Since I live so far away from Nashville, I have not participated in the LifeWay Retiree Fellowship. I appreciate that they send me a copy of their newsletter occasionally. The newsletter that I received today devoted about 1/3 of the space for “In Memoriam” information about LifeWay retirees and spouses that died in 2013. The list contained many dear friends, but four names stood out for me.
One was a dear friend who entered Howard College (now Samford University) with me in the fall of 1962. Cliff Tharp had finished two years at a junior college in Florida and entered Howard as a math major. I had completed one year at Georgia Tech and also entered as a math/English double major. Cliff and I became best of friends, sharing math classes and projects and often playing chess together and with our campus minister, Ben Connell.
After graduation, Cliff went to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY and began work on a Master of Religious Education degree. I followed him the next year, entering the same master’s program. After receiving his MRE degree, Cliff began work on his doctorate in religious education. After receiving my MRE, I switched over to theology and earned Master of Divinity and Doctor of Philosophy degrees.
Our close friendship continued. Cliff invited me to be a groomsman in his first wedding. Later, he was a groomsman in my wedding. We lived in Fuller Hall apartments that were side-by-side for six months after my wedding. With our wives, we had our first Thanksgiving dinner together; but at that meal we sensed the first sign of marital trouble. A couple of weeks later, Cliff came to visit me and spilled out the sad story that his wife had decided that she had a different sexual orientation and wanted a divorce. This was 1967, and this was virtually unheard of then. The Seminary almost dismissed Cliff because of the divorce; but he had such an exceptional record and such strong support among his faculty members, the seminary allowed him to continue in his doctoral work.
After graduation, Cliff went to work in the Research Department at the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention (now called “LifeWay Christian Resources.”) We stayed in occasional touch. He visited us on our church field in Indiana, and I could tell by his interest in our choir director that he was definitely interested in finding a new mate. A couple of years later, we attended his wedding at Belmont Baptist Church in Nashville. He and Rose began a life together that spanned the years until Cliff’s death last year. He left behind a devoted wife, a loving daughter, and two precious grandchildren; but that’s not all of the story.
In August of 1977, I received a call from Cliff asking if I would be interested in writing some Sunday School lessons for adults. I was a professor at Campbell College (now University) in North Carolina, and Cliff was a curriculum design editor for Adult Life and Work Sunday School materials—the premier curriculum produced by Southern Baptists (now defunct since conservative elements took control of the entire Southern Baptist Convention). I agreed. Attending a “writers conference” was required for coordinating the whole spectrum of materials that would be written by a sizable group of writers. In a snowy January, 1978, I attended the writers conference. While there, Cliff told me confidentially that he was planning to return to his initial work area in research. His manager, Ernest Hollaway (a second name that appeared in the “In Memoriam” list), had earlier been a missionary in Japan; and by some coincidence, I had actually visited in his home in Japan in 1964 when I was on my way to ten weeks of summer mission work in Taiwan. To make a long story short, Cliff moved back to research, Ernest Holloway invited me to fill Cliff’s vacancy, and four months later I began a 25-year career at the Sunday School Board/LifeWay. Through those 25 years, Cliff and I had lunch together regularly with an informal group we called “Table A.” Another member of that lunch bunch was Wallace Carrier, who is the third name that jumped out at me in the “In Memoriam” list. Wallace was a former pastor who held a parallel editorial role for the Convention Uniform Series curriculum that Cliff and I had had with Life and Work. He was an especially kind, gentle, and affirming man.
I retired from LifeWay in 2003 in the midst of the significant changes that the conservative forces were inflicting on the former Sunday School Board. By moving to east Tennessee, we chose to separate from all the turmoil that the theological shift inflicted on the churches, the Baptist institutions, and the loyal employees of convention agencies. Cliff was still working at LifeWay in research and statistics when I retired. After his retirement, he and Rose moved to Richmond, Virginia, to be closer to their daughter and her family.
I will close with mention of the fourth name on the list—Sara Holleman. Sara was the wife of Wallace Holleman, a LifeWay employee. Sara and Wallace were good friends by our shared membership for the 25 years we were members of Immanuel Baptist Church. Sara died unexpectedly this past September, and her death was a shock to all. Our last time with her was when we visited in the Sunday School class at Immanuel Baptist Church of which Sara and Wallace were members. Sara was a wonderfully vivacious and caring friend. She had two sons, who have been close friends of our elder daughter for over 35 years. Sara’s energy and vitality were contagious; and we mourn her loss along with these other special friends who have contributed so much to our lives at various times through the years since 1962.