I was born in the pew. Not by choice, mind you, it just worked out that way. My mom thought church was important. Really important. So much so, that I was carted to church every Sunday for Sunday school, then the main service, plus Wednesday night’s service, too. This went on pretty much until I left for college.
My dad’s attitude toward this spiritual regimen was, as near as I can recall it, that regular church attendance was necessary and not unreasonable, but only once during the week and only for one hour. He used to say that the family had to go “do our time.” This is not to say that he was opposed to mandatory church attendance as he recognized it as being a necessary tie to the community. He certainly recognized that church attendance went a long way toward building a personal moral compass for those who attended regularly. Needless to say, my parents quarreled frequently about this. Mom said they were not presenting a united front to us kids, whose eternal souls were at stake, and dad had sympathy for us kids who got drug to the services without any say in the matter.
When we moved from Greentown to Kokomo at the start of my seventh grade, my mom selected a Bible-thumping, hellfire and brimstone Baptist church. Having escaped a similar church in Greentown, I briefly held to the hope that the new Kokomo church would be better. No way. If anything, it was even worse. Nearly all the sermons focused on “don’t do this, don’t do that, and if you do, you will burn for eternity.” I had heard most of the sermons before, so I did not get a lot out of them. It always seemed to me that if the preacher was so certain of being in the right, it should be obvious to all of us wretched sinners and he did not need to try and scare us half to death. But no matter, there was a good side to the new church. I was eventually introduced to three remarkable men, who were my Sunday school teachers. They made a positive, life-long impression on me.
My first Sunday school teacher was a man named Howard Lewis. I do not remember a lot about him, but I remember that he was married and had beautiful daughters. I think he worked at a skilled trade job at Delco. He was not a formally educated man and was very soft spoken. I wonder now how he came to be our teacher. It cannot be that he wanted to do it. I suspect that the pastor did a guilt trip on him, as no man in his right mind would want to be the teacher of a bunch of rowdy 12 year olds.
Yet, Mr. Lewis was a very successful teacher. Why? Because he paid us to come to class. Yes, that is right. We got paid. If you showed up for Sunday school, you got a dime. Another dime if you went to the church service. Another dime if you memorized the verse for the week. If you did everything required, you could earn fifty cents per week. That was $26 a year. He paid every six months. We looked forward to payday. You were not going to miss that Sunday, for sure.
Needless to say, if you had to be there anyway, and most of my buddies were in the same boat I was, why not make a buck? My buddies and I were ferociously competitive about making our fifty cents per week. And we learned what we were supposed to learn. Amazing! Mr. Lewis even tried to go through the lesson book with us.
I do not know if the church hierarchy knew what was going on in our class, but I am sure if certain people had found out about it, there would have been a stink. Being paid to learn about the Lord? I can hear it now. “Sacrilege! Outrageous! Give the money back!” But that never happened.
You can buy a lot of Milky Way candy bars and Mad magazines with $26.
My next teacher was George Hoover. Like Mr. Lewis, Mr. Hoover was a skilled tradesman at Delco. He was married to a registered nurse, Virginia, and had several children, one of whom is one of my best friends to this day, David Allan Hoover.
We had Sunday school lesson books. I do not think that we ever cracked them. Looking back, I suspect they were written by some very earnest, good-intentioned, ancient seminarian who was clueless as to how to get the attention of a pack of border-line heathen 14-year-olds. Mr. Hoover knew that. He knew that we were interested in sports, girls, and cars, not necessarily in that order. While we were not into hearing about the Holy Trinity, we were very interested in the Tri-Power carburetors in Pontiac’s new GTO.
Mostly, Mr. Hoover would ask us about school, our athletic endeavors and if we had met any good-looking girls. I know those topics are not very spiritual, but we figured out that he really cared about us, like Mr. Lewis.
Mr. Hoover made it known to us that we were always welcome at his house, where Mrs. Hoover could always be counted on to fix something good to eat. His daughters were pretty, which was another benefit to showing up at his house. We could hang out there and escape our parents. He told us that if we were ever in trouble, no matter what or where, we could call and he would come and get us, day or night, without telling our parents, if that was possible. There were many times when we were going to do something stupid, until one of us commented that Mr. Hoover would be upset if we got caught. Consequently, a lot of stupid things did not get done.
