RAMBLINGS • God's Call Away From Agriculture

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I begin with a disclaimer. I am very happy with my past career. I didn’t become wealthy, but as long as I hustled (not in street lingo–I never had a street hustle–but as long as I was willing to take jobs in the summer or on weekends or part-time, even during the school year) and as long as soul-mate Judy was able to do a full-time job while keeping our house in order, we kept food on the table, a roof over our head, and a vehicle of sorts in the driveway. Our kids didn’t face the pitfalls of poverty I and most of my friends knew as we grew up in the 1940s and 50s. Even so, I sometimes wonder how our lives might have developed had I been guided onto a different vocational path. I suspect I’m not alone; we all have our “road not taken” moments that poet Robert Frost immortalized.

Sunday, March 1, the Hillsboro United Methodist Church choir sang “If We Truly Believe” as the offertory. One of its lines, “As we rise to go in different ways – Although we all have separate lives to live...,” recommenced my chain of thought about what might have been had I lived my life doing what I wanted rather than what I now believe God wanted me to do.

I don’t consider myself a deeply religious man. I was taken to a local church when I was small by my mom, who was deeply religious (my dad didn’t attend regularly until he was seriously ill). I suspect I went during my teen years because Judy went, though I didn’t recognize that as a motivation until I was 18 or so. The church was labeled Presbyterian, under the guidance of a Presbytery. That was important to me only because one of the ministers called to the Open Door Parish, Rev. Carhart, had a daughter attending a small National Board Missions junior college in North Carolina–the one both Judy and I eventually attended.

It wasn’t what I’d call a typical Presbyterian church; mostly poverty-stricken (though none of us knew that and would have resented that designation) farmers attended. I’m also positive that no one understood the basic Presbyterian doctrine of predestination. When we moved to Hillsboro in the early ‘70s, we joined the HUMC, not because John Wesley had any special meaning for us but because many of our teacher friends attended there.

When I was in high school, I wanted to be like dad, a dairy farmer. I knew how to handle cattle; I liked the life style (I guess I’ve always been a workaholic) with a definite schedule every day with most of the work outside. For me it had been a neat way to grow. Though I missed the chance to play ball after school, I felt superior to “townies.”

My parents weren’t as enthused. I knew that dad often worked off the farm, especially after I became big enough to handle more of the farm chore workload, but I didn’t realize how much the family needed extra checks that didn’t come from selling milk. Mom didn’t work away from the house; neither did most moms I knew–which was another benefit of that long-gone culture.

Dad wanted me to do something besides farm. One factor was the income, insufficient for what he knew would be two families, though I hadn’t considered that yet. Another was probably my brother, 12 years younger than I (Dad and an older brother hadn’t spoken for years because both wanted their family farm, and Uncle Lou was given it.) A third was Dad’s age and health. He was 42 when I was a senior and expected to run the farm for a long time; he didn’t know he’d die of cancer six years later.

Mom wanted me to do anything but farm. Her dad had died when she and her brother were very young; they came of age during the Great Depression. Though she never talked about it, the poverty they experienced was worse, I’m sure, than my siblings and I experienced. We didn’t have expensive clothes to wear, but we always had food. I don’t know that I ever felt deprived. In a way, Dad rescued Mom from abject poverty by marrying her, but I didn’t know until after his death how much she disliked the farm and its tendency to draw all income back into itself. I remember one of their bargains; Dad could borrow money to buy a state mandated bulk milk tank to stay in business if she could have a new couch to replace one that was over 20 years old. I thought she was unfair.

The dream to be a farmer (though baling hay or chopping silage sometimes aggravated my ragweed-induced hay fever and asthma) died hard. Though I was an English major, I volunteered for farm crew duties on both work-college campuses I attended; especially in North Carolina that made my transition into college life easier. Judy (who was more religious than I), Rev. Carhart, and other school chaplains suggested I plan for seminary. I didn’t like the Old Testament or New Testament classes required at WWC, but Christian ethics and a Christian lifestyle appealed to me, so for a while I convinced myself I’d received the call.

After marriage when I was at Blackburn, I filled the pulpit as a “potential” seminary student at Waveland, Donnellson, Butler, Witt, Reno, and Sorento. As I remember, I also preached at Canaan Chapel on County Line Road in the Bingham area. Judy was proud, my mom and grandma were hopeful, but I was never comfortable. The congregations expected and deserved a conservative, scripture-based sermon, so that’s what I gave them, but eventually I stopped appearing because I felt hypocritical.

