Driving West in ’88

I wrote this back in 2015 and pulled it out as a piece for a memoir. It’s a true event that occurred when I drove West for the first time. On the way out, I stopped first in Nashville, where I met a friend that’d hike with along the Appalachian Trail. Then I headed to St. Louis, where I stayed at my great uncle and wife’s home on the western side of the city. Leaving their home, I was entering land that was new to me (I’d been to St. Louis a few times and once flew into Kansas City for an assignment in St. Joseph. But I had never step foot on the land between Kansas City and California. I’ve attached two photos (somewhat scratched) from that trip across Kansas. Sadly, I never got a photo of the red and black ’55 Buick.

My destination for this trip was to visit a seminary classmate at Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah, then to Camp Sawtooth in Idaho where I’d spend the summer. From there, I would go on Virginia City, Nevada where I would spend a year as a student pastor. I have posted a number of stories from that time: Becoming a preacher, Matt, Doug, Christmas Eve 1988

A Katy train in Eastern Kansas, photo taken in June 1988.
A Katy Train in Eastern Kansas, June 1988
(copied from a print)

My stomach growls, but I want to get through the congestion of Kansas City and Topeka before stopping to eat. It has been five hours since breakfast outside of St. Louis at Homer and Bebe’s home. Since leaving their home in Pacific, I’ve only stopped for gas and to pick up a new map at the Kansas welcome center. As I put the miles behind me, I’m in unfamiliar territory. I’d spent time in Missouri but had only flown over the vast territory between Missouri and California. 

 As I drive west, I notice a strangely familiar car, a ‘55 Buick with a red body and black top. It’s travelling just a little slower than me. I turned on my blinker and moved into the left lane to pass. When I pull beside the car, I looked over at the driver. His left elbow sticks out of the window, and he holds the steering wheel with his right hand. He’s wearing a white tee-shirt and a beige hard-shelled jungle hat.  

“It can’t be,” I think. 

 I take a second look. Is this an aberration? The car is identical to the first car I remember riding in and the man driving looks just like my dad did when he was younger. I remember as boy fishing in Dunk’s Pond with my dad. He wore that same style of hat and a white t-shirt. And, in the days before air conditioned vehicles, he often hung his left elbow out the window. 

“What had happened to the car and dad’s hat” I wonder as I pulled around the Buick. As I sped down the highway, I kept glancing back in my rear-view mirror, thinking about my dad and wondering about that man who could have been his twin.    

I decide to stop at the next intersection with a place to eat, but after passing a few exits with nothing, I gambled on the next town. I pull off at Paxico. There’s nothing at the interchange, but I followed the signs across the Southern Pacific railroad and then, paralleling the tracks, into a small town with a decisively western feel. The air is stifling hot as the humidity builds, but I need to stretch my legs. I walk the length of the commercial district, the few buildings that still exist each having an awning over a wooden sidewalk to shade those passing by. Then I head out by the railroad tracks and watched a west bound train rush through without slowing down. 

After a few minutes of walking and watching the train, I head back to the bar and grill. It’s cool and dark inside. It takes my eyes a few minutes to adjust as I grab a seat at a table and ordered a hamburger. A radio plays in the background. Between country music songs, there are advertisements for farm implements and reports on crop prices.  At the bar, three men in overalls drink drink beer and discuss the weather, hoping they’ll get some rain out of the storms forecasted for later in the day. I eat, taking it all in. I feel free as I’m on my own and have been racking up the miles.

Thirty minutes later, after paying my bill, I’m back in the car heading west. I watch in fascination as the clouds builds on the horizon. I dreaded this drive across Kansas, but I find myself intrigued by these gentle hills and rich dirt. As the clouds become darker, I notice a bolt of lightning and then another and then it hits. A tremendous wind is blows against my car. I hold on to the steering wheel with both hands. Then comes the rain, racing in sheets across the prairie. Soon, drops of rain and hail pound the roof with such force that it drowns out Steely Dan cassette playing in the car’s stereo. I slow down. Under an overpass, I notice a group of motorcyclists seeking shelter. 

Soon, the storm passes. Steam rises from the highway, making distant views hazy. I pick up speed. Ahead, out of that haze, I see the car again, that 55 Buick. It’s way ahead, but I’m gaining on it.

I will pass him several more times today and even tomorrow morning, the last being just before I leave I-70 and take 1-25 north toward Cheyenne, Wyoming. 

Sunset and utility poles in western Kansas, June 1988
Sunset over western Kansas (copied from a print photo)

Roy, Utah, & Aimee Semple McPherson

View of Cedar City, Utah from Cedar Mountain, looking northwest. Photo by Jeff Garrison
Cedar City, Utah from Cedar Mountain, 2010 (Lund is in the distance, before the far mountains)

“My mother always told me that if she had enough money, she would have stayed on that train and headed back to Minnesota,” Roy confided to me. This was in the late 19th Century. His mother, who had met his father when he was on a trip back east, had come west to begin her married life. The train stopped in Lund, a small town along the line that would later become the Salt Lake and San Pedro Railroad. After that, it would be part of the Union Pacific line, but all that was in the future. Lund is in the middle of a garden of sagebrush. The country is barren and flat, but in the distance, mountains rise. In 1898, it was the closest rail hub to Cedar City. It’d be another couple of decades before a spur line was established, linking the city and its iron mines to the larger world. On

Roy’s father was there by the small station, with a buckboard, waiting. He loaded her luggage in the wagon. The train continued westward toward Modena and Pioche. Roy’s parents began their life together with a bumpy and dusty thirty-four mile ride to Cedar City. She would live there for the next eight decades. A couple years later, she gave birth to Roy.

View of Community Presbyterian Church of Cedar City, Built in 1926 and used as a church until 1997. Currently, it is used as an office.
Presbyterian Church 1926-1997

Roy’s father was one of three Swedes to come to Cedar City to herd sheep. In time, each began to save money and acquire their own herds and land. They stood out as Gentiles, non-Mormons, in a community dominated by Latter-day Saints. These three families would later form the nucleus of a Presbyterian Church. While they had been Lutheran, the Presbyterians had missionaries in the region. Roy’s mom agreed to help establish the church if the missionary pastor would teach Luther’s catechism. She would continue teaching Sunday School in that church until she was nearly a 100. She died at 104, a decade before my arrival. However, many of the members at that time still had fond memories of her. 

Ranching operations the desert near Cedar City, Utah. Photo by Jeff Garrison
Ranching operations near Cedar City

I spent my first Christmas in Cedar City with Roy and Velma and their son’s family, having a large dinner around their dining room table. I had moved to Cedar in October 1993. My wife had stayed behind to finish up her degree at Buffalo State. The day after Christmas, I flew east to meet her. We would visit to our families in North Carolina and Georgia before driving her car across the country. Around their table, I sat as an “adopted orphan” at Christmas,” hearing their story for the first time. 

Roy’s first wife was Vera, who’d died in the 40s. Roy had a large sheep operation by then and two young children. He then married Velma, Vera’s identical twin sister. Velma loved telling of the first time the mailman stopped after she had moved to Cedar City. The poor man almost had a heart attack, thinking Vera had come back from the grave. Velma laughed at my suggestion that she should have let the rumor run wild that God was known to raise the Presbyterian dead.

Roy was ninety-two and still active. But he didn’t get out a lot during the winter, with his son running the sheep operation. The exception was to attend church in January, close to his birthday. For the next three years, he stood up during joys and concerns and brag about his age. That first January he bragged that he was going to be 93 and could still ride a horse. The next January, he stood and bragged that he’d be 94 that week, and still his own boss. His wife leaned over to Edith Kirtly, both of whom were in their 80s and hard of hearing. She thought she was whispering, but everyone heard as she said to her friend, “That’s what he thinks.” The congregation erupted in laughter as Roy sat down, his face red with embarrassment. 

Over the next few years, I got to know Roy better and we had many discussions on faith. While he supported the church and believed in Jesus, he struggled with doubts that reached back to his youth. He was a high school student when his father, who was at a sheep camp, had a lantern explode in his face. Glass shivers flew into both eyes. From that point on, Roy and his brother alternated between school and running the sheep. In the summer, they were up on the mountain. During winter, the camped in the sagebrush at lower elevations. 

Roy’s mom took his father to doctors in the east and San Francisco, searching for someone who could restore his sight. But the damage was too extensive and there was nothing to be done.

Then she heard of Aimee Semple McPherson, a Pentecostal preacher whose worship services from Angelus Temple in Los Angeles was broadcasted across much of the country in the 1920s and 1930s. Known for her healing, she packed her husband up and they headed to Los Angeles, renting a small cabin not far from Angelus Temple. For several weeks they attended worship services and was visited by Sister Aimee. When she thought he was ready, she had him come up on the stage to have his sight restored. She laid her hands on him, prayed over him, and proclaimed him healed. Of course, his father’s eyes were too far gone. He never regained his sight and confided in his son that he never believed Sister Aimee could healed him but attended to satisfy his wife. 

The red hills of Navajo sandstone west of Cedar City, UT. Photo by Jeff Garrison
Cedar Canyon, west of the city

It amazed Roy that I knew about Sister Aimee. A new biography of her had been published a few years earlier and, as one interested in American evangelicalism, I had read it shortly before moving to Utah. In our conversations, I shared much of her intriguing and scandalous story with him. 

Roy died in 1997, the year after Utah celebrated its centennial, and two months before the Presbyterian Church moved into its new home. He lived all 96 of his years in Utah. He’d become a successful sheep herder. Although a Gentile in a community dominated by Mormons, he was an important business leader within the community. He even helped the Mormons by contributing to the construction of the second Mormon Stake House, which was just down the street from his house in the 1940s.

Roy was excited that the Presbyterian Church was building a new worship center. As the old church was too small and the new church not yet ready, his service in the funeral home. The room was packed with old ranchers and farmers as well as members of the Presbyterian Church. I preached on the 23rd Psalm, which seemed appropriate for a man who spent his life running 100s of thousands of sheep up the mountains and out across the valleys that surrounded Cedar City.

