Dad knew when he was 12 years old that he wanted to be a minister. We were raised in Michigan all our lives and Dad served churches in Newberry (U.P.), Republic (U.P.), Three Rivers, St. Joseph, Kalamazoo, Ionia (city), Hart, Ionia (rural), Jonesville, Three Oaks (all in Michigan) and Frostproof in Florida. He had his PhD and had also served as chaplain at the Ionia State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. My brothers, Bill and Bob, and I were typical “PKs”, a little on the wild side, and Dad was always very understanding.
On June 6, 1944, the Allied forces landed on the beach at Normandy in the D-Day invasion, which was the beginning of the end of the Second World War in Europe. Dad had decided to answer God’s call to the ministry when he was a freshman in High School in Pickford, Michigan in the UP. In 1944, Dad was enrolled at Owosso College and the Bible Holiness Seminary in Owosso, Michigan. He married Mom that same year. Within two years they had two boys under the age of two, but continued working toward becoming an ordained minister. It couldn’t have been easy for Mom and Dad, but they persevered because God’s call is that strong. We moved from Owosso to Newberry, Michigan in the UP where Dad served a Wesleyan Church for three years. Then we moved to Republic in the Western UP where he served another Wesleyan Church. Bob was born in 1950 and that made three boys 5 and under. We remember Dad holding evening services in Republic with only a handful of people. But that didn’t make any difference. If it had been one person, the meeting still would have gone on. At evening services Mom would play the piano, and Bill and I would sit on the steps where Mom could see us. On Sundays, Bill and I would sit in the front pew and Bob would be there in a basket. We lived in the back of the church and were quite poor, but we boys didn’t know it. Dad only made fifteen dollars a week (a raise from the two dollars a week to seven dollars a week at Newberry), so he had to work in the iron mines to make ends meet. First he worked in the mines themselves and later worked as timekeeper in the office. He did what was necessary to provide for his family and still continue his ministry.
In 1952 Jonas Salk invented the polio vaccine. Most children were vaccinated in the early fifties. I can remember Bill and I, and probably Bob too, eating those sugar cubes with the pink stuff in them rather that get shots. A disease that had crippled many thousands of children was soon under control. In 1952, Dad had accepted an assignment with the Evangelical United Brethren Church near Three Rivers, Michigan. There were two churches in the Park Circuit (Center Park and West Mendon) and they kept Dad hopping. Dad would preach the sermon at Center Park, finish, and then race over to West Mendon to do the same thing over again. On the way to West Mendon, we often picked up Mr. Crosley. He was walking to church smoking a cigarette, but hid it when we stopped to give him a ride because he didn’t want Dad to know he smoked. But Dad did know and didn’t approve but it didn’t really matter as long as Mr. Crosley was going to church. I can remember Dad performing weddings late at night while us boys sat on the stairway listening. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, some of the brides appeared to be near having their first premature babies. Dad used to help farmers in the church when beef and hogs were butchered. It may have been unusual, but as we said before, Dad would do whatever it took to provide for his family and continue his ministry. It also gave him an opportunity to interact with his parishioners on a more personal basis and it helped him understand their hardships. When we got older, we had to help mow the church lawns and paint the parsonages, so I guess Dad was also the Supervising Maintenance Engineer. Both churches were involved in building projects during the six years we lived there and Dad was always right there acting as construction engineer. We can remember Dad and others from the church hand digging a basement under the Center Park Church.
