionable character of the community. That was the first and last time I saw him. I looked over at Mr. Smith. "Aren't you a member?" I asked. "No." said he. "I'm a Methodist." Two or three indicated they were Baptist but indicated they were visiting in the community. I asked for, and got, some volunteers to help take the religious census that afternoon. I let the census takers learn how to do it by filling out a card for themselves. Then, as Jesus, I sent them out two by two to fill out a religious census card for every person in the community. They were to return the cards to me at church when they finished their assignment.
The Hortons lived at the top of a small mountain just north of the church, in between one other family. I decided I would take the census of those two families, giving me a chance to meet the Hortons early in the week. On that hot Sunday afternoon I made my solitary way up that mountain road, hardly more than a trail. After climbing what seemed like a mile I came to a small clearing, in the middle of which, stood the Horton's home, surrounded by many hives of honey bees. I found Mrs. Horton to be a charming and gracious woman. Her husband was a tall handsome man. I introduced myself and told them my business in the community.
"Boy, you are wasting your time," said Mr. Horton. "Anyway", he continued, "I can't attend your classes. My brother, whom I have not seen in twenty years, is coming this evening. I'm not going anywhere as long as he is here."
Mrs. Horton assured me she would attend the classes and would be present for the fist one that evening. In the shank of the afternoon I counted the census cards and divided them into six age groups. Fifteen or twenty showed up for the first class. I reported the census revealed there were one hundred and one people living in the community, all of whom were potential members of the Sunday school to be organized. I reminded them we would need to find six teachers, a superintendent, an associate superintendent and a secretary-treasurer. I asked that a nominating committee be elected to find and get the consent of the people to fill those positions, and requested that the committee meet with me one hour before the class on the next day.
A committee was elected. They were given a close estimate of how many square yards of fabric it would take to curtain off the church into six classrooms, with an aisle down the middle, and how much wire and other hardware would be necessary. After agreeing that such curtains would be helpful a committee was elected to explore the possibilities and report their findings at the next evening. A few of the men volunteered to help clear away the blackberry thicket, destroy the wasp nests and the mud igloos of the solitary dirt "dobbers", and to give the grounds and building a cleaning and sprucing up. By Monday evening I had done enough exploring on my own to convince me that the best person in the community for the position of superintendent was Mr. Smith, even though he was "living in sin" by being a Methodist, and that the book declared all officers and teachers must be a member of a Baptist church.
At the Monday evening meeting of the nominating committee names were suggested for all positions, except the positions of superintendent and the teacher for the adult class. After some discussion a member of the committee, who had not read the book, suggested that Mr. Smith would make a good superintendent. The rest agreed but one pointed out that he was not a Baptist. It was suggested that if all present believed he was the best person for the job other members of the church should be contacted to see what they thought. I suggested if it be discovered there was broad agreement in favor of Mr. Smith, in order the get the best person for the job, we should ignore the rule that all teachers and officers must be Baptist. It was pointed out that there are exceptions to most, if not all rules, and Mr. Smith, in our situation, just might be the exception to the rule in the book.
In further discussion the consensus of all present was that Mr. Horton would make the best teacher for the adult class, but all were equally as doubtful that he would take the job. It was suggested this be discussed with other members and a report made at the Wednesday meeting.
At the Wednesday meeting of the committee it was reported that all who had been contacted believed Mr. Smith was our best person for superintendent, and that Mr. Horton would be the ideal teacher for the adult class. It was then suggested that members of the committee contact all prospective teachers and officers and try to get their consent to serve if elected, and report the results of their efforts at the meeting Thursday.
Mrs. Horton was a member of the committee. Before contacting Mr. Horton she thought the committee should wait until I had a chance to bring him up to date on all that had been done and what we hoped to do by the end of the week. After the meeting that evening members of the committee cornered Mr. Smith and soft soaped him, by telling him the truth - that everybody in the community thought very highly of him and believed he was the best person to be superintendent of the Sunday school. They did whatever arm twisting was necessary and got his consent to serve as superintendent, if elected.
In the meantime other committees were busy carrying out other projects agreed upon at the first meeting of the week. On Monday evening the curtain committee had reported that due to dry weather the year before there had been a total corn crop failure in the community and the people had to buy grain for their livestock.
The committee had checked around and found enough grain sacks that could be dyed and made into curtains. If the group wanted to proceed with the project the women of the committee had volunteered to make the curtains out of donated grain sacks. One of the men on the committee promised he would find a way to get the wire and the rest of the hardware needed to do the job. The group gave the committee the green light to proceed. Before the class began Wednesday the curtain committee reported the wire and other needed hardware was in hand ready to be used; that every dye pot in the community was boiling; that all sewing machines were humming; and the curtains would be ready for hanging Saturday morning.
The volunteer work committee reported the Blackberry thicket had already been cleared away; the wasp nests were gone; and the mud igloos of the dirt "dobbers" had been destroyed. They assured us, come Sunday morning everything, inside and out, would be spick-and-span for the beginning of the Sunday school and that they would be on hand Saturday to wire the church and hang the curtains.