Another story from my Cedar City days: Doug and Elvira

On Cedar Mountain in the fall with the aspen in yellow. Photo by Jeff Garrison
Up on Cedar Mountain in the fall

Doug and Elvira: A Pastoral Tale

Community Presbyterian Church, Cedar City, UT, where this conversation occurred. The congregation moved into a new and much larger facility in 1997.

A slender woman in a business suit stood at my office door. I guessed her age to be in her early fifties, fifteen or so years older than me. She was attractive and well-dressed. I wondered what she was selling. I stood and invited her in. 

“I’m Jeff.  What can I do for you?”  

As I offered my hand, I realized she was shaking. Her rather limp hand clasped mind and, looking down, she asked quietly, “Can we talk?” 

I gestured for her to take a seat as I stepped back behind my desk, sat down, smiled and nodded. I didn’t know it at the time, but we were both destined to be shocked by what would be revealed.

“I’m Elvira’s daughter,” she said.

“Yes, Elvira, she’s a special woman,” I said with a smile.  

In a few months, I had become very acquainted with Elvira. An elderly woman, she shown up at worship one Sunday morning in late 1993 or early 1994. I don’t remember if it was the first Sunday, but she soon starting requesting each week that we pray for her son, Carl.  I included him in our prayers during worship and he remained on the congregation’s prayer list. Over time I learned he lived in Elko, Nevada and was experiencing a relapse of cancer. Elvira was from Nebraska. She now lived in an adult foster home in Cedar City, Utah where I had visited her. The couple who ran the home were happy to see to it that Elvira got to church every Sunday morning and someone from our congregation would give her a ride home. While I was unsure about her living arrangements and her story, she had in a few months become a part of the church’s family.

Sitting in my office, Elvira’s daughter began telling me the story of moving her mother from Nebraska to Utah. At first, Elvira had lived with her daughter and son-in-law at their home in St. George, a town fifty miles south of Cedar City.

“It was a mistake,” she confessed. 

At their age, without children of their own, Elvira was like a child. And she had become a wedge between her and her husband. I sensed Elvira’s daughter experienced guilt for having placed her mother in the home but didn’t know what else she could do.  

“Are there other siblings who could help?” I asked. 

“No,” she said trembling.  

“I know you have a brother who has cancer. Is he Elvira’s only other child?”

“Yes. But my brother has been a problem all along. He was married and had a son, but then left his wife for a man. That’s a sin, but my mother just accepts it.”  

“Well, he’s her son,” I said.  

“Don’t you think that’s a sin?” she asked.

“I didn’t say that,” I responded. “But that’s not the issue. We’re all sinners and to her, he’s also her child, her flesh and blood.”

“He’s always asking my mother for money, and never pays it back.” I could sense she had nothing but disgust for her brother. There was a pause and I waited for her to continue.

“My mother doesn’t have that much, but she he gave him enough for a down payment for that house he and his opera singing lover built in Virginia City.”  

Doug, 1988

My brain exploded. “It couldn’t be,” I thought. Maybe she sensed my reaction for she stopped and, for a moment, we sat quietly.

“Did your brother also go by the name, Doug?”  I finally asked.

She turned white. Her eyes widened. After a moment, she nodded and bowed her head. Finally, she continued. “His name is Carl Douglas. We always called him Carl, but his friends know him as Doug.”

“I know him,” I said, confessing what was now obvious. “I haven’t seen him in three or four years and didn’t know he’d moved to Elko.” 

Memories of Doug flooded my mind. It seemed so ironic I’d been praying for a couple of months for someone I once knew well.

I’d met Doug and Rudi in 1988, right after moving to Virginia City. I was thirty-one years old and a student pastor at a small congregation there for a year. The first week, Doug and Rudi invited me to dinner at their home in the Highlands.  Although they were already living there, the house was still under construction. Doug had done most of the work. Before dinner, they showed me around their home in which the kitchen cabinets still lacked doors and there was much trim to be finished. I had the sense they might be gay, which was confirmed when they showed me their master bedroom. I was nervous, looking in, as I’d never been in a bedroom of someone gay. But I almost laughed. I was amazed at how messy it was, which went against my stereotypical images that I had of how gay men lived.  

First Presbyterian, Christmas 1988. The nativity scene is to the right.

Over the next few months, I got to know them better. Rudi sang at church functions and Doug was our go-to handy man. He built a manger for a nativity display we posted beside the church at Christmas. He had helped me winterize the house I was living in. Later, he’d help design a retaining wall that kept the hill behind the church from encroaching on the sanctuary. By then, though, he was too sick to do the work.

Perhaps my best memory of Doug was from New Year’s Eve, which was a Saturday in 1988. As I practiced my sermon for Sunday that afternoon in the sanctuary, I heard water run under the organ. Upon investigating, I found a crack in the pipe supplying our hot water heating system. I called Doug and he came down immediately with his tools. Together, we spent an hour on our bellies, under the organ, cutting out the damaged pipe with a hacksaw and then soldering in a new piece. We took turns holding the pipe and torch, as we each talked about our plans for the evening. Thanks to our efforts, heat was restored, even though we were both late for our respective parties.

Doug also helped me with my first computer. He ordered the parts and built the computer, showing me how it fit together. This was in January 1989. The computer had 640 kilobytes of RAM, a 30 meg hard drive, and a 5 1/4 floppy disk. He only charged me for the parts. It was still expensive, but about half of what a computer cost in those days (which is more than they cost today). With the coming of a computer, I would never write another sermon by hand.

Me, backcountry skiing outside Virginia City, late December 1988

A few months into the new year, Doug became sick. He had tests and asked me to go with him to the doctor to hear the report. It was cancer, lymphoma. The prognosis wasn’t good. The doctor had tears in his eyes as he talked about the prognosis. 

Doug soon started chemotherapy. On at least one occasion, I drove him to Reno for his treatments. We’d had a pleasant talk heading down the mountain on Geiger Grade. On the way back, Doug was sick and spend much of the trip with his head in a bag. By late summer, when I was leaving to return to seminary, Doug had lost most of his hair, but he was doing better. In the summer of 1992, when I visited Virginia City, I stayed with him and Rudi. Doug had been in remission for over a year. 

Later that year, I’d heard through mutual friends that they had split up. I lost contact with them. 

C Street, Virginia City, December 1988

I’m sure the room was spinning for Doug’s sister as I told her about my time as a student pastor in Virginia City and how Doug had been very involved in that church. We talked for some time that afternoon, as I tried to encourage her to reconcile with her brother.   

I am sure many people would consider this meeting as a coincidence, but I saw God’s hand-written all over it. I had to reconnect with Doug. The phone number Elvira, his mother, had for Doug in Elko no longer worked. I made some calls to friends in Virginia City. No one had heard from Doug in a while, but I was given a phone number for Rudi, who was now living in Las Vegas. Calling him, I was shocked to learn he and his new lover had moved Doug down for Elko. Doug was living with them. He had become so weak that he could no longer care of himself and there was fear he would be homeless. 

A few weeks later, as I was coming back from a trip to California, I stopped in Vegas and visited Doug. He was resting on the couch and remained prone the entire time. I was afraid it would be the last time we’d see each other. I could tell that he was pleased I had stopped and that his mother was in the church I served. I stayed only for an hour as Doug appeared exhausted.  

It turned out that wasn’t the last time that I saw Doug. A few weeks later, in early September, Rudi called and said that Doug had rallied and wanted to come up and to see his mother and me. The day of the reunion of Doug and his mother was hot with not a cloud in the sky. We toured Cedar City and ate lunch at a Chinese restaurant. By the time lunch was over, Doug was tired. Rudi suggested they head back to Vegas. But before they left, as we stood talking in the parking lot, Doug pulled me aside and asked if I would be willing to officiate at his funeral. He knew it wouldn’t be long. I assured him it would be an honor.

It was just a week or two later when I received the call that Doug had died. He was 48 years old. I went over to Elvira’s to give her the news. She expected it. She wanted to attend the funeral and hoped her daughter would take her. However, her daughter refused, so I offered to drive Elvira down to Vegas. 

The day we left, her daughter asked us to stop along the way for dinner. She lived only a mile or so off Interstate 15, so it really wasn’t out of the way. I agreed, secretly hoping I could encourage her to attend the funeral, but she remained adamant. After dinner of hash made from a left-over brisket, that was quite good, we left her home in St. George and continued to Vegas. 

As the interstate came out of the Virgin River Gorge, a violent thunderstorm moved through with high winds and blinding lightning that cooled the air from the day’s heat. I slowed down in the driving rain, but it felt as if the storm was cleansing the earth. Elvira and I both marveled at the lightning. That night, we stayed overnight at Rudy’s. Elvira slept in Doug’s old bedroom while I camped out on the couch where Doug had laid when I visited him earlier in the summer.

The next morning, September 30th, I escorted Elvira inside the chapel at the cemetery for one last look at her son. Then they closed the casket. Slowly others gathered. By the time all were present, about a dozen of us, we filled only two rows in the oversized room. Rudi, Doug’s former lover, was there with his new lover. His son had made it.  Hilda, who had also been a student pastor in Virginia City a few years before me and was organizing a new church in Green Valley, a Vegas suburb, was there, as was her husband whom she met in Virginia City. A few women who had been friends with Doug and Rudi rounded out the group. On schedule, the chapel’s organist played music. Hilda and I read scriptures and offered prayers. Then Hilda sang a solo and I preached the homily. 

Afterwards, we made our way out of the cool chapel into the late-summer heat of a Las Vegas morning, stopping at the gravesite. A few words were spoken, and the party broke up.  Elvira and I stopped for lunch and then drove back to Cedar City that afternoon.

Before the end of the year, Elvira moved back to Nebraska, into an assisted living facility. We kept up with each other for a couple of years through Christmas cards, but then her cards stopped coming. I sure she is no longer with us.  However, I am glad to have had the privilege to minister to her and to her son. I just wished her daughter could have found a way to reconnect to her brother before it was too late.  But I learned that I can’t change people and it’s not my job. Instead, I had to care for all three in what limited ways I could.