I earned money other ways, though. I didn’t have a part in the Work Program at Blackburn because I lived off campus. We had an apartment near the golden-domed courthouse (I think a dentist office is in that space now) the first semester, and I worked at Mefford Shell pumping gas, changing oil, repairing tires, and that sort of light mechanical work. That was before self-service came in vogue. Judy graduated and we moved first to Hillsboro and then to Coffeen, where she was one of the better sixth grade teachers they ever had (if you don’t believe me, ask Gary Satterlee, Vickie (Satterlee) Lovellette, or Denny “Rotten Rod” Carlock, who were among her students). I base my judgement on what they, among others, have told me. I worked weekends there for Harold Meyers at the Phillips 66 station, (though he paid poorly).

I graduated from Blackburn with an English degree but absolutely no job prospects. We weren’t worried. I hadn’t applied to seminary because of the experience outlined above and because we had little money, but I worked at Wepco in Litchfield that summer packing storm doors and windows on a shift with Hillsboro’s Rex Segrest and Coffeen’s Bill Kershaw. We’d carpool occasionally. It kept the wolf from the door.

A call from School Superintendent Don Beane came in mid-August. I’d met him when Judy was hired. She was a non-driver at the time, so I’d driven her to the pre-hiring interview and he came out to meet me. I had three semesters to go before graduation, but he said he’d keep me in mind if anything opened after I graduated. That proved prophetic.

I hadn’t considered teaching as a career. An educational philosophy class I’d taken and found useless was one factor; another was the “curriculum file” (pictures suited for bulletin boards) that Judy had to gather before student teaching. Finally, though I had a few teachers I respected in high school and college, I couldn’t then see myself doing what they did (putting up with undisciplined students and interfering parents, for example) for a just-above-poverty-level salary. Too, I’d come to resent the time Judy spent checking papers every evening as part of her job; I wasn’t mature enough not to be jealous yet.

Then Fate (aka as God at times) intervened. Mr. Beane said one of his English teachers, Ed Helbig, had resigned to become a junior college teacher in Belleville; the community college movement in Illinois was just under formation. He asked if I’d come for an interview. I knew (from Judy’s checks) that it didn’t pay well, but I also knew it paid better than factory work. 

When Mr. Beane offered me the coaching job at Coffeen as well (Earl Meier was to become the seventh grade coach at Hillsboro Junior High), I was sold. I’d earn an extra $300 for coaching fall baseball; elementary, seventh, and eighth grade basketball, and track. The pay wasn’t an incentive, but the chance to coach (have fun) was.

It took a couple years, but the understanding of the word “calling” sank in. I had a talent for teaching; I learned much about the subject matter by reviewing it before passing it on. Most of the kids at least tolerated me, most parents seemed appreciative of my efforts, and I was comfortable enough to relax enough to do what needed to be done. I had found my calling, and the conviction I was doing what I was born to do grew deeper as the rest of life happened.

Could I have done other jobs? I’d like to think so. After we purchased the apartment building on the corner of Oak and West Wood, I took accounting classes taught by Bill Dagon as part of LLCC’s adult education program. I think I could have been an accountant. Because of the same investment, I took two business law classes, one taught by Jerry Pat Huber and the other by Randy Abbott of Springfield. Based on those classes, I think I would have enjoyed law school. Both of our daughters became CPAs, and Jenni also passed Indiana’s bar exam. Perhaps I had a bit to do with their successes (probably not).

Last summer I was bitten by the farmer bug again. Jenni and I drove to western Pennsylvania to visit family connections. My brother took us to see Darwin Kirkland, a friend of my father who, at 95, still lives on his farmstead on a country road near Tanoma, PA. The road he lives on was named after him when the 911 system came about; he lives on Darwin’s Road. Dad would have been 100 last year.

As we sat in the living room of his farm house, memories of past visits came back to me. Dad bought a Berkshire piglet for me from Darwin and/or his brother Rich for my first 4-H project. The pair were our mechanics of first resort when a tractor, truck, or car needed repairs beyond our limited expertise. Darwin talked about how neighbors then traded work, and I remembered the excitement of threshing days. Even though an arthritic knee has him confined to a wheelchair, there was a noble air about him. He has survived over nine and a half decades of agricultural change, from horse drawn equipment through the simple tractors that I drove to the huge equipment of today with the same stoic steely-eyed acceptance, with confidence he could handle whatever drove up that hill to his place. He drove a tractor pulling a baler when he was 90.

I admire that adaptability, but I don’t have it.

After 50 years, I’ve come to accept that God didn’t want me to be a farmer.

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