In 1961 the Peace Corp was founded. Throughout the years, Peace Corp volunteers have done much to raise the standard of living in many third world countries. In 1961, Dad was serving an EUB church in St. Joseph, Michigan. Bill, Bob and I were in our teenage years and were quite a handful (just typical pk’s). At the time we figured Dad only worked a half-day a week (on Sunday mornings) and had it pretty easy. It was only later that we realized how much work he actually did. The congregation was bigger, so there were more weddings and funerals; more people to visit in hospitals; more meetings to attend; more potluck suppers; basically more of everything a minister does. He was active in the area ministerial association. During those times of racial unrest, I can remember having Sunday dinner with the minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Benton Harbor and his family first at their place, then at ours. The custodian at the church in St. Joseph was a German refugee named Walter Scwartzfeld. Walter had made the escape from East Germany, but his family had not. He was alone in this country with no family and no friends. Dad befriended Walter and helped fill a void. Dad would take Walter for boat rides and do what he could to make Walter’s life a little more complete. Dad was sometimes Supervisor of Riverside Church Camp and would sometimes drag Bill and me along as kitchen help. As busy as Dad was, he still found time to drive us to and from our lawn mowing jobs, to and from baseball games, to and from the pier where we perch fished from dawn to dusk and to and from school functions. In between all those things, he still found the time to continue his studies and in 1964 he earned his doctoral degree from Protestant Episcopal University in London, England. He taught classes there as a visiting lecturer and also taught classes at the University of Michigan. We remember Dad taking Old Testament Greek from a Greek Orthodox Priest in Benton Harbor and studying until the wee hours of the morning.
In February 1964, the Beatles first appeared in America on the Ed Sullivan show and ushered in a musical revolution. In June 1964, Dad accepted a change in assignment to a church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. A bigger church meant still more responsibilities. There were two of us in college, Bob was in High School, and we were all capable, at one time or another, of being more than a little on the wild side. We remember the cottage we had at Indian Lake and all the fun we had there. We remember the motorcycles we all had and the times Dad would make his church calls on his motorcycle. We remember the time that Dad borrowed mine, hit a car that had pulled out in front of him, and was in a coma for several days. We remember the trips we took to Florida, first to the Tampa/St. Pete area and later to the keys at Islamorada. We would leave Kalamazoo right after Sunday evening services and would drive all night (one time there were five of us and my twelve string guitar in a Ford Thunderbird–I rode the hump–not a comfortable ride). We can remember driving through snow and sleet in Kentucky and Tennessee and listening to the radio as they closed roads behind us. One year we stopped in Harriman, Tennessee to visit the Riggs relatives. We went back there last summer and caught up on family history (some of which is better left forgotten). We would always stay at nice places in Florida and went fishing from the bridges and on party boats. I guess we didn’t realize that Mom and Dad spent all their money on us so we could have fun. They didn’t have much left for themselves but that was fine with them as long as we boys were happy. Many people know that Dad had a love of cars. We knew that it was not only a love of the cars themselves, but also a love of dickering for anything he bought. Dad kept a log of the cars he owned in his lifetime and through 1986 the list totaled 86 different vehicles.
In 1969 the Woodstock Music and Art Festival was held in upstate New York. If all the people who claimed to have been at Woodstock were actually there, it would have been ten times larger than it was. In 1969 Bill was married and Bob and I were in the service. Mom and Dad had moved to Ionia in 1966 and served a church there until 1967. Dad soon decided to combine his ministry training and his doctoral degree in philosophy and became Chaplain at the Ionia State Hospital for the Criminally Insane (I’m sure there is a much more politically correct name for it these days). Dad took me on a tour one time when I was home on leave and I left speechless. There was a man behind the locked doors with papers piled all over his desk. He told me he was an attorney working on releases for some of the prisoners. I thought it was nice that he was able to work right in the lockdown area where he could be close to the men he was working for. Dad told me later that the papers were all waste paper, and the man was an inmate. I don’t remember all the details, but I know a man once pulled a knife on Dad in his office at the State Hospital (at the time it made him seem a little bit 007ish).
In 1973 the Sears Tower in Chicago was completed. At the time, it was the tallest building in the world. In 1973, Dad had returned to the ministry (we all knew he couldn’t stay away forever) and was serving churches near Ionia, Michigan called LeValley and Berlin Center. He also served churches in the Hart, Michigan area and the Jonesville, Michigan area from 1979 to 1985. It was during this time period that Dad renewed his love of the outdoors and hunting that he developed when we lived in the UP. During the UP years, hunting was necessary to put food on the table for his ever-growing family. He never missed an opening day of deer hunting season unless it was on a Sunday, and even then the sermon was just a tad shorter, and he would be in the woods by 12:30. This also gave him a chance to spend more time with Bill and later, his grandchildren. On one particular Sunday hunting trip he made a spectacular shot on a buck on a nearby ridge. In his haste to get to the woods after church, he had forgotten to pack his hunting knife and had to use a single edge razor blade to field dress the deer. On another day, it was warm and in the mid day heat, there wasn’t much action. He was cozied up to what was known as “Dad’s Tree” and closed his eyes for just a minute. He awoke a short time later and opened his eyes only to see a deer with its nose less than a foot away from his own.
