Old Friends

I’m toward the last of a two week vacation, the period in and around Christmas and New Year’s. The first week, I drove up to Nauvoo, Alabama, and spent 3 days with my parents. On Thursday, all my siblings came in and we had a great visit. They left late that afternoon and Friday promised to be a quiet day. So I called J. L. Rice in Double Springs.

J. L. and I were best friends at Winston County High School back in the 1950’s and after working in Chicago for several decades, he and Betty are back here. He’s mostly retired, but has a barn and cattle and a huge yard and grandchildren, plenty to keep him occupied. He leads the worship at Meek Baptist Church in Arley, a resort community on the shores of the massive Smith Lake. Betty is the church secretary and her brother Etsel Riddle is the pastor, so don’t cross one of them unless you want the whole family on your case!

Anyway, I called him Friday morning and asked if we could have coffee that afternoon at the only fast-food place in town, Jack’s Hamburgers. “I’ll call around and see if I can find any of the gang,” he said. Nine of our classmates showed up. Pretty good on a two-hour notice. (I wonder if any other graduating class of WCHS could have done that, especially considering that we graduated nearly 49 years ago.)

We sat at a large round table in the middle of that little restaurant for the next two hours, laughing and reminiscing until our sides hurt. J. L. whipped out his digital camera and the counter girl took our picture. Later, he printed out a copy of it on my computer, and back at home, I produced a cartoon version of it.

(I’ll e-mail it all to Marty and he can put it on the website the first of next week. [as promised, here it is] Right now, he’s at Nauvoo with his family, visiting his grandparents and letting 9-year-old Darilyn and nearly-5-year-old Jack run free on the farm. Neil is there with his three, so the cousins are bonding. When I called Thursday evening, they had been fishing in the pond and were now lighting a bonfire.)


Old friends are the best kind. You have a history with these people. Lynn Pope and I shared a desk, the old-fashioned double kind, at Poplar Springs Elementary in 1951, and have been friends ever since. He taught me to draw cars and I helped him draw people, and we drew each other. For a two-room school, that was a pretty good art class. People are always asking if I’ve had formal art training. I’m tempted to answer, “Yeah. Lynn Pope taught me in the Poplar Springs Academy.”

When you see the picture, you’ll notice Dorothy Barnett Shipman half-hid in the background. She should have been the valedictorian of our class and I’ve felt bad about that ever since. J.L. and I decided to take two years of short-hand, the easiest course on the planet, and the grades from that so skewed my average that I took top spot. Meanwhile, Dot was over there sweating out physics and chemistry. Sorry, Dot.

For the record, the entire group, reading left to right, are: O’Neal Steele, J. L. Rice, Lynn Pope, Sally (Raynell Louallen) Moody, me, Dot Shipman, Doyle McCullar, and Doyce Ray Densmore. I think someone else was there but left early.

A couple of days after returning home, I walked in the house one evening and Margaret said, “You need to call A. Smith at the IRS. He says it’s important. Here’s the number.” No message to call the Internal Revenue Service is ever a good thing, I don’t care if you are a preacher and you have a CPA do your taxes and you always try to get it right.

“We’re checking your tax returns,” Mr. Smith said, “and find that you are missing one for the year 1958 when you worked on the campus at Berry College.” I burst out laughing. What a joke. We slaved on the campus crew for credits–not cash–of fifty cents an hour which was applied toward our tuition. So, this has to be someone from my past.

“This is Amos Smith,” he said. Amos Smith. Do I remember you. We spent only one year together, but remember one another the way soldiers do when they endure boot camp and the hardships of army life together.

We had not talked at all since we both left that Rome, Georgia, college in the spring of 1959. He purchased an alumni book from the school and looked me up. We had a lot of catching up to do.

The summer of 1959, when I transferred to Birmingham-Southern to live with my sister and her husband while he traveled on the job, Amos moved to the University of Georgia so he could “fast-track” his plans for medical school. “I’m the only medical doctor you ever met,” he said, “without a college degree.” At the end of his junior year, he was accepted into medical school. He’s taught at the Medical School of Georgia in Augusta where he lives. His wife died several years ago and he’s retired. “I’ve been to New Orleans many times, coming to medical meetings,” he said. “I didn’t know you were there.”