About the photos:

Several of these pictures was from a photo album given to me by the church when I finished my year. I know I have other pictures of Doug and some with his mother when they made the trip to Cedar City. I am sure I also have others of Rudi. They were probably taken on slides and stored in one of several large tubs in storage. The photo of the old Community Presbyterian Church of Cedar City was taken from the church’s website.

Other Virginia City Stories:

Matt in Virginia City, 1988

Riding the Virginia and Truckee

Christmas Eve on the Comstock, 1988

I have often used stories about my time in Virginia City in sermons. In this recent sermon, I spoke of my uneasiness during my move to Virginia City.

Virginia City (with St. Mary’s in the Mountains in the middle). Photo taken from the Flowery Cemetery, southeast of the town.

Uncle Dunk

Dunk in the 1980s

I drove to hospital in Pinehurst the first day I had off. It was the thing to do, especially since my dad was living on the other side of the world and my grandmother, a widow for just a few years, had her hands full. There, in a sterile room, was Uncle Dunk. His name was Duncan Calvin McKenzie, but to everyone he was Dunk.

Dunk wasn’t really my uncle; he was my great-uncle, my grandma’s brother. As a man, he seemed to have as many lives as a cat. He was still living in the old place, his parents’ home, on Doubs Chapel Road, next to where we lived before moving from Moore County when I was six. I remember the old house well, the kerosene heater in the parlor where we’d gather in the winter. In the summer, we’d sit on the back porch unless it was Sunday, then everyone sat on the front porch while us kids climbed in the large magnolia trees whose branches reached the ground, making it an easy tree to climb.

Dunk had come home from work one weekend with the intent on doing some grilling. The coals just weren’t turning white fast enough for Dunk. He was ready for that meat to start sizzling. I’m sure his judgment was already somewhat impaired by alcohol. He tossed some gasoline on the grill. 

Dunk was in pain when I was saw him, but he’d live another day. In fact, he’d live another twenty-five years. That gasoline saved his life, for afterwards, till he finally went into a nursing home, my grandma kept a close watch over her younger brother, keeping him mostly sober.

Dunk in the 1930s, working tobacco
with his father and two neighbors

My first memory of Dunk came from when I was just a little boy. I was probably four. My parents had brought an old home, a couple hundred yards east of my great grandparents place, and were fixing it up so that we could move in. Every evening, we’d be over there working, or at least Dad would be working. Dunk, who was still living with his parents, my great-grandparents, just up the road, would come down and help the best he could. 

During much of this time, he wore a neck brace then, which made him kind of look like the women from the Karen tribe of Burma with long necks and heads pulled high by metal bands. Of course, Dunk’s brace wasn’t a fashion statement; it was the result of having totaled his car on 15-501. I think it was near the Lower Little River Bridge. He almost didn’t make it then. Despite a broken neck, Dunk did what he could. When not able to help, he’d play with us kids. I’m sure, his keeping us our fingers away from the Skil saws, was a big help. Dunk would late help my father build the copper clad steeple for Culdee Presbyterian Church.

After we left Moore County, we’d only see Dunk occasionally. On time, he’d told my Grandma that he wanted to see us. She went and found him drunker than I’d seen a man before. She brought him home with her and ran him through the shower, then sat in one of her hard maple chairs at her dining room table and poured coffee down him. He cried, saying he was ashamed of his condition. By making him sit there, I wasn’t sure if she was trying to punish him or to use him as a lesson for us kids. I was probably ten or eleven years old and just didn’t know what to make of it all. I still don’t.

A few years later, after Dunk’s daddy died and the old place was getting pretty worn down, my Dad took my brother and me over to see if he was home. Knocking on the back door, he yelled for us to come in. Dad opened the door, but wouldn’t let my brother and me go in. I could see there were four men in the sittin’ room, but no were sitting. They were nearly passed out on the sofa and floor. Seeing us, Dunk struggled out to the back porch, where he held tightly to the screen door in order to remain upright. I think he was both ashamed as well as glad to see us. One of the other men yelled out some lurid comment. Dunk told him to shut up. By then my Daddy was herding my brother and me toward the car. I was probably thirteen or fourteen then and even today I not sure what to make of it all.

As the years drifted on, I’d occasionally see Dunk at Culdee Church when I was in Moore County on a Sunday. He’d be out front on the lawn after the preaching was over, smoking cigarettes and talking to the men. Of course, if he’d fallen off the wagon, he’d be missing among the assembled crowd.

Dunk in the Navy during WW2

Regardless of his condition, Dunk always remember us kids at Christmas and send us something. At first, it was mostly candy, often a box chocolate covered cherries that would leave a little sticky glue on the corners of my mouth. When I got to high school, he went through a phase of giving me bottles of Old Spice Aftershave, even before I was shaving (something I gave up long before I used all those bottles). Then, thankfully, he started giving me packages of handkerchiefs. This kept up till I was in my forties and I’m sure even today half the handkerchiefs in my dresser drawers were gifts from him.

As he got older, his wounds begin to bother him. During War World Two, Dunk was a pharmacy mate in the Navy. He served on a supply ship in the Pacific, and if I remember correctly, it was struck by a torpedo or maybe a kamikaze. I don’t think it sunk, but some of the sailors aboard were lost. He seldom talked about the war, but it must have bothered him. His back and neck, both of which had been broken at various times from automobile accidents, always hurt. He shuffled around; at least he couldn’t get into too much trouble. He started to go to a men’s Bible Study and attended church more regularly. I reckon it was in his blood as his Daddy and Granddaddy and Great-granddaddy had all served as an Elder at Culdee Presbyterian. He never served as an Elder, but for his last quarter century of his life, he attended faithfully. He also took delight in his dogs.

Dunk reached out to my adopted son. When we’d visit in the summer, he’d take him out fishing on his pond, the same pond I’d first fished in when I was just a tot. I liked that they got to share that together. Both went through a lot. As the boy got older, whenever we talked, he’d ask about Dunk. Dunk also adored my daughter. When he learned she was taking violin lessons, he presented her with a violin that had belonged to his granddaddy, the man for whom he was named. His granddaddy traded a barrel of kraut for the violin, back in the 1860s. Dunk was tormented by demons most of his life, yet deep down there was goodness.

Becoming a Preacher

I wrote this essay in the late 1990s. when I served a congregation in Utah and had no idea I would eventually end up back in the South… I recently pulled it out and edited it a bit before sharing it. The essay shows some of what I was reading at the time. If I would undertake such a quest to again to put my thoughts on preaching on paper, I’m sure it would be quite different. Nonetheless, much of what I wrote still seems relevant.
-C. Jeffrey Garrison

Ramblings about my preaching

That’s me in Virginia City

After worship, Howard Bennett, the church organist, came up to me smiling, his arm outstretched, and loudly proclaimed, “We have a preacher!” It was the second Sunday of September, 1988, Camel Race weekend. I had just preached my first sermon for the First Presbyterian Church of Virginia City, Nevada. For the next twelve months, I would serve the congregation as a student pastor. It felt good to hear Howard’s praise. I didn’t consider myself a preacher. I needed his affirmation for I didn’t know if I had what it would take to deliver a year’s worth of sermons to a group of people I was just getting to know. Howard’s praise provided confidence!

I based my sermon that day on the question Jesus asked the disciples in Mark 8:27, “Who do people say that I am?” The theme was Christocentric, heavy on theology and void of humor. Thinking back, I’m sure what Howard meant by his affirmation was that I sounded like a preacher. No longer am I sure it was a compliment, although I’m positive Howard meant it that way. What happened, I now believe, is that with a strong pulpit presence, I discovered how to make people listen—or at least stay awake. I’m not so sure this is all together positive. Staying awake in some of my sermons might fall into the cruel and unusual punishment category.

Combination Mine Shift with Virginia City in the background
My Accent

One thing I learned early on in preaching is that there was a benefit to my accent. I disagree with Norman Maclean’s father, a first generation Scottish Presbyterian preacher in Montana. The elder Maclean tried to eradicate his Scottish brogue and despised those who came from the mother country and flaunted their accent. Instead, I have found that having an accent makes people take notice. Perhaps it’s because they must concentrate on listening. Down South, I’d be just another prophet without honor instead of the celebrity I became during my three years in the pulpit in upstate New York.. Sometimes, of course, the benefits of an accent are mixed and lead to misunderstandings. There are still people in Virginia City who believed my Palm Sunday sermon about Pilate, had something to do with a pilot (perhaps he flew for Air Rome).

Although I count my accent a benefit, I have always considered my uniquely southern-style grammar and diction a liability. I’ve struggled with grammar and when I get excited and talk fast, any rules of grammar which I might have picked up along the way fly out the window. Even though I’m proud to be a Southerner in the pulpit, at times I’m a bit afraid the congregation might think of me as a bumbling idiot. Southerners in general suffer from this malaise which serves as an antidote to our healthy sense of pride.


A few years ago, I had the opportunity to spend a week studying with the late Dr. W. Frank Harrington of Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia. The conference was in Hastings, Nebraska and consisted of Presbyterian pastors in the Rocky Mountain or Plains states. Frank, the pastor of the largest church within the denomination, amazed me in how commanded everyone’s attention with his thick slow southern voice. Frank vindicated southern preaching for me. His approach in the pulpit was like a Southern lawyer addressing the jury. Leaning up against the pulpit, speaking in a slow conversational tone, he’d get us to laugh and to cry and then, when he had us hooked, demand we make some decision concerning our faith. “Always preach for a conviction,” Frank repeatedly reminded us.

Frank was a true Southerner. Like all great preachers—J. Wilbur Chapman, B. Frank Hall, C. Kenneth Hall, D. Lyman Moody. C. Wesley Jennings and C. Jeffrey Garrison—he had an initial in front of his real name. Although he never admitted this, I’m willing to bet he cursed his parents to the grave for not using his first name. As a Southerner, Frank had the ability to tell stories and to laugh at himself, invaluable gifts for preaching. All of us have fallen short of God’s glory and Frank’s prime fault was that he hailed from the lesser of the Carolinas.

