When George Gravitte showed up on campus, everyone noticed. Now Berry College, near Rome, Georgia, in those days was geared to students from the rural and small-town South, but even among this bunch of unsophisticated youth, George stood out. He was six feet, five inches tall, weighed 165 pounds, and he wore a straw hat–the kind the rest of us used in the fields but only the securest guy on the planet would be brave enough to walk out onto the college quadrangle with it on his head. But there he was. He was who he was. And what was that? Think Gomer Pyle.
Now, if you know me at all, you know that’s not a putdown. The reason we all loved Gomer Pyle on the old Andy Griffith show was that, hailing from small town Alabama as he did, he came across as genuine and authentic and solid gold. There was a purity about him, a childlikeness. George always made me think of what our Lord said about Nathaniel, “An Israelite in whom there is no guile.” (John 1:47) That was my friend George Gravitte.
As soon as we could work it out, George and I became roommates. I still remember him slaving at the desk in front of the window, looking up and saying, “Joe, how do you spell ‘from’?” You can see one reason I adored him is he asked easy questions to which I readily had the answers. Years later, they discovered he had dyslexia. He also had leg cramps. Often in the middle of the night, he would come off that top bunk with a crash, jumping and hopping around the room until the muscle spasms quit. The first time he did it, we thought he had been shot.
George and I hailed from neighboring towns in north central Alabama–Phil Campbell (George) and Double Springs (Joe)–with our schools rivals on the football field. The summer of our first year at Berry, we decided to hitchhike home together. The 160 miles went by quickly with various hospitable drivers, all of whom we have long since forgotten. The one we will never forget was the drunk who chaffeured us from Addison to Double Springs. Neither will ever forget those 20 miles of hairpin curves on the wrong side of the road.
We all underestimated George. I’ll never forget the school dance when we were freshmen. We had taken ballroom dancing in an orientation class–give the dean credit; he knew these country kids needed a lot of help in social as well as academic areas–and now we were being given a chance to try our skills. It turned out George was already a dancer, easily the smoothest one on campus. And, as any teenage boy knows, he who can dance gets the girls. Suddenly, George was the BMOC. Big man on campus. Also lot like Gomer in Mayberry, if you remember the account of his singing and dancing.
George was a Christian, but I expect in the same way most of us were, in a subliminal, don’t-tell-anybody kind of way. After a conference with college chaplain Dr. Gresham, George announced he was called to preach. The summer after that first year, I had a note from him, inviting me and my girlfriend up to Phil Campbell, for a Saturday night worship service where he would preach his first sermon. I will not soon forget it.
We drove the 50 miles and ate supper with the Gravitte family. An hour before the service, I said, “George, what are you preaching tonight?” His answer was the scariest thing I’ve ever heard to this day. “I don’t know. I’m going to let the Lord tell me what to say.” Would it be unkind to say the Lord did not keep His end of the bargain? That poor George had a tough time getting through fifteen minutes? And would it be all right if I said it is a great lesson for a young preacher to learn, that the preacher should ask the Lord to tell him in his study what He wants him to say from the pulpit. And that to fail to prepare is not faith, but presumption.
I hope no one misinterprets any of this as negative in any way. The “first sermon” lesson George received that night is one I learned first-hand at Christmas of 1961, barely two years later, when I floundered around and embarrassed myself and the Lord, too, at Rock Creek Baptist Church near Double Springs. I still wake up with cold sweats remembering that morning.
George and I have good company. Billy Graham tells a similar tale of his first attempt to preach. And Frank Pollard, the incredible retired pastor of the First Baptist Church of Jackson, Mississippi, named by Time magazine as one of the ten outstanding preachers in America a few years back, says after his first sermon people slipped out the side door, rather than look him in the eye, the sermon was such a dismal failure.
