Some time ago one of my colleagues asked me if I could think of one defining moment in my life. I thought for a moment and replied, “It was the night Joe Eggebrecht, my minister at First Church of Christ in Sutherland, Iowa, came to our house to volunteer to be my guardian for a year."
Let me explain! It was February of my junior year in high school and my mother was let go from her teaching job. She’d exploded in the classroom in part because her principal would not support her efforts at discipline. Her temper resulted in her dismissal although the School Board graciously paid her for the remaining months of her contract. Her dismissal meant that I would have to go to a third high school. I did not want to move again. I had become a Christian, made friends at school, earned a football letter, and was a leader in several school clubs. Completely unknown to my mom and me, the church leadership met and decided that the church would “adopt” me for a year and Joe would be my guardian. If mom and I accepted, and if mom would pay the $25 legal fee to set up the guardianship it would all happen.
She accepted; I was elated. For all intents and purposes I was almost on my own after school let out that year. The church got me a job with Burdette Weaver. I lived on the farm and worked for him until football started in late August. He tried me at cultivating, but after I tore out about 12 rows of corn, he gave up on that. I spent the summer painting outbuildings, baling hay, checking electric fence, and doing chores. I had a salary, although I can’t remember how much it was, along with three squares and a bed.
When football started, I moved into town into a room in the home of Harriet Reist, a widow lady who lived about two doors from the church. My mom sent me $50 a month to pay my rent, buy my meals, and take care of my recreation. I had no car in a small town of about 800 people, so there was little outside of church activities for me to do. After the first semester, I moved into the basement of the parsonage and helped the Eggebrechts some with money for meals. The basement was just that! It was an area cut out of the dirt with a cot. Church members took turns doing my laundry and taking me home with them on the weekend for meals.
I also spent a lot of time at the home of Harold Steele. Harold was the uncle of one of my best friends and classmate Phil Steele. Whenever Harold had work, he got me to come do it. I helped him dig a trench across the drive for pipe to carry water to the barn. I helped him clean the chicken house, hog house, and barn. I helped him bale hay. After I graduated from high school in 1961, I spent most of the summer at his place. On one occasion, he took his family on a round robin vacation trip to most of the Iowa State Parks. While he was gone, I kept the place going for him. In addition, he let me drive his pickup and bale hay for other farmers in the area. When the family returned from their trip, he permitted me to drive his new Ford Fairlane. I remember driving that car on one of the few dates I worked up courage to get. It was with Pat Prunty, a lovely redhead from Cleghorn, Iowa. Pat later went to Morningside College and then eventually to the music staff at Ozark Christian College.
Throughout that last year, I thought a lot about what I could do to thank the Sutherland church for doing so much for me. During that time I flirted with the idea of Bible College but wasn’t sure I wanted to do that since my dream was to coach football and teach in public schools. I thought that might become a reality when the coach of NAIA powerhouse Northwestern College of Iowa spent some time with me in an attempt to recruit me to his program. He promised a half tuition scholarship until I made the traveling squad, then it would become a full ride scholarship. Knowing I could not afford the tuition, I asked what he would do if I lettered two years in Junior College. He told me Northwestern would give me a full scholarship. With that in mind, I contacted the coach at Norfolk (Nebraska) Junior College and asked if there were any scholarships available. I was 6’ 2” and 227 pounds and had lettered in both my junior and senior years. He replied that NJC would offer me a half tuition scholarship. Well, that was $25! It was, however, in my price range and with Nebraska Christian College in the same town I could afford it.
To make a long story shorter, I left for NCC and NJC in late August to arrive in time for “two-a-days” with $125 saved from summer work. I registered for 16 hours at the junior college and 4 hours at NCC (that permitted me to live in NCC’s dorm) and reported to the National Guard Armory for football. In December of 1961, I committed my life to ministry of some sort and the rest is, as they say, history.
It was a small congregation of believers in Sutherland, Iowa, who made a major difference in my life. While I owe the most to my Savior, there is also a debt of gratitude I’ll never be able to repay to that group of leaders who made a difference in one boy.
I owe a lot to Terry Miles, who, to my knowledge, never became a Christian. It was Terry who nagged me into my first visit at First Church of Christ. I owe even more to the Steele families. Si and Doris kept in touch and have been interested in my ministries to this day. Si left us to go home with the Lord a few years ago. Because of distance and expenses I was unable to attend his services and I regret that. His sons, Phil and Tom, remain fast friends – men I care about and appreciate for their encouragement and friendship. I lost track of the other boys in the family and Virginia, the oldest in the family. I still pray for Sue, with whom all of us high school boys were in love with, because she is fighting cancer.
I still owe Harold Steele a lot, too. He did more than give me jobs. He provided counsel and direction in my life. I know this sounds terrible, but I think I wept more at the time of his untimely death beneath his tractor wheels, than I did for my mother. One of his gifts to me when I went to Bible College was his collection of Christian Standards. He had several decades saved and I kept them for many years. Today those papers are part of the collection of the library at Boise Bible College in Idaho.
What I’ve been trying to say is that the defining moment in my life was when one small Iowa church stepped forward and took me under their wing. My life was changed forever. I wasn’t the moment I accepted Christ. It wasn’t an emotional experience at all. It was the decision of a small group of people to “be the body of Christ.”