It was Monday night of a revival meeting at the #20 Whitman Community Church in Logan County, WV. The evangelist was my father, Rev. Caudle Adkins, Jr. He had preached his heart out that second night of the revival, and as the choir sang several verses of "Oh, Why Not Tonight?" no one had responded to the traditional altar call. The pastor of the church was obviously concerned about those who were resisting the invitation. Although forty one long years have come and gone since that hot August night, I remember his words as if it were only yesterday.
"Don't put off what you know you should do tonight!" he pleaded with the lost souls who were present in the congregation. "You may not have another opportunity" he continued. "This revival is scheduled to go right on through this week, but you may not be here by week's end. By the time this revival is over, you may already have been called out into eternity. You could be gone. I could be gone."
By Friday night he was.
That Monday evening was the last time I saw my grandfather alive. On Friday afternoon of that same week, his life was snuffed out at the age of 59 by a massive heart attack. His passing was sudden and unexpected. It left a void in the lives of our family members and in his community. Now, over four decades later, I think about what a remarkable man he was. How proud I was of him then - how proud I am of him today - even as I approach the age he was when he died.
Jerry E. Stidham was my maternal grandfather. He crammed a lot of living into his 59 years - from his birth in "bloody" Breathitt County, Kentucky until his death in Logan General Hospital. His formal education was limited to high school, but his entire life was spent in broadening his horizons through reading everything that came into his hands. He had a thirst for knowledge, a gift of tact and diplomacy, and a heart to serve. All of those characteristics served him well throughout his life and varied careers.
Papaw Stidham's father was a coal miner and his uncle was a blacksmith in the mines. I am not certain what brought his father to Logan County, WV from Breathitt County, KY, but later in life, long after Papaw was gone, Mamaw told me she thought there might have been some kind of "incident" in Breathitt, that facilitated the move. That's all that she ever said on the matter.
My grandfather grew up in the coal camps of Logan County. He worked around the mines as a youngster, doing "gofer" work (go for this - go for that) and doing other menial tasks. He told me about a task he was once given as a young teen. The Superintendent told him, "Jerry, run down to Browning's house and let Mrs. Browning know that her husband was killed in a slate fall." I've often wondered what possessed the boss to ask a teenager to handle the delivery of such devastating news. Well, he did as he was told. When the lady opened the door he noted two children playing in the house, and one in her arms. He blurted out the news, and the woman passed out from the shock, falling to the floor with her baby still in her arms. He told me in the final years of his life, that he had learned a valuable lesson in that situation about dealing with people in a compassionate and tactful manner. That lesson served him well later in life, both in his secular work and that of the pastorate.
As soon as he was old enough, he followed his father and uncle into the shafts and tunnels, digging black gold under back breaking conditions. He worked his way up through various jobs with the Island Creek Coal Company around Holden, WV. His penchant for public service took him into several fraternal organizations, and eventually led to his election to the West Virginia House of Delegates where he represented Logan County for three terms. Eventually he went to work for the United Mine Workers of America, rising through various positions until he eventually served as an International Representative and Lobbyist for the Union.
Always a man of high morals, he was highly respected in the community. His years of serving others through his legislative, union, and benevolent work endeared him to his neighbors. His high moral ethics, however, were not tied to any particular relationship with God. Oh, he believed in God all right. He respected the Bible, and the Christ Followers (that is the ones whom he genuinely believed "had it"), but he had little time for organized religion, himself. He "left that to Mary and the kids." The religion he had "in his head" and his talent for writing poetry, led him to publish a new poem every Christmas season and have it printed into a personal Christmas card that he and Mamaw would send to their many friends. In fact, his poetic skills earned him an appointment by Governor Hulett C. Smith in the mid sixties as West Virginia's Poet Laureate.
Papaw's life was forever changed in February of 1961. That was when, under the convicting power of the Holy Spirit, he surprised Mamaw by getting up early one Sunday morning and going with her (uninvited) to church. As the choir sang, "When The Roll is Called Up Yonder", to every one's surprise, Jerry Stidham rose to his feet, walked down the aisle, knelt at the altar and gave his life to the Lord. He was later called into ministry and served several churches in Kanawha County and eventually, back in Logan, at the very church where he had received Christ.
As we remember him this week on the 41st anniversary of his "graduation" to Heaven, allow me to share with you a poem he wrote about the day he came to know Jesus.
On my knees at an altar one day
Crying "Lord, Lord show me the way,
Forgive me of sin and my evil ways,
And place me on a life that pays."
"Take me, Lord, and do as you will,
Thy Holy Spirit my soul to fill.
Make me clean, and give me Grace",
(And tears were falling from my face).
And as I prayed my burden did cease.
In its place came such sweet peace;
The tears I shed, just like a boy,
Became at once as tears of joy.
This is where my story begins,
I arose to my feet and faced my friends,
First time in life, to testify.
I'll never be ashamed to cry.
If he were still with us today, he would be 100 years old. However, his memory is frozen in time as a man, still in his prime, who loved his family, his community, his church, and his Lord. I wish my children and grand kids could have known my grandfather. I wish you could have known him. Even today I miss him. He made a great impact on my life as a young man, and his example has helped me try to be the kind of father and grandfather he was.
I miss you Papaw.
See you soon!