With only a few notable exceptions such as Norman Maclean, Southern authors have, in my humble opinion, been the only literary voice in twentieth century America. Even non-Southerners such as Big Sky writer, A.B. Gurthie, Jr., big game stalker Ernest Hemingway and the quintessential bum Jack Kerouac found it necessary to sojourn in the South. As with Frank Harrington’s preaching, these authors remind me that we Southerners have something to say. Sometimes it might not be what people want to hear, but we say it anyway, partly because we’re ornery, partly because that’s what we feel God calls us to do.

What is preaching?

H. Eddie Fox, a Southerner who hails from the Methodist tradition, defines preaching as proclaiming:
“the biography of the deeds of God in terms of one’s autobiography with the hope that persons, enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit, respond to God’s act of forgiveness in Jesus Christ, in repentance and faith, and live out the new life in faithfulness to the kingdom of God.” 

This definition leaves out an important component of preaching, the call of God. As Fox and his co-author George Morris points out a few pages later, the Jonah story demonstrates “two fundamental truths.” Going to Nineveh wasn’t Jonah’s idea and hearing about God wasn’t the Ninevites’ idea. God wanted the word out. Preaching is proclaiming God’s biography, but at God’s request. When I honor this request, I trust God’s Spirit works in the life of the hearers so they may be moved by God in ways I, as the preacher, may never know.

The humbling knowledge that God’s in charge

Sometimes preaching is humbling. There was a woman in the Virginia City congregation who was living, with kids, in an abusive situation. During one sermon, she heard me say something that empowered her leave her husband and seek safety. To this day, I’m not sure what she heard because I was preaching what I thought was an ecological message about taking care of God’s creation. God does work in mysterious ways—even to the point of allowing someone hear the gospel in a sermon that has little to do with the message. John Calvin explains the power of preaching to be in the Word, not in the minister. Though humbling to our egos, there is comfort knowing God uses preaching and teaching to “awaken faith and promote sanctification.” The burden of preaching is lifted from our shoulders and placed upon God’s broad shoulders.

Of course, knowing God works through our preaching does not excuse us from preparation. Preaching is hard work. We must incorporate God’s Word into the modern situation and do it in a way that doesn’t bore our congregations to death. Preaching should not be, as I once heard a professor from a reformed theological seminary sarcastically quip, “taking out and examining the doctrines.” Preaching should be alive. It involves telling stories—God’s story and our story. And telling stories should be fun and humorous.


Billy Sunday, the so-so baseball player for the Pittsburgh Pirates who became a sensational (or sinsational?) evangelist, once said: “God likes a little humor, as evidenced by the fact that He made the monkey, the parrot—and some of you people.” Today, the preacher task is more challenging. Media moguls, with resources to create mind-blowing scenes, have taken over storytelling. The preacher must rely on the use of words and an occasional gesture to connect to the mind of the listener so that his or her imagination might visualize the possibilities that exist within God’s kingdom.


Probably the greatest gift a preacher can give to his or her work is honesty. This means we may have less to say than we’d think. One of the problems with preaching is that people expect us to have answers and we, wanting to please, also want to answers questions concerning life and faith. But do we? What do we really know?


Wendell Berry, a Kentucky tobacco farmer who spins a pretty good story, tells about the preacher in Port William’s, Kentucky, who, upon learning that a son of parishioners is missing-in-action during World War Two, immediately goes over to family’s home. A relative of the missing man, while discussing this visit, says, “the worst thing about preachers is they think they’ve got to say something whether anything can be said or not.” The task of preaching is to be honest and at times admit we do not know what God is doing. Instead, we are called to be faithful. As the funeral liturgy goes, “even at the grave we make our song, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

Development of my theology; 
Or, before you get into the pulpit, you better have something to say

I was born in Pinehurst, North Carolina, just two days after the death of Humphrey Bogart. This was the same year that Jack Kerouac published On the Road, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas shot it out in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and Elvis released “Jailhouse Rock.” In some existential sort of way, these events may have played a role in my theology. Since I don’t know anyone alive who understands existentialism, I’ll refrain from speculation.

Culdee Presbyterian Church

My theological development started on Easter Sunday, 1957. The location was Culdee Presbyterian Church, located in Eastwood, North Carolina, a community which even then didn’t have a post office. It had a Shell Station, a small grocery store called “Bunches,” and a Presbyterian Church. The Post Office closed about the same time the last logging train pulled out of Eastwood Station. This was before my grandmother’s birth. Culdee Presbyterian Church was built on a sandy ridge between Nick’s Creek and the Lower Little River. My Scottish ancestors settled this land two hundred and some years earlier. Out on the ridge where the church sat, they staked out a cemetery filled with many of my ancestors.

1957, my great-grandfather McKenzie holds me. My father is the one with dark glasses. My grandmother to right. My great grandma is next to my dad, and my uncle is in front of my dad.

At the time of my baptism, Culdee consisted of a white-washed pine board church and a cinder block Sunday School building. The McKenzies, Blues, and McDonalds had organized the congregation in the dark decades after that fateful and foolish charge up Seminary Ridge. Ninety-five years later, they were just beginning to get over it, although it would take another generation or two to completely purge the system. On that Easter Sunday, dressed in my finest, my mother and father, flanked by grandparents and great-grandparents, presented me to the Reverend J. Thomas Young to be baptized. A few drops later, I was marked as a member of the Covenant.

Garrison/McKenzie Influence

The Garrison/McKenzie clan played an important role in my early theological development. My Grandfather Garrison had converted to Presbyterianism from a hard-shell Primitive Baptist background, due to his marriage to my grandmother. His conversion represented a pentecostal event in the life of Culdee. The congregation witnessed God’s love extending even to those without a Scottish name. He serves as elder at Culdee for many years. The presbytery elected a commissioner to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, US. Unfortunately, his health kept him from attending. Although he died twenty years ago, to this day I still think of my grandfather as the ideal elder. He regularly read and studied the Bible. His prayers at the table, when the family gathered, were reverent and brought to my mind an image of a good and loving God.

My Great Grandfather McKenzie has also served as a model of faithfulness for me. He served as an elder for forty years and for most of that time was also the Sunday School superintendent. My great grandfather died when I was in Junior High, but I can still see him in the room at my grandparents. He lived with them the last couple years of his life. He would sit in his rocking chair and read the Bible. When the good book wasn’t in his hands, it would be sitting next to his bed on the nightstand. The family in which I was born was steeped in the Bible.

Early memories of church

My early memory of church was watching our neighbor, Art Zenn, prepare the site for a new building with his bulldozer. It was great fun to watch him push dirt around. The congregation started construction on its new sanctuary around 1960. My grandfather was on the building committee and did much of the plumbing and heating work. My father and great-uncle built the copper clad steeple. A crane hosted the structure into place. In 1962, just a year before we moved away from the area, the new building was complete. They tore the old, white-washed wooden sanctuary down. The new brick church began to grow as it reached out to new people in the community. No longer are all the officers Scottish or married to a Scot.

Cape Fear Presbyterian

I grew up in was Cape Fear Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, North Carolina, a city we moved to when I was in elementary school. My fondest memories are working on the Boy Scouts of America God and Country award with the pastor, C. Wesley Jennings. Mr. Jennings only had daughters and found the scouting program a way to make up for this shortcoming. He prodded my brother and me through the program. During this time, I began to understand more about what it meant to accept Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and Savior. As I started High School, I began to read the entire Living Bible, in a teen version called “The Way.” The Bible had been a Christmas gift. I checked off each chapter read in the front of this Bible. Although I gave up the challenge after a few months, I read over half of the Scriptures.

Encouraged to consider the ministry

While in High School, my congregation started electing women and youth to church offices. I was honored to have my name placed in nomination for deacon and surprised to be elected. In the Southern Presbyterian Church, Deacons had oversight of the budget and buildings as well as being responsible for taking up the offering and serving as ushers. I bought a suit and assumed my duties. The hostility within meetings shocked me. Money does that! While serving as a Deacon, people began to suggest I should become a preacher. 

The ministry was not an altogether new idea. I had told my grandmother, when I was ten, that I planned to be a Presbyterian minister. As soon as the words were out of my mouth I began to wonder where they came from. However, the ministry seemed an exciting possibility, yet I wasn’t totally comfortable with the idea. It would be another decade before I felt the call to the ministry. By then, I had graduated from college, worked in a bakery, and for the Boy Scouts. I had also been married and divorced and had moved to western North Carolina.

My call to ministry was a process that began with my healing from a broken marriage. My first wife and I had problems. We separated. Then she became pregnant from another man. We quickly divorced, and she remarried. Crushed, I slipped into a period of depression which lasted a couple years.

Experiencing a call

A new town and new friends restored my confidence, and a new church again offered me a chance to serve by spending one night a month in a homeless shelter. It was also a time of decisions as I was trying to decide if I wanted to stay on with the Boy Scouts or seek some other form of employment. During this time, the thoughts of seminary began to come to me. On a backpacking trip early in January 1986, while mulling over options, I decided I’d try seminary. When I got home, I called one of the pastors at the church I’d joined in Hickory. Even though we’d never discussed the ministry, he asked, “what took you so long?” That Spring I received affirmation from many minister friends, two of whom were Lutheran. 

I also received my first opportunity to preach that Scout Sunday, just a few weeks after deciding to enter seminary. As a scout executive, I had often been invited by troops to “say a few words” at their church. Then, out of the blue, this pastor whom I’d never meet, called and told me he planned on me giving the sermon on Scout Sunday. I was floored. The first Sunday in February 1986, I preached my first sermon in a Methodist Church. That summer, I sold my house and moved up north and entered Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. I’d chosen Pittsburgh over Union at Richmond and Columbia in Georgia because I’d never been there and wanted to see what it was like. Besides, Roberto Clemente had played ball there.

Looking back on it all, I can see God’s hand gently nudging me toward seminary and the ministry. While at Pittsburgh, I worked in two different congregations, both of whom encouraged me in my journey. God’s guidance and the love and encouragement of these folks prepared me for the task of preaching. My own journey taught me to trust and place my faith in God.