The only really negative thing in my story about George Gravitte is that we did not continue as roommates. After our freshman year together, I transferred to Birmingham-Southern College to major in history and political science, and was called to preach in my senior year. George stayed on at Berry and met Mary, the love of his life. And he went right on surprising people. He joined the college debating team and in their second year, defeated the team from Princeton University. Obviously, anyone who underestimates this guy does so at their own peril.
George graduated from Berry in 1962, married Mary, and moved to Nashville where he enrolled in Vanderbilt Divinity School and started pastoring Methodist churches. I graduated from ‘Southern the same year, married Margaret, and started pastoring Baptist churches before enrolling in the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
After serving churches throughout Alabama, George retired a year or two ago–much too early, if you ask me–and moved back to the Haleyville area, not far from where we both grew up. They have two daughters and four grandchildren. They also own a camper and are gone about half the time. George supply preaches in Methodist churches frequently, and Mary writes books. Her latest is called, “Bridge Over the Ogeechee: A Family on Both Sides.” George walks four miles every morning. “The most traffic I have encountered in these walks was three cars,” he says with a laugh. “But I’ve seen two cougars and a couple of coyotes.” Welcome to rural Alabama.
A few days ago, I was driving from New Orleans to North Alabama, in response to an invitation to speak to the seniors at the First Baptist Church in Jasper and to fill the pulpit on Sunday, and planning to spend the weekend with my parents. Along the way, I called information for his phone number. “George,” I said, “how about a cup of coffee tomorrow morning.” We met at Jack’s Hamburgers in Double Springs. It had been over thirty years since we had seen each other, although we had touched base by phone a few times.
George looked like a Methodist preacher, like he was more at home in a suit than a straw hat and denims. He was still the friendly, gracious, warm human he always was, with a little more polish and maybe twenty pounds more than what he brought to campus. Me, I’m carrying forty more, so I was impressed.
We sat there for two hours, getting caught up on life. I saw again what had drawn me to this man when we were both eighteen and I asked him to room with me. There is a peace at his center, a goodness, that I’ve always struggled with. He has a gift for silence, and Lord knows what a battle that has been for me. He always seemed to know who he was and to accept himself fully, with a complete disregard as to whether the people around him saw him in that way or completely misread him. I admire that quality more than I can say.
They say we choose our friends for what we see in them we wish for ourselves. If you knew Joel Davis and Jim Graham and Don Davidson and Chet Griffin–two godly businessmen, a terrific preacher, and an Air Force officer–you would see the same admirable qualities in each one of them. “A friend,” someone has said, “is like another me.” Perhaps, although in my case, my friends are like I’d like to be.
George told me something about an uncle of his I thought you would appreciate. Simeon Creel came back from World War II with a strong conviction that the world could not survive another all-out war. He decided to make a difference for good in this world, and became a school teacher. Every year, he told his students this.
“One of these days, in the not-too-distant future, you’re going to be applying for a job and you’ll want me to be your reference. The only way I’ll do that is you must agree to these three promises.
“One. You will live a moral, ethical, upright life. Two. You will work for social justice in this world. Three. You will put in a day’s work for a day’s wages.
George added, “Whenever Uncle Simeon received letters from schools or companies asking for a reference on one of these students, he always answered in the same way: ‘This person has made me these three promises. And I believe him.'”
George says, “Over the years I have been telling teenagers the same thing. It’s the strongest recommendation I can give someone, and it almost always has brought about the desired results.”
I have no trouble going back into the life of David, say the chapters around I Samuel 18, and reading about how his soul was knit to the soul of Jonathan, and how they loved each other as themselves. Unlike a lot of people today, I see nothing “gay” or “homosexual” or unseemly at all in their relationship. After all, I know what it is to be a man and to love another man. Several, in fact.
What irks my soul is that so many men do not allow themselves to open their hearts to other men, particularly when God has put one near you who could make such a difference in your life, and perhaps you in his. He tells us in Proverbs His plan for these connections: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” (Pr. 27:17)
No wonder we’re no sharper than we are.