In 1986 the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded seconds after takeoff killing all aboard. In 1986, Dad was serving what he thought was his last church in Three Oaks, Michigan. He thought he retired from the ministry in 1988. Dad and Mom did the normal retiree things. The first year or two it was a brief winter visit to Florida with their travel trailer. They progressed to a small park model home in the RV park at Bowling Green and then on to Deer Lake Park at Avon Park. At the time of Mom and Dad’s fiftieth wedding anniversary, they were touring the United States with Bill and Lois doing the trade show circuit for Bill’s business. He accepted the challenge to be minister at the Sun Ray United Methodist Church in 1996 which continued until now. Dad said it was only a part time job but he never did anything part time. If it needed to be done, Dad would do it without worrying about how many hours it took. The week before Dad has his heart attack, he visited a family and ended up taking the man to the hospital with pneumonia.
In September 2001 the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in the Washington, D.C. area were attacked by terrorists. Thousands of people died in these attacks. In September 2001, Dad was critically ill in a hospital bed in Orlando still preaching the word of God to nurses and anyone else who would listen. When we visited with Dad in the cardiac care unit, we told him that he needed to get better but would need to slow down a little. But he said and I quote “It’s not just a job. I do it because I really enjoy it and it’s my life”. He said over and over “I love God first, then Lorna and then my boys”. Dad always wanted to die with his boots on, and he did.
Two weeks ago, when Mom, Bill, Bob and I were with Dad in the hospital in Orlando, we told Dad we loved him and we were proud of him. Saying you are proud of someone is something that is said quite often without even thinking about why. So we boys talked about why. Dad didn’t storm the Beach at Normandy and help end the war in Europe; he didn’t invent the polio vaccine and save the lives of thousands of children; he didn’t start the Peace Corp or even serve in the Peace Corp; he wasn’t a rock star (although in our teenage years we thought that would have been way too cool); he was one of the few people of that era that didn’t claim to be at Woodstock (that would have been too weird– Dad at Woodstock); he didn’t build huge buildings that became world landmarks; he wasn’t an astronaut that flew to the moon; he wasn’t a rescue worker in New York City being lauded for bravery and tireless efforts to save people.
He didn’t do any of those things, but for over fifty years went quietly about the business of profoundly changing people’s lives. Every Sunday he would preach the gospel to anyone who would listen. He performed hundreds of weddings and probably just as many funerals. He baptized hundreds of children and adults. He had a keen financial mind and helped many churches out of financial difficulties. He counseled people who were having trouble in their lives. He comforted people when they lost loved ones. He ministered to the sick. He was a friend to everyone he came in contact with. He prayed with people when they needed help. He prayed for people when they didn’t even know they needed help.
We are celebrating Dad’s life today. But Dad would be the first to admit that he couldn’t have done it as well as he did without Mom’s help. Most people don’t realize, but we know from first-hand experience, that when a minister answers God’s call, the minister’s wife does too. Whether it’s playing the piano at services, putting together the bulletins, helping with the church reports, working with and sometimes leading the women’s groups, organizing church dinners, taking care of the kids when the minister has meetings every night of the week, going to work to help raise money for a church bus, typing the sermons, or any of the other duties of a preacher’s wife, she needs to be just as committed. We love you and we’re proud of you too, Mom.
But for us boys that’s not where the story ends. Dad had a way of letting us know we needed to do something without really saying anything (my kids say I am the same way). With just a look, we would understand that we had done something wrong and we needed to do something to make it right. So without saying so, we think Dad has challenged us to make a difference in the world with our lives. We aren’t ministers; we’re bean counters and computer geeks. But we can still make the world a better place because we were here. If we want to know how, we have over fifty years of examples to look to.