Impact of Growing Up Southern On My Theology 

Oscar Wilde supposedly said, in the aftermath of the American Civil War, that “one couldn’t admire the moon in Georgia without being told how much better it looked before the War.” Mark Twain noticed the same thing in conversations about the moon in New Orleans. These two accounts mean either my Southern ancestors spent a lot of time looking at the moon during the closing decades of the nineteenth century or someone stole another’s story without properly crediting them. It doesn’t much matter anyway.

The Truth Behind Southern Mythology

It’s a well-known fact that southerners, at least those of us who are Caucasian, reminisce over the antebellum period when our ancestors spent afternoons sipping mint juleps in rocking chairs on the porch of the big house. Listening to these stories, one must assume this was also an era before mosquitoes, ticks, sand gnats, and flies. Those pests must have been introduced as retribution by those pesky Yankees.

The truth is that few of our ancestors enjoyed such luxury, but after Sherman burned everything, one could always act like the family lost its fortune during the war. Even when I was a child, 100 years after it was all over, what seemed important was not how much money your family had, but how much it had before the War. If the truth was known, my kinfolk was probably out in the swamps, hard at work chopping wood for the still that made whiskey for the mint juleps that everyone else’s family enjoyed on their front porches. While swatting gnats, they’d swap stories about ghosts which, once they got around, explained those mysterious lights in the swamps and help keep the revenuers at bay.

Lost Eden or New Jerusalem

All this nonsense just goes to prove that Southern Theology, at least the theology of the common folk, focuses more on the lost Eden than it does on the coming kingdom. In other words, we look back more than we look forward. Although it rings true in the South, in some ways this is true about all of America. “The biblical image of humankind living in a garden dies hard in America,” notes William Pannell, a professor of evangelism at Fuller Theological Seminary. We long for the past and this hinders our ability at sharing the gospel in a world that no longer looks or shares the same heritage as we do. Pannell jokes that southern style religion as shown on television is “merely a camp meeting with air conditioning.” The people such productions reach “are in harmony with the style and message of the preacher.”

Just because Southerners tend to look back to the garden doesn’t mean we don’t anticipate the return of Christ. We think and worry about the second coming a lot. We certainly don’t want to do something we’re not supposed to be doing when Michael’s trumpet blows.

My great granddaddy, who was born in the late 1880’s, often shared stories about his childhood with me. Sometime around the turn of the century, he was in another man’s watermelon patch doing what boys from the South do best. He’d cut open a watermelon, eat it’s heart out, drop the rest of the melon for the birds and seek out another ripe juicy one to enjoy. It was the middle of a hot cloudless day when suddenly the sky turned dark, and the temperature dropped. He noticed that the birds singing as if it was evening. My great granddaddy looked up and saw the sun disappear. He dropped the watermelon and ran for all eternity, as fast as his bare feet could take him. He didn’t want to be caught raiding another man’s watermelon patch on judgment day.

It is my belief that one’s theology needs to look both backwards and forward. We need to look back beyond the Civil War, to first century Palestine and that man we claim to be God named Jesus Christ. And we need to look forward, not in a fearful way to the horrors of judgment, but to Jesus’ promise of a new and coming kingdom. Perhaps looking forward has been difficult for southerners because of the guilt of our past. Even the most ardent racist would have a hard time reconciling a belief in a kingdom where non-whites would be subservient to the rest of us.

The Spirituality of the Church

One of the theology I grappled with coming out of the Southern stream of the Presbyterian Church is the concept known as the “Spirituality of the Church.” This doctrine was taught by one of the South’s greatest theologians, the “humble” James Henley Thornwell, a man who admitted he wanted to be “regarded as the greatest scholar and most talented man that ever lived.” The concept of the “Spirituality of the Church” separated the church and state into “two separate spheres of authorities and functions.” The church was to be spiritual. Its task was evangelism, to bring people to Christ and then to send them back into the world where they carried out social obligations as Christians.

There is much appeal in this concept. It is true that a regenerated individual who lives his or her life in Christ should make a wonderful public servant and carry forth Christ’s will into the public sector. The church is the one organization designed to bring people into a relationship with God. There are other organizations better suited to carrying social change than the church. However, the concept has been misused to keep the church quiet on serious social issues (like slavery and race relations). Prophets of old did not limit the scope of their wrath to the spiritual realm and neither should the church. Jesus reminder that we need to be wise as serpents and as gentle as doves probably applies here.

The doctrine of “the spirituality of the church” as well as a strong emphasis on Scripture, helped separate politics from the church. As a result, the pulpit became a place where only sins specifically forbidden in Scripture were condemned. An interesting challenge to this doctrine, which crossed denominational lines, came from the Methodist revivalist Sam Jones. A former alcoholic, Jones became an ardent prohibitionist and turned his revivals into “civic reform crusades” seeking to limit society’s access to alcohol, prostitution, and gambling. By the time I grew up in the South, the drinking of alcohol, which is not prohibited in scripture, was often portrayed as the root of all evil. This created sort of a split personality amongst southerners. Some sins not listed in scripture were condemned while others, such as racism, were labelled as a political problem and not discussed in the pulpit.

Acknowledging sin

Growing up southern, I memorized at a young age Paul’s word, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” I think I could have quoted this verse even before I could quote John 3:16. However, there seemed to be a distinction between sins. Although we’ve all sinned in some spiritual sort of way, some of us have sinned more than others and those of us who have sinned by the flesh have thereby fallen further from God’s glory and are to be looked upon with contempt. It is biblical that we’ve all sinned, but this categorization of sinfulness only serves to create a false pride in those who are strong enough to avoid being caught in the sins of the flesh (drunkenness, adultery, etc.).

I wish someone, at an early age, could have reinforced the concept of God’s grace as well as they taught the concept of sin. I would have been a lot more accepting of others had I understood all along that God’s love extends equally to even the vile sinner.

Current State of My Theology 

A portrait commissioned by First Presbyterian Church of Hastings (Michigan). I served this congregation from 2004-2014. The picture in the back of the portrait is the new church we built during that time.

Somehow, I managed to survive growing up in the South. As a preacher, I am thankful for my past, it provides great source material for sermons. Partly due to my growing up in the South, I was instilled with reverence for Scripture, Almighty God, a need for a Savior, the importance of a religious community, and a fear that hell is being unable to swat mosquitoes in a backwater swamp on a hot day. Most of these traits have served me well as I’ve tried to tell others about Jesus Christ.

Dave, Blue Hole Canoes, Bill, Bob, and a book review 

Dave and my introduction to Blue Hole Canoes

In the winter of 1976, I was a freshman at University of North Carolina at Wilmington. One night, I attended the local Sierra Club meeting. The hot topic at the time was the protection of the New River, a river I’d paddled and felt I should become involved. I don’t remember much of the program, but I did meet Dave Benny that evening. Dave was close to twice my age, and an engineer at Dupont. He had recently purchased a Blue Hole canoe. Learning I also had a canoe (It was my first major purchase when I was sixteen), and had paddled several rivers in Southeast North Carolina, David picked my brain. Over the next six or seven years, until I left that part of the state, Dave or I would lead many of the canoe trips offered by the Wilmington chapter of the Sierra Club.  

The Unique Blue Hole Canoe

Dave’s Blue Hole was a unique canoe. I don’t remember why he decided to purchase a boat built for white water to run in the black water rivers in the eastern half of the state. But I was impressed how well it handled in narrow winding streams where there were lots of logs just under the surface. Those unseen logs would often catch the keel of my Grumman canoe. The Blue Hole had a flat bottom which helped it float them. Its design also allowed the paddler to quickly turn and to move easily across a fast current, a benefit when paddling in a swampy area during high water where the water flow wants to pull your boat out of the channel and into the swamps. 

A faded photo from the early 80s that I recently found. At Crusoe Island, Columbus County, NC, on a paddle down the Waccamaw River. I think Dave’s Blue Hole is the canoe to the right. The photo of me and the boats were either taken by Dave or another friend, Phil Morgan, who paddled with me one of the trips I made down the Waccamaw River.

However, when the river widens and the wind picked up, the flat bottom made the Blue Holes less desirable. One had to paddle harder to keep the boat tracking properly. Many of our trips would begin on smaller creeks and then end up on larger rivers, where Dave and whoever was paddling in his bow had to work harder than the rest of us. 

The Blue Hole was made of a new substance called Rolex ABS. It was much stronger than fiberglass and a lot quieter than aluminum, like the Grummans. In my boat, any bump on a submerged log or a drop of a paddle or water bottle into the boat would be announced to everyone. Dave’s boat was much quieter. 

Dave and the finer things in life

Dave and I didn’t paddle together much. We were generally in our own canoes, with each of us having another participant in our bow. But on occasion, the two of us would go out together to scout a new river or creek. Then, we’d often take Dave’s canoe. Dave seemed to have all the cool toys. As a middle-aged single man, he could afford such things. In addition to his canoe, he was the first person I knew with a Leica, a German camera known for its superior optics. He also purchased a Sea Gull 1.2 horsepower outboard motor. This British designed motor, I would later learn, was popular among sailors to power dinghies and rafts to and from a mooring. 

Dave obtained the Sea Gull motor so we could take a canoe upstream to check out new streams. After motoring upstream, we’d paddle back down to our vehicle. One such stream was Colly Creek, which flows into the Black River. That little motor pushed us upstream easily. But there were lots of weeds in the stream, which kept tangling up the prop and causing the sheer pin to snap. Dave, however, came prepared. We became very proficient at replacing sheer pins that day and when we had no more pins, we were in sight of a bridge we could use to launch from. It was time to turn around. We paddled with the current to our waiting vehicle at a bridge just downstream of the confluence with the Black River. Colly Creek became a favorite paddling stream, and I must have run that creek a dozen times. 

Leaving Eastern North Carolina and acquiring a Royalex Canoe

I left Eastern North Carolina early in 1984 and lost contact with Dave. In one of our last trips together, he had invited a woman along. I heard they later married. For a few years, I would occasionally hear about him from my brother who was also an engineer with Dupont, but in another factory. But then he retired and that was many years ago. 