Mr. Hoover was mechanically minded. He always had a derelict car, motorcycle or some other oddball piece of machinery that “just needed one more part” to run perfectly. I do not think that he ever, or at least rarely, found that obscure part, but hanging out in his garage, drinking Cokes, using hand tools, and getting dirty and greasy was infinitely cool.
The bottom line was that Mr. Hoover cleverly figured out how to be a silent, behind-the scenes parent to all of us in his Sunday school class. He had all the authority any our parents had, or wanted to have, without our resentment. We would have rather died than disappoint him.
My last Sunday school teacher was Glen Johnson. He did not want to teach our class of 16-year-olds. How do I know this? Because he told us flat out that was the case and that he had been drafted. I can tell you that our class had a reputation…and it was not a good one, either. Needless to say, we never looked at our Sunday school book, and I seem to recollect that management didn’t even bother to order us any, choosing not to waste money on a wild bunch of unrepentant, backsliding juvenile delinquents, all of whom were on the slippery slope to the hot place. I do not recall Mr. Johnson preparing anything for class, either.
Mr. Johnson was a “man’s man.” He read meters for the gas company. He never walked his daily route. He ran it! He had been a jumpmaster in the 101st Airborne and had 252 jumps. He was an incredible athlete who played catcher for a very serious, fast pitch softball team. He had much experience in the army with trying to supervise young men with not a lick of sense, just like us. I think he remembered what it was like to be sixteen and not have a clue about much of anything.
Mr. Johnson knew that girls were on our minds most of the time. He also understood that they were pretty much a mystery to us. He knew we were all interested in getting to first, second, and third base as often as possible. (A home run was beyond our comprehension at the time, or at least it was for me.) He knew we were going to try anything we could think of with any willing female within range. He also knew that we had discovered alcohol and that we were going to experiment with anything we could get our hands on. He also knew he could not stop us.
So most of our Sunday school class revolved around him asking what each of us did on Saturday night. Sometimes we could tell him and sometimes we tried to avoid answering his probing questions. Somehow, he always knew what we were up to. He repeatedly warned us that alcohol and women were a lethal combination that we did not have the experience to deal with. He was dead on right about that. That is probably still true some forty-five years later, truth be told!
He would often shake his head and ask us what we were going to do when we got caught. This had the effect of making us stop and think about some of our nocturnal activities. He asked us if we had thought about the consequences. Of course, none of us had a serious thought in our heads about anything but having a good time and none of us had an answer, so, like Mr. Hoover, Mr. Johnson said to call him if we were in trouble. Again, he showed us he cared about us. It was what made the difference. It was why we respected him.
All three men have since passed away. I miss them all. I think of them frequently. I remember how calm and quiet Howard Lewis was. He was as close to being a “godly” man as anyone I have ever met. I know he was genuinely concerned about us and prayed for us daily. We needed it. George Hoover had a great laugh that made you want to be around him. When we would do something stupid, which was quite often, he would chuckle and then ask us if we had learned anything. You knew he worked long hours to make a good life for his family and yet he took the time to be a father figure to all of us. Glen Johnson showed us how to be a “man’s man”, as best we could. He knew we were growing up and had potential. He did not want to see us do something stupid and waste our lives. I think that was why he used to grill us each Sunday. He knew our parents did not know what we were up to and somebody needed to talk straight to us before we got into serious trouble. We didn’t and we owe Mr. Johnson for looking out for us.
All three men impacted positively every boy or young man in our class. None of them were Bible scholars and they did not spend a lot of time on religious topics, but they taught us about the important things in life. They taught us about being responsible, to tell the truth, and to think about the consequences of our actions. They taught us respect, to look out for each other, and how to act like men. They were always there to give good advice, gentle reprimands and to show their concern for us. What more could you ask of a volunteer Sunday school teacher? I say we were all blessed.