Mr. Horton's brother left Wednesday afternoon and Mr. Horton showed up for class that evening. He gave me a bit of a hard time by asking, now and then, what I thought were unrelated questions to the subject being discussed. At on point he said, " I was once in a class John McGuire was teaching. He would now and then tell a funny story to relieve the boredom. I could have admitted that the book was somewhat boring because of its very nature and I, being a boring teacher, didn't help matters. But I thought better of it and responded to his remark with silence and continued trying to explain the boring details of the book in my boring way. After the class he asked me where I had been staying. I told him.
"Come up," he said, "to our place tomorrow and have dinner with us. It is not fair to eat off the same family all week long."
Mrs. Horton told me what time dinner would be ready. Privately I told her I was coming an hour early for a little conference with Mr. Horton.
By Thursday morning the information on the census cards had been tabulated. The people had been divided into six age groups. Two copies of the names and census information for each person of each group had been made. A copy of the prospective members of each age group had be prepared for each teacher and a copy of all groups was made for the superintendent. Sometime after ten-thirty on that hot Thursday morning, with all my ammunition in my briefcase, and a prayer in my heart, I made my solitary way up the mountainside toward the home of the Hortons. It was my intention to do everything I could to bag, for the Sunday school, this most important fowl of the community. If my information was correct, Mr. Horton was born, and lived his sixty odd years in the community. In spite of whatever his faults might be, he had won and held the confidence, respect, love and trust of the people of his community. When Mr. Horton spoke the people listened - not out of fear but out of respect. As far as I could learn he held no economic or political power over anyone in the community.
When I arrived Mr. Horton was sitting on his front porch watching his bees fetch the sweet and bitter, the clean and dirty materials which they blended and transformed into honey. He was still in a negative mood, but not as much so as at first. He had heard the night before the report of the curtain committee, and the report of the clean up committee. He saw and felt the dedication and determination of the people of the class. I picked up my briefcase, saying as I did so, that I had brought along something I wanted him to see. I pulled out my tabulated report of the religious census. "Here," I said, "are the names of the one hundred and one persons living in the community, their addresses and the religious information about each of them as reported on the census cards." I showed him on separate sheets of paper the names of five of the six age groups. Then I began giving him the report of the nominating committee. I showed him the names of the people the committee had recruited to teach those five age groups. I gave him the names of the persons the committee had recruited for assistant superintendent and secretary-treasurer. He was impressed, for he knew all those people.
After that soaked in I continued my report of the work of the nominating committee. "You may or may not know." I said, "that the committee believes Mr. Smith is the best man in the community to be the superintendent of the Sunday school. Also, they found that all the people of the adult class are of the same opinion, as well as all others in the community they have heard express themselves. As you, they know he is a Methodist. Nevertheless, the committee believes wisdom dictates we should ignore the rule in the book requiring all officers and teachers be Baptist, and elect Mr. Smith to be superintendent."
"You know Mr. Smith," I continued, "as well as everybody else. Do you know anyone else who is more interested than Mr. Smith in the Sunday school, or is more qualified than Mr. Smith for the job?"
Fortunately, Mr. Horton was a sensible man. He knew that "new occasions teach (or should) new duties", and that the facts of reality can not always be made to conform to preconceived rules. Mr. Horton agreed without hesitation that the committee had made a wise choice. I was now down to my last round of ammunition. I handed him the sheet of paper with the names of all the prospective members of the adult class. I gave him time to look it over. He knew nearly, if not all of them. I then reported that the nominating committee had personally asked most of the people on that list who they believed would be the best teacher for the adult class. "Without exception", I told him, "they said you would be the ideal person for the job." "The committee," I said, "is going to ask you to teach that class. I hope you will seriously consider it and let your heart give them a positive answer."
At that moment Mrs. Horton called us to dinner. I never asked her, but I believe to this very day she was eavesdropping, and called dinner at that moment to delay his response so she, if need be, would have a chance to do a little arm twisting of her own to help get the right response.
After stuffing myself at Mrs. Horton's heavy laden table, and a short visit with both of them, I excused myself, returning to the church to prepare for the evening class. After class that evening the nominating committee cornered Mr. Horton. He didn't have a ghost of a chance. They never would have accepted no for an answer, even if he had been inclined to offer one.
Friday was spent tying up all the loose ends properly together, and making sure everyone remembered what he or she had promised to do to make ready for Sunday. The Friday evening class was a brief review of the most important things to remember and do if the Sunday school was to live and grow. The rest of the time was given to double checking the things to be done on Saturday and who was going to do them.
Saturday the church and grounds were spruced up; the church was wired for the curtains, and finally the sack curtains were neatly hung. They gave the church a little "sacky" smell, but they served well the purpose for which they were made. Sunday morning sixty-one of the one-hundred and one people living in the community were present to become charter members of the new Sunday school. Two of them were young men home for the week-end on a pass from a state prison.
