I was a freshman in college and as was the custom in that school at that time, every student worked on campus two days a week. We were remunerated at the rate of fifty cents an hour for two eight-hour days. Hey, this was the late 1950’s and no one was complaining.
Anyway, on one of my classroom dates, a classmate named Bob asked if I’d like to make a little extra money. He’d been asked by the wife of the college president to wash the windows at the presidential home. “Sure,” I said, “I’ll give it a try.”
That afternoon, Bob and I washed windows at the presidential home. Not a huge job, nothing too difficult, but not my favorite thing to do. So, next day, I did not show up. This was no big deal to me because I had never committed to a second day in the first place.
That night in the dorm, Bob said to me, “You’re in trouble.” I said, “Really? For what?” “The president’s wife was upset that you did not keep your promise.”
I said, “I made no promise. And so I broke none.”
“Well, even so,” he said, “she wants to talk to you.”
I shrugged it off.
Next afternoon someone called my name on the floor of our dorm. “Telephone!”
It was the president’s wife.
“Can you meet me out front in five minutes?”
“Sure,” I said, still wondering what was up.
She pulled up in the family station wagon and beckoned for me to get in. We drove–okay, she drove–the five mile route in back of the college that led to a private school the college owned. All the way she talked.
“Joe, let’s talk about accountability. Keeping a promise. Doing what you committed yourself to do.”
She did the talking. Give me credit, not once did I insist that I never made a commitment, never promised to return the next day. Fact is, I was honored by the attention and took to heart everything she said.
And she did something more. She and the president made me an unofficial employee of the school for their home. I ended up doing small chores around there, often driving the station wagon into the city to pick up the children at their school. And numerous times, I recall taking meals with the presidential family.
For a host of reasons, I had to transfer to another college after my freshman year. But I never forgot the impression the president’s wife made on me by her kind attention, even if it was slightly misplaced.
Now, fast forward twenty-five years. I was pastoring the First Baptist Church of Columbus, Mississippi, and was being honored on the occasion of my tenth anniversary. A few months earlier, a leader in the church had sat in my office and interviewed me about the significant people whose influence had made a difference in my life. I named early pastors, Sunday School teachers, high school teachers, and that college president and his wife. Since I’m clueless about many things, it did not occur to me that the church would do what they did.
For the tenth anniversary, they held a “This is Your Life, Joe McKeever” at the city auditorium and brought almost everyone I had named as a great influence on my life.The college president and his wife–they were now retired–had driven several hundred miles to be with us. I was stunned. Since I was at the college only one year and that was a quarter of a century earlier, there was no way they recalled me. But they came anyway and spoke beautifully, and then would not let the church repay their expenses for the trip.
Many other important people–Sunday School teachers from childhood, high school teachers, longtime friends–showed up that day and all of them spoke. The best line of the day came from the executive of our state denomination. Dr. Earl Kelly said, “Joe, after all these accolades, it does like you could have done the honorable thing and died!” It brought the house down.
My college president–okay, you’re wondering what college and which president–Dr. John and Annabelle Bertrand of Berry College near Rome, Georgia–refused to take anything to cover their expenses. I am glad to report, however, that a few years later when I was pastoring in North Carolina, Dr. Bertrand was into seeking investors into some financial thing he was into and needed an introduction to the millionaire owner of our professional sports team and I happily provided that. I considered it a tiny bit of payback.
I’ve thought often about Mrs. Bertrand’s going to such trouble to teach me a valuable lesson on responsibility. Even if, in the immediate situation, I was not guilty of any infraction as far as I could tell, I’m confident it was a needed lesson, and seems to have been well learned. Furthermore, consider that the Bertrands did not remember me, did not know me, and as far as I can tell, got absolutely nothing from their trip to Columbus, MS from Rome, GA, other than a pleasant weekend. And yet they did it.
Lord, help me to do so unto others. May I not look for the payoff or ask “What’s in it for me?” but to be faithful in passing along the blessings You have so generously shown me.
I suspect we all have similar stories, ones we do well to reminisce about and reflect on, and then to pay it forward by passing on similar helping hands to young people coming behind.