We are determined to stay in touch. He’s a member of a small Baptist church near Augusta, he says, the kind everyone is welcome to attend. The only kind there should be.

Thursday, December 28, I drove to Spanish Fort, Alabama, to visit with my favorite seminary professor, Dr. George Harrison. He and his wonderful wife Jean were living in retirement in Gulfport, Mississippi, when Katrina forced them into evacuation. Their home took 4 feet of floodwater, but has since been restored. They’re looking to rent it out now. Dr. Harrison has had multiple medical problems and has to get around with a walker and their Gulfport house isn’t set up for that. Their daughter Janet English lives in Spanish Fort where she’s a realtor and her husband Dewey is an executive with the Mobile newspaper. It’s the right place for them to live, and their new home there is lovely in every respect.

Like every other Katrina-displaced person, they are missing their friends and having to adjust to living in a “new” state. I gave the Kentucky born professor a cartoon I’d whipped out, showing a singing group belting out a song: “We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home–and give thanks we’re in Spanish Fort and not Nome!”

In the summer of 1964, Margaret and I arrived on campus at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, 3939 Gentilly Boulevard. I was worrying over whether I could do seminary level work after basically goofing off throughout my college. So, I would attend the summer session, only two classes, and give it a try.

Dr. Harrison was teaching a survey of the Old Testament, and I came in at the point where Joshua and the Israelites are entering the Promised Land. Now, I had been attending classes all my life, but this was a new world. This teacher was the absolute best, the most interesting, the most professional, the most in-touch with what was happening in the outside world. In short, everything I needed in a seminary professor.

I would come home from class telling Margaret everything George said in class that day. He was wonderful. And humorous. He said, “There’s some question as to what language Balaam’s donkey spoke that day. We think it was either ASSyrian or HeBRAYic.” And he said that so fast and went right on, most people in the room had no idea he had just dropped a funny on them. I would look around and see half the class looking bored, distracted, or asleep. I wanted to call out to them, “This is great stuff, guys! Listen up!”

I know more George Harrison stories and can tell you a dozen ways he impacted my life and ministry. But in the interest of brevity, you’ll have to take my word for it.

(“When Jonah was coughed up on the shore, someone asked if he was hurt. ‘No,’ he said, ‘My injuries are strictly SUPER-FISH-UL.” See why I love this professor!)

Every church I pastored after seminary–with one exception–we had Dr. Harrison come for several days of teaching, beginning with Emmanuel in Greenville in the late 1960s. To this day, he recalls what Margaret served him that Saturday evening in our home: meat loaf. Thursday, he smiled at that memory and said, “You don’t always want to eat the meat loaf in a seminary cafeteria. You don’t know what went into it. But Margaret’s was wonderful.” Back at home, Margaret said, “I seriously thought of sending him a meat loaf by you.”

It’s about 175 miles from my house to Dr. Harrison’s in Spanish Fort, Alabama. He and Miss Jean are so special to us, I would have been willing to make the drive just for 15 minutes with them. But I stayed an hour and a half. I do not know what good I did them, but the visit was like a transfusion to me.

Old friends will do that for a fellow.

4 thoughts on “Old Friends

  1. Joe,

    This article was great. Seeing old friends is another reason why I love the holidays so much. Christmas Eve morning at church I heard a very familiar laughter and looked over to see Susan Rihner; this week at the office, Mitch, Traci and Levi Mares came in for a visit. Today I’m meeting Janis DeSoto (now living with her husband and two girls in Austin, TX) for lunch. Just think what heaven will be like!

    Julie

  2. Joe,

    This must be the day to remember names from our past. Bobby T. Hood–Could this be the same Bobby Hood who served at First Baptist Kenner during my teen years, during the 60s? I still remember him directing our youth choir, and us giggling as we sang, “…and crown our good with Bro. Hood…”

    I’ve enjoyed these entries. I invite you to one of our familly’s seemingly endless “Pun Fests.” You’d fit right in!

    Leanna

  3. As always your posts are so enjoyable! This one mentioned a long time friend (I’ve been told not to say ‘old friends’ any longer!) My late husband was in school with Etsel Riddle in FL and I didn’t have any idea where he is living. So you helped me in an unexpected way. Thanks for your faithfulness.