My Mad River at a campsite along the Missinaibi River, Northern Ontario, 1992

As for my old Grumman Canoe, it was stolen in 1985. I would replace it with a Mad River Explorer. Like the Blue Hole, it’s also an ABS Royalex boat. However, instead of a totally flat bottom like the Blue Hole, it has a rocker bottom which allows it to track better downstream and on lakes. I still have that boat. I have paddled it in rivers in nine states as well as northern Ontario where I paddled to the James Bay. I have replaced the wooden gunnels twice, and it’s still a good paddling canoe. I must continue caring for that boat for they no longer make ABS Royalex.

Paddling with Bill in one of his Blue Holes
Bill and me

Two weeks ago, when I was at Montreat, a Presbyterian Conference Center in Western North Carolina, I met up with another old friend. Bill and I had been a part of the team who ran the youth program at First Presbyterian Church in Hickory NC. We both paddled a lot, but only once made one trip together, that I recall, on the Henry River (where parts of the Hunger Games would be filmed decades later). Bill, who has lived in Asheville for over 30 years, suggested we paddle the Tuckaseegee River. Bill’s canoes have multiplied. He now owns a trailer full and they’re mostly Blue Holes. On this day, he brought along a tandem boat which we paddled together. 

Meeting Bob Lantz
Bob Lantz on the deck of his cabin

We made our way down the river, through rapids named the 1st Hole, the 2nd Hole, the Slingshot. A short bit after running the Double Drop rapid, Bill suggested we drop in and see a friend of his. We found Bob Lantz at his cabin on the river and spent some time sitting out on his porch drinking a beer and talking. Bob was one of two designers for the Blue Hole canoe. After talking to him that day on the river, I decided that I needed to read his book. Doing so, I realized that Dave’s canoe would have been one of the earlier boats built by the company, only a few years after its founding. 

Sadly, Bob no longer paddles. He’s had a couple of knee replacement surgeries and cannot kneel in a canoe. But he does get to enjoy being on a beautiful river and watching canoes, kayaks, and rafts float by. 

Bill’s Blue Hole at the Take-out on the Tuckaseegee River


Bob Lantz, Lean Downstream!! The Whole History from Beginning to End of the Blue Hole Canoe Company 

(Bob Lantz, 1979), 231 pages with many photos and diagrams. 

This book contains many moving parts. It’s part memoir but includes engineering and business details of canoe construction along with bits about how to paddle and work to save rivers in Tennessee. Combining these elements, the reader learns much about the growth of canoeing as a recreation activity in the 1970s and 1980s. The author appears upfront with his honesty, admitting when he made mistakes. And his mistakes include a superior attitude of how to paddle before being taught proper techniques as well as business and personnel blunders while running a company. 

The book jump around a lot. However, the author warns the reader about this at the beginning. Lantz takes a thread and runs with it (such as the business of building canoes) then backtracks to fill in his personal details. He also tends to blatantly “foreshadow” what will happen in his writing by telling his readers he’ll get to it. However, the book is easily read. Lantz writes in a conversational style, not the technical style one expects from engineers. This less formal style seems to work well and serves the author’s purposes. 

The author claims this is the “whole history” of the Blue Hole Company. However, I couldn’t help but assume some things are left out. But such is the nature of any writing as we can’t cover or report on everything. I would suggest the book is a history of the company through the eyes of one of its major players.

This book is also a history of the personal life of the author. I must admit, I felt sorry for him. Lantz was suddenly single and middle aged, sitting by his wood stove on winter nights in an old Tennessee farmhouse. When I visited his cabin on the Tuckasseegee, I admired his stove. He seemed appreciative and said it was his second Jotul wood stove. His first one eventually burned out the sidewalls trying to heat his house on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee. Reading the book, I realized the stove is a minor character in Lantz’s story. 

That said, I was impressed with what Bob, a former aerospace engineer, and friends were able to do. They developed a company that radically changed the sport of white-water canoeing. From the idea to build canoes out of Royalex, to their design and develop of aluminum gunnels (purposely using low-tempered aluminum) and thwarts, Blue Hole was a pioneer in the canoe industry. The company lasted for fifteen years (1973-1988). Sadly, internal struggles seemed to sink the company. When friction between partners increased, the bank called the loan and the company liquidated. 

I recommend this book to those interested in the development of canoeing in this country. Even if you don’t read it all, the book has great photos. As a warning, I doubt those uninterested in canoeing and rivers would find much enjoyment from the book. I am also grateful to the role the author and the company played in protecting several rivers in the Southeast. 

Matt, Virginia City, 1988

That’s me, standing before the church built in 1866-7

Recently I have posted memoir pieces of my years in seminary:

I took the school year 1988-89 off in order to be a student pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Virginia City, Nevada. Over the years since, I devoted much time researching and writing the history of that congregation on the Comstock Lode. This is a short memoir piece of my time there.


“Matt, why do you want to join this church?” I asked as I slipped tea. 

We had just finished eating and were sitting on the floor on mats, like Jesus and the disciples at the last supper. A low table stood between us. On it was a Chinese hot pot, a ceramic teapot, a bowl of rice, plates, cups, and chop sticks. It had been an interesting meal. Matt told me he once had a Chinese girlfriend who taught him how to cook. I wondered if she used frozen vegetables. There was no crunch to the vegetables in the stir fry. The dish was soggy. It wasn’t terrible, just not very appealing. I kept my thoughts to myself. I was curious as to his interest in joining a church that was a 30 minute drive away. 

Matt had been waiting for the question. He pulled a Bible off a bookcase behind him. I took the Bible to be a good sign. Then he opened it and read a passage from 24th Chapter of Matthew’s gospel, about stars falling from the sky. Now I wasn’t so sure the Bible was a good sign. I had no idea where this was going. Setting the Good Book down on the table, Matt began telling me how the earth was going to soon shift on its axis. This would make it appear as if the stars are falling from the heavens.

My mind was spinning. This was not anything I had been taught in seminary. When he paused to catch his breath, I asked, “What does this have to do with you joining our church?” 

“I’ll get there,” he assured me.

I poured myself another cup of tea as Matt continued his discourse. 

Taylor St., looking down toward C St

“You know, the Carson Valley used to be under the ocean. There are places you can find shells embedded in rock.” He pulled a fossilized rock from his bookcase to show me.

“Yeah, it may have once been under the sea,” I quipped, “but that was a few years before our time.” 

“It’s going to happen again,” he said. 

“What’s going to happen?”

“This is going to be the ocean again.”

Matt went on explain how, when the earth shifts 15 degrees on its axis, the sea would rise. The coastlines would be wiped out with tsunamis. The valley would fill with water.  

As he continued on with his monologue, I looked out the window. The Sierras were silhouetted by the setting sun. Looking at those magnificent mountains while listening to Matt ramble on, I visualized what he was saying. It could have been a scene from a bad horror movie. A large tidal wave, at least nine thousand feet high, breaking over the top of those peaks. The thought of it was ludicrous. I had to bite my bottom lip to keep from laughing. But then, I understood.

“I get it! You’re telling me that you want to join our church because Virginia City is soon going to be an island amidst a vast inland sea.” 

“Yes,” he said, smiling as if he had finally broken through. “Carson City will be under a thousand feet of water.” He started giving me the layout of areas of the country that would be above water or below it.  It didn’t seem to make sense that places like Carson City, at an elevation of 4000 feet would be below water and other places a lot lower would remain dry, but none of this made sense.  

Yet, in a smug way, I was glad to know I’d be safe in Virginia City. Come summer, I could sun myself out by the mine tailings, as waves lapped at my feet. There might be still a few nice days this fall. Would I have time to pick up some sunscreen on my way home, I thought to myself, in case I don’t make it back to Carson City before the flood. I began to make a mental list of things I’d need: a lounge chair, beer, flip-flops, some more beer…  

I had to force myself to focus back on what Matt was telling me. 

“Where did you get all these ideas?” I asked.

“The Bible.”


“Mostly, but also Nostradamus and from talking to a friend.” 

I didn’t want to meet this friend.

Next, he pulled a book of Nostradamus from the shelf behind him, turned to a marked page and handed it to me to read. Whoever thought Revelation was hard to understand had obviously not read Nostradamus.

Unable to make any sense out of what Matt was saying, my mind began to drift into survival mood. I needed a strategy to escape from this apartment. I wanted to be back in the real world. Into what time warp had I moved? I’ve yet to been in Nevada a month and discovered it to be a state where people think it’s a good idea to put rabid bat in a pitcher of beer and then drink it. And there was the woman at K-Mart who believes Ronald Reagan is the Antichrist. According to the news, the bubonic plague is making a comeback.  And now there are those (or at least two of them), who think the earth is going to tilt in a new direction. 

Matt had first worshipped with us the previous Sunday. He came into church a little late. My first impression was that he’s middle-aged, a little overweigh, a little disheveled, but a nice guy. After worship, when all were enjoying coffee and catching up with one another, Matt stayed back from the crowd. I went over to introduce myself. He told me his name and said he wanted to join the church. It seemed a little strange, this being a small church, to learn he wanted to join the fellowship in the same breath that I learned his name.

“Great,” I said, “let’s get some coffee and meet some people.” I introduced him to several members. He was polite, but standoffish and appeared uncomfortable. It was when I suggested we get together and talk about the church membership that he invited me to dinner

Matt was a special case. But then, Virginia City had plenty of special cases. He did join the church, although he never moved to town. Nor did the impending flood occur. Everyone in the congregation thought his ideas were a little weird, but welcomed him. For the rest of my time on the Comstock, Matt taught me an important lesson: “there are those who need the church more than the church needs them.”  

Combination Mine Shaft overlooking Virginia City, Summer 2008

The Great Seminary Hoax of 1986

Two weeks ago, in a sermon, I told about the “duck parties” held at seminary. Today, I am posting a story about some nonsense that occurred during my first term at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Other recent posts include memories of Professor von Waldow and Dean Mauser and his secretary. Good memories.


My only experience in dorm-living was my first year in seminary. I boarded on the third floor of Fisher Hall. I stayed in the dorm to save expenses as I still had a house and mortgage payments when I left for seminary (I sold the house soon afterwards).