When the classes were over the curtains were pulled and the people of the classes came together for the closing service. The secretary-treasurer gave her report. The number present, as well as the amount of the offering, was very encouraging to all. In the meantime Mr. Smith handed me a note that informed me Mr. Horton had been asked to say a few words at some place in the service.
Since the church had no minister and no board of Trustees, I took it upon myself to call a business meeting of the congregation for the purpose of hearing the report of the nominating committee and taking action on their report. The committee made its report and it was accepted without a negative vote. Mr. Smith and everyone else, who just had to say something, were given the opportunity to speak. While they were having their say it occurred to me that whatever Mr. Horton might say would be a better closing pep talk than I could give. I asked him if he had any objection to being the last speaker on the program. He had no objection. In as few words as possible I reminded them that if they cooperated and worked in the days and years to come, as they had done during the past week, they would be able to maintain a Sunday school, through thick and thin - a Sunday school for which they would be equally as proud ,as they were that day, of its fine beginning.
Mr. Horton's speech was not long, but long enough to review briefly some of the disappointing experiences of the past. Then, after saying a few nice things about the "boring teacher" of the past week, he apologized for the little he had done to help make this grand new beginning possible. He expressed his gratitude for what had been done and confessed he was greatly encouraged by the turn of events.
He then shared with us, his uncontrolled emotions showing, his hopes and dreams for the Sunday school. He concluded by challenging all who were present to resolve to exercise the faith and stick-to-it-iveness necessary to make this noble beginning bear fruit down through the years. By the time he finished there was hardly a dry eye in the congregation, partly out of respect for the man, but more, perhaps, out of the joy of the fruits of their labors and the shared hopes and dreams which Mr. Horton had expressed for them.
After lunch Mr. Smith took me back to Anniston for the closing meeting of the county wide campaign. At that meeting each "expert" had two minutes to make an oral report. I used the first minute to name four or five of the main accomplishments of the week. I used the other minute to introduce Mr. Smith. I said, "I want to introduce to you Mr. Smith, the man whose vision, work and leadership made it possible. He is now the newest Sunday school superintendent in Calhoun County. Also, he is, in his community, the most respected, popular, and admired Sunday school superintendent in all the state of Alabama!" With Mr. Smith by my side, I added. "All of this is true about him even though he continues to "live in sin by being a Methodist."
Mr. Smith was given a very warm welcome. As far as I know no one during the week even thought of suggesting that Mr. Smith should be invited to join a Baptist church. I never tried to find out if Mr. Smith was ever "saved and properly baptized into a Baptist church." I never lost any sleep over that part of his salvation. Through the grape vine, some years later, I heard that the Sunday school was still alive and doing well.
Due to the memories, after all these years, of the silent and spoken doubts, fears, hopes and dreams that hovered over and around many of the scenes of the drama of that week, I could not today orally tell the story without choking up at a number of places. I was not even able to write it without doing so.
BEREA COLLEGE IN KENTUCKY
In Berea, Kentucky there is a well-known college for the financially poor but mentally rich student. During my senior year of high school (1932) I took the test for admittance to Berea College. At that time the College had so many applications it could be very choosy, taking only A plus students. In fact such grades were stated in the application forms as being one of the requirements. It was known, however, there were always exceptions to the rule. Mr. Buckner and I knew I was not an A plus student. Even so he encouraged me to take the test.
A brilliant young man, Ethridge Sanford, who had finished high school the year before, decided he would take the entrance test. The school accepted Sandford, but sent me one of those "sorry" letters. I really did not expect any other kind. I knew I did not have an A plus academic mind. Also, I knew my grades on the entrance text revealed my ignorance of the facts in many fields - facts a child, reared in an academic environment, would have picked up without trying, just as I had picked up an A plus knowledge of the barnyard facts of life on the farm.
The "sorry" letter did not inflate my ego. Neither did it let all the hot air out of me. I knew I did not have the quick and brilliant mind of Ethridge Sanford. At the same time I could believe my mind, given time and enough sweat on my part, could learn to do, fairly well, anything anybody else could do. I knew I would never have time to prove that to myself, and it just might not be wholly true. Yet, that is the way I actually felt about myself at the time, and even now for that matter. Call it conceit or what you will. I prefer to describe it this way: I do not expect myself to make use of what I do not have. I do expect myself to make a reasonable and consistent effort to make the most of what I do have, whatever that may be. My Berea experience inspired me to make such a conscious evaluation of myself and I resolved just to try a little harder to see what might be done with, say a B average mental equipment.
In the Buckner's library there was a book of poems - One Hundred and One Famous Poems. In one of the poems there was this line: "It's nothing against you to fall down flat, but to lie there that's a disgrace." That line of poetry has helped me many times down through the years, to pick myself up, dust of the seat of my pants, and try again. My easier high school subjects were those that had to do with math, geometry, physics and chemistry, or any subject that had the answers in the back of the book, by which I could check my first, second or third effort. Plain geometry was my easiest subject. I took it during my junior year. Mr. Buckner was the teacher. The only class I remember him teaching. Due to his other duties he could not always meet the class and he would ask me to teach it for him. I did so a number of times while I was taking the course and during my senior year.