Across from my room was Ken, a student from Japan. A language whiz, Ken spoke several Slavic languages but needed work on his English. We did our best to help, but who among us will forget the day he asked a visiting professor from Prague a question. Unable to get his question across in English, he switched to Russia or Czech or something strange and the professor answered him in an equally strange tongue. The rest of us sat around witnessing a firsthand example of glossolalia. 

The view behind the seminary from 3rd Floor Fisher, January 1987

Down the hall, to the north, was Keith. A United Methodist student, Keith also managed the school’s hockey rink. When not in use, the hockey rink served as the hallway for third floor Fisher.  Being from the South, hockey was something new to me and I did my best to avoid the games.


In the room next to mine, to the south, was Jim. Unfortunately, he dropped out before the two of us could finish what would have been a best seller: “A Theological Drinking Guide to Pittsburgh.” Having been used to living in a house, and with nightly hockey matches going on outside my door, getting out to the local bars around Pittsburgh (many within walking distance) was an escape and a way to maintain sanity.

There were many others on the floor, but the four of us played a prominent role in the “perfect storm” that just about got me booted back to the piney woods of North Carolina. 

The room to my north, between mine and Keith’s, was empty. Keith read an article on Christian sexuality written by Rodney Clapp. Being a careful reader, what caught Keith’s attention was the author’s name. It seemed fitting a man whose last name was slang for a venereal disease would write on sexuality. Keith decided Clapp needed to be a classmate. He made up a nameplate for the empty room. “That’s Clapp’s room,” we’d tell people, he’s an esteemed alumnus from Pittsburgh and maintains a room here. A week or so later, Clapp’s pretend presence on campus took a strange twist. 

Ken, who’d just arrived in American, became fascinated with a certain group of American newspapers generally found in the check-out lines at the supermarket. He read these papers religiously, trying to improve his English and learn about this strange country in which he was living. One day, at the local Giant Eagle Supermarket, he picked up a copy of the National Enquirer, or maybe one of the other tabloids. The lead article featured the story of an unnamed hell-fire preacher who spontaneously combusted in the pulpit. After his particularly fiery sermon, all that was left was ashes. It must be true. It was in print. Such an event should have certainly been studied in homiletics, but I don’t recall it being mentioned.

As no one had seen Clapp recently, it was logically assumed he was the unnamed preacher. Ken posted the article on Clapp’s door. Over the next week, letters from all around the world started appearing, in different languages, offering condolences to Rodney’s family and friends. Clapp’s deeds and misdeeds were recalled. 

Around this time, for reasons I still don’t understand, had chapel duty. Normally first-year students were exempt, but for some reason I said I’d do it. I thought daily chapel would be the perfect setting for a “Rodney Clapp Memorial Service.” Somehow, word got out to the powers-that-be what was being planning. Dr. Oman, the homiletics professor, called me into his office and informed me there would be no faux funeral in chapel.

Disappointed at being unable to involve the entire community, we planned our own funeral. Although not a Protestant tradition, we included a wake. We could be ecumenical if it meant a good party. On December 2, 1986, after an evening of basketball (after all, we did have our priorities), a crowd of us gathered in the Fisher lounge for Clapp’s wake and funeral. In the center of the room, laid out like a casket, was the door from Clapp’s room. It was covered with letters of condolences and tokens of our love and adoration for him. Sitting on the top of the door was a plastic container holding some ashes someone obtained.

We gathered around Clapp’s remains and said our goodbyes. We read scripture. Chosen passages alluded to fire. Nonsensical tales about our experiences with Clapp were shared. Taking great liberty with the funeral liturgy, we replaced hymns with more appropriate music such as the Doors’ “Light My Fire” and Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.” Afterwards, as Clapp’s ashes floated out the window and across the lawn, we had a final toast. 

Mourners paying respect at Clapp’s Memorial Service, Dec. 2, 1986

With the funeral out of my way, I still had to do my duty in chapel. A day or two later I stood before the crowd of students and professors and delivered one of those boring first year seminary student sermons. The best part of it were a few lines of poetry I quoted from John Beecher, whom I felt deserved an introduction.  

The service was dreadfully serious until I was about halfway through my message. Before the service, Jim came into the chapel and took two fire extinguishers off the walls by the doors. Unbeknownst to everyone, he placed the extinguishers on the chancel, one on each side of the pulpit. As I was trying to make a serious point which I’m sure expressed some eternal consequence, someone in the row of students from Fisher Hall noticed the fire extinguishers. He began to laugh while pointing it out to the person next to him. Slowly, like a wave moving across the chapel, each student poked the guy next to him and pointed to the fire extinguishers. The laughter spread. Soon, among a crowd of somber Presbyterians, one pew laughed hysterically. I smirked, bit my tongue, and looked down at my notes. I knew if I looked out upon the gathered congregation, all would be lost. 

I’m sure most of those in chapel that day, unaware of the joke that had been building for a month, felt those of us from Fisher Hall were downright rude. And they were right. 

I’m not sure who I was trying to impress in a suit. I’m on the left with three classmates (Roger, Vivian, and Doug) as we prepared to head back to Pittsburgh from the 1988 General Assembly in St. Louis. The rest were dressed causal for the trip. This may be the last photo of me without a beard. I grew one in the summer of 1987, but shaved it off early in the fall. After this meeting, I headed West for an intern year and grew my beard back. I haven’t been clean shaven since. As for my hair, well, I’m not sure what happen.

The Dean and his secretary

Dean Mauser

From the internet (it appears as if it was from the seminary’s directory)

Two weeks ago, I posted a memoir about one of my seminary professors who had been a tank commander in the German army in World War II. I mentioned he wasn’t my only professor who spent time on the other side during that terrible war. The other was Ulrich Mauser, the dean of the seminary. He was a kind and gentle man. I only took one class with him, a New Testament survey class. But when another professor, Dr. Kelly, had medical issues while teaching on the Book of Acts, Mauser took over and finished out the term. I essentially had him as a professor for a term and a half. But I got to know him in other ways, too.

Unlike von Waldow, Mauser didn’t talk about the war, at least not around me. I remember him mentioning his involvement once. We were sitting together in the dining room at lunch. He sat among a group of students and there may have been other professors. Somehow, the topic of the war came up. Mauser recalled being a student in Germany during the war. As Germany needed more and more soldiers, he received a notice every year to report for a physical in preparation for being drafted into the armed forces. But because of health issues and poor eyesight, he always received a deferment and would return to school. However, in late 1944, according to Dr. Mauser, things had gotten so bad they did care that he couldn’t see. With his thick eyeglasses, without which he was nearly blind, they assigned him to an anti-aircraft flack gun on top of a building in Berlin. As most of the air attacks came at night, there wasn’t even a way to aim. They just pointed the guns up into the sky and shot in the general direction of the drone of engines. 

While he wasn’t really involved in combat, the war had an affect upon Dr. Mauser. His family home was destroyed by a bomb. He also became very interested in the Biblical understanding of peace. His last book, The Gospel of Peace, focused on this life-long theme. 

Mauser’s studied at the University of Tubingen in Germany where he received his doctorate, writing a dissertation on Martin Luther. He also spent time at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where he met his wife. After his schooling, as a young pastor in post-war Germany, he served in a congregation that mostly consisted of displaced people. 

My best memory of Dr. Mauser came after a disappointing relationship with Debbie, his secretary. Below, I posted a piece I wrote in 2014, after learning of Debbie’s death from cancer. After Debbie became engaged to someone else, Dr. Mauser invited me out to lunch. We went to a restaurant in Shadyside. As if he was my pastor, he was concerned with my emotional state. Ironically, at the time I was on the top of the world, having essentially completed the Appalachian Trail. While he never appeared as an outdoor type of person, Mauser was interested in my experience along the trail. I learned how it tied to his work on the theme of wilderness in scripture. 

When I graduated from Pittsburgh in 1990, Dr. Mauser was winding up his tenure at the school. He had moved to America in 1959, to serve as a chaplain at Oregon State University. In 1964, he began teaching at Louisville Theological Seminary. In 1977, he was appointed a professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Seminary and became Dean in 1981. Turning 65 in 1990, and he faced mandatory retirement as was the seminary’s practice at the time. So, Dr. Mauser accepted an appoint at Princeton, where he taught six more years before returning to Pittsburgh for his final years. 

I last saw Dr. Mauser at a Presbyterian Coalition meeting in Orlando Florida in the fall of 2001, just a few weeks after 911. I had not seen him since graduation. He appeared delighted to run into me and we later shared a meal together. He died in 2008. 

Ulrich W. Mauser’s obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Debbie, the Dean’s secretary

Written in 2014, after learning of Debbie’s death from cancer: 

A photo I took in May 1987

Debbie was beautiful. She turned heads with her broad smile, big eyes, and hardy laugh. She wore flowing dresses with heels that clicked and gave shape to her calves. And she was the Dean’s secretary. In my first year of seminary, I never thought she would have been interested in me. Then, a month or so before school ended for the summer, she invited me to over for Sunday evening’s dinner at her place. Wanting to make a good impression, I brought along a bottle of wine, Pouilly-Fuisse. I learned she seldom drank, but she seemed impressed and suggested we open the bottle and celebrate. Of course, she had no corkscrew. She suggested she might borrow one for a neighbor, but I told her I thought I had a solution. I ran out to my car. Ever the Boy Scout, I had a Swiss-army knife with a corkscrew attachment in my glove compartment.    

On Easter Sunday, I was invited to dinner with her family on Pittsburgh’s Southside. When we arrived at her parents’ home, her brothers were watching a documentary on a race car driver, Elliott Forbes-Robinson.  Although I had never been a big fan of racing, I knew him. When I was working for the Boy Scouts, he was an assistant Scoutmaster on a troop on Lake Norman. I recalled the story of meeting him, at a scout camp. When he told me he was a race car driver, I asked if he raced at Hickory speedway. Hickory was a step up from the dirt tracks of the South, but most of the drivers were still amateurs. “No,” he said, “I have not raced there.” “Where do you race?” I asked. He started listing off an impressive list of cities with Cam-Am and such races. I stood there thinking, “Yeah, right, and I’m Daniel Boone.” I later learned he really was a race car driver, although at the time he didn’t drive NASCAR. He did drive those fancy cars and was one of the top drivers in the world. He had a boy in scouts and as he wasn’t racing that week, had come to camp with his son’s troop. Telling the story, Debbie’s brothers learned that I really wasn’t a racing fan, but they were impressed that I had personally met one of the greats. 

Over the next few weeks, we began having lunch together in the dining hall and went out every weekend. I suggested a Saturday afternoon baseball game and she was up for it. When I arrived to pick her up, she handed me two tickets! I didn’t know what to say, but as a poor student was thankful. Then I looked at the seats and was humbled. Her brother worked for one of the high-end hotels in Pittsburgh and they had tickets that no one had claimed so he gave them to Debbie for us to enjoy. We sat directly behind home plate, five rows up. I never had such good seats for a major league game. It’s easy to love a girl whose brother arranges to cover the expenses of a date.  

Later that evening, Debbie and I walked up a hill and held hands as we watched the sun set. I felt as if I was the luckiest man in the world.

Debbie was close to her family and on another weekend, she and her brothers had given their mother an evening ride in a balloon across Southwestern Pennsylvania. When the mother got in the basket with a few other sightseers and a pilot, we raced along the countryside following the balloon until they finally set down in a cow pasture and we retrieved her mother. This would be a lot easier today, with cell phones, but this was 1987.

The day I left school at the end of the semester, we had breakfast together at a local King’s Restaurant. I wanted to do something special and had purchased some of her favorite perfume, hoping that as she used it, she would remember me. She seemed pleased and we even talked about her meeting up with me in Delaware Water Gap as I hiked the Appalachian Trail. Although we were not in a committed relationship, we talked about picking up where we were at in September.

After breakfast, I drove to my parents in North Carolina and a week later, started my summer hike from Virginia to Maine. At first, she wrote and seemed excited when I called, but as I continued to hike, I heard less and less from her. I knew something was up. Even though I had started hiking with the thoughts of coming back to her arms, I realized this was not going to be the case. When I arrived back at school, I was on cloud nine, having just finished my summer hike, essentially completing the Appalachian Trail completed (I still had a 25-mile section down south to complete). That first day back everyone seemed concerned about how I was going to take being dropped, but I had given up on her mid-way through the summer. I learned she had connected with someone at a wedding (they may had known each other before) and was engaged. One of the kindness things that happened was the Dean inviting me out to lunch. He, too, was concerned with how I was handling things, but we mostly talked about my hike as my head was still in the mountains. After a summer of hiking, our short romance seemed light-years away.

A few years ago, Debbie sent me a message and a friendship request via Facebook. A quarter century had passed as she left her position as the Dean’s secretary shortly after I’d returned from hiking the trail. We chatted a few times and I learned her marriage had been horrible and she had spent most of her life on her own, but that she was blessed with a couple of boys who are now adults. She apologized for having treated me horribly. I thanked her for the apology but told her my life had continued and was going well. Then she told me about the breast cancer. Over the years since that chat, I would occasionally learn through Facebook about how each new treatment was less effective. But she was strong in her faith and always maintained a positive outlook, but at times she’d ask for prayers, and I would pray. In early May, the disease finally took her, and I found myself shedding tears. She was a beautiful woman who was so proud of her boys (her sons and her brothers). I felt a small piece of their pain.   

Remembering Professor von Waldow

“You have a great opportunity here,” Professor Eberhard von Waldow said on the opening day of class. “You get to learn the language of God in a German accent.” And then, pointing the stick he always brought into class at me, he continued, “And you even get to learn it with a Southern accent.” 

“Was that how they spoke in Judea?” I asked sarcastically. He grinned and continued telling us about the richness of the Hebrew language and how the New Testament was just an appendix to the Old. 

This was in the fall of 1987. There were seven of us in the class and we sat around a long oak table in a conference room at Pittsburgh Seminary. All of us were nervous. With his Prussian roots, von Waldow had a reputation for being verbally abusive to the unprepared. But I signed up for his class because I knew it would be small. I would receive individual attention. In addition, the fear of having him humiliate you was enough to make sure I would do the required work. Throughout the academic year, until May, we met in that classroom. Sadly, today, I remember more of his stories than I do about the language. 

As a young man, “Waldo,” as some of us called him behind his back (in person you always addressed him as either Professor or Doctor) had been a tank commander in the German army. Most of the time he spent on the Eastern Front, fighting the Russians. Wounded in 1944, he returned to Germany to recuperate. He ended the war on the Western front. With a rag-tag army of kids and old men, his orders were to to help stop the advance of the Allies. Realizing the absurdity of this, he surrendered to the British.

After the war, he became a pacifist and finished his university studies. Like his father before him, he became a Lutheran pastor and scholar. He would teach at Pittsburgh for over thirty years. Living in a neighbor that had many Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, he had to confront his past. He made friends among the Jewish people. In November 1988, on the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, an event in which violence against the Jews broke out across Germany, he spoke in a local synagogue. 

I couldn’t attend his Kristallnacht talk because I was serving First Presbyterian Church of Virginia City, Nevada as a student pastor at the time. However, we occasionally corresponded and he sent me his manuscript (which, over the years, I’ve lost). In it, he describes being in the school at the time when fire fighters stood back and let Jewish synagogues and businesses burn. His father became upset about what was happening. His father would be twice arrested by the Gestapo, but it was a Russian soldier killed him at the end of the war. In his later years, Von Waldow wanted it known that there were Germans who hated all that the Third Reich stood for. Sadly, as a young man out of high school, he had no choice but to report to duty when drafted. 

Eberhard von Waldow occasionally told stories about the war. As an academic, his methodology was steeped in German higher criticism, which many condemn for discounting miracles and divine providence. When asked about his position on miracles, von Waldow told about riding in a tank that had a 500 bomb detonate on the top of the tank’s turret. “I said, “ah, shit” and then couldn’t hear for a few weeks. “But I survived,” he continued. “Some might say it was Krupp armor that saved me, but I know better. Had that bomb landed elsewhere except on the very top of the turret, I wouldn’t be here.”

One day, I wore a pink shirt to class. We were learning about Hebrew vowel points and how certain ones would soften a letter. As a teacher, Von Waldow was quick to come up with illustrations. He pointed to my shirt and said, “Look, Jeff put this white shirt in the wash with a red one and now he has a pink shirt.” I’m sure his conservative Prussian background meant he couldn’t understand a man wearing pink.  

Another time, I made some kind of quip about the German composer Wagner. I knew von Waldow was a classical music lover and a big supporter of public radio, but this didn’t get me any extra points. He went off on a tangent about Wagner. The Third Reich had adopted the music of Wagner and he’d heard enough of this music during the war that he never wanted to hear it again. Now, I wonder if the music might have caused him post-traumatic stress.

The room in which we met had a life-sized portrait of a faculty member from either late in the 19th or early 20th century. Oddly, because this wasn’t really a Presbyterian thing, the guy in the portrait wore a clergy collar. One day, out of the blue, von Waldow came into class and began to berate this portrait for wearing a collar. At this time, several of the Lutheran students at the seminary were wearing collars when they preached or worked in church positions. But von Waldow was too conservative for collars. As a Southerner, I sympathized with von Waldow. Collars were too formal for me. I’ve never worn one. 

Around campus, everyone knew that von Waldow was working on his magus opus, a commentary on the prophet Jeremiah. I took a survey class of Hebrew prophets, taught by Dr. Donald Gowan, another Old Testament professor and prolific author. At the opening of each lecture on a different prophet, Gowan provided a list of commentaries he recommended. The day he lectured on Jeremiah, he confessed he had problems with every commentary available at the time. Then, this man whom I had never heard say anything bad about anyone, said, “When my colleague Eberhard publishes his commentary, I’ll have one to recommend.” He paused and then in almost a whisper continued, “Of course, we’ll all be dead by then.” Sadly, von Waldow never finished his commentary and most of his published writings available today are in German.  

In my second year of seminary, at the time I was studying Hebrew, there was campus debate over how frequently to have communion in chapel. Things became comically heated. As a semi-Calvinist, who leaned toward Zwingli, I found this debate to be fodder for satire. But the seminary President became concern and decided it should be discussed. He called for a community townhall. Faculty were ordered to attend. While von Waldow wasn’t happy about it, he followed orders. 

The day after the long campus meeting, von Waldow marched into Hebrew class, dropped his books on the table, and launched into a tirade about the spectacle. 

“That meeting yesterday was the damnest thing I’ve seen.” Then, contradicting himself, he continued, drawing on his war experiences. “I haven’t seen anything like that since the war. Imagine having a 25-ton tank stuck? We had one buried in mud up to the top of the tracks. You’ve never seen such a mess. But we had the Russians shooting at us and had to do something pretty damn fast. The was the only difference between that meeting yesterday and the war was the shooting. We needed someone shooting to have forced a decision so we could all go home.” 

Eberhard von Waldow would continue to teach at the seminary for a few years after I graduated. He died in 2007 at the age of 83. I’m glad to have known him and while I moved theologically away from his higher Biblical criticism as the only way to approach scripture, I am indebted to his teaching. I probably learned as much about preaching in his Hebrew exegesis class as I did in homiletics. I am also in debt to his story, for it could have gone another way. A man of war became a man of peace. I wish he was here to discuss what’s going on in Ukraine, for there was a time in the 1940s, when he commanded 12 tanks across that terrain. 

Looking back, it’s interesting that von Waldow wasn’t the only faculty member to have served in the German army. Dr. Mauser, our dean, served for a brief period in the German army and I should at some point write about my experiences with him. 

Professor von Walton from clips.substack.com

While the memories above are from me, I found these articles on the internet to be useful and insightful:

Bill Steigerward, “The Nazi Take Commander who became an American Peacenik” (this article originally appeared in Pittsburgh newspaper in June, 1994).

Mark J. Englund-Kriger, “In Memory of Professor Eberhard von Waldow”. A blog post from January 8, 2008.

A letter in Horizons in Biblical Theology.  January 1993, this letter was written at the time of von Waldow’s retirement. 

Obituary, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 19, 2007