My boys call me a widow chaser. It’s true and it’s fun. And sometimes I catch them and sometimes I don’t.
I assume my meaning is clear to anyone reading about the archive business. But in case this moniker eludes a quick grasp, let me explain: I try to preserve the papers of men (or women, but mostly men) who have made some contribution to American religious history. Sometimes I get to their widows before they toss them, and sometimes I don’t. More often it is the former, but sometimes the latter.
In re: the latter, I remember well and with no little archival pain a widow I was chasing because a friend suggested that I go easy on her husband before she became a widow. My job hazard is giving off the ambience of a buzzard circling the still warm --but not very warm-- bodies of Baptist preachers and educators who have over their careers accumulated somewhat of a literary legacy. I followed my friend’s advice (after all, he had suggested the name to me), and the next thing you know the subject in question, a former seminary president, was dead. And the next thing you know after that, his papers, like him, were toast. Why? Because his admiring widow woke up every day and stared at his two four-drawer file cabinets full of his life’s work and began to miss him so much that she tossed them to kill the pain! Since her son was a seminary president also, it never occurred to me that I should have just risked the buzzard paradigm.
Such losses are certainly the exception to the rule, though it is also true that some widows have been rumored to have burned their husband’s papers --and not because they missed their spouses. I can think of one in northern Indiana, though her mate (also a seminary president) was not a Baptist. And that is all the clue I am giving, as I am still working hard to forgive this lass, even posthumously.
A delightful alternative to this historical mindlessness is a widow I met in a very large (that’s a hint) southern state several years ago. For a year or so I had been chasing her husband, only to discover that he was dead and that he had been dead for some time. It so happened that the brother of the deceased had once been the owner of the Minnesota Vikings. And before that, he had owned the Denver Nuggets and the San Antonio Spurs --yes, the same Spurs who are playing this very week that I write.
Because of this connection, I managed to land an interview with the owner in question. He had grown up in the First Baptist Church of Spur, Texas, after which town’s name many thought he had named his basketball team but which he had not. When I called his office, I asked his secretary if he would permit me to interview him about Texas Baptist history. This was not the sort of request that he received everyday; and at 4:30 that very same day, I was in his office with my camcorder for a 1.5 hour interview. That was a wonderful occasion, and the interview is in the archives of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where I serve as the Archivist. The NFL owner in question is Red McCombs, and the rest is some delightful history which any researcher of faith or football is welcome to come to our seminary to see.
It turned out that Mary McCombs, the widow of Red’s brother, Gene, was still living in San Antonio. Before long I made my way over to her house and did an oral history with her --and not only with her but with her son, Terrell. And before much longer, Mary donated to our archives some of Gene’s books and also a collection of letters between her husband and his dear friend, Mack Cole, out in Fort Smith, Montana, not far from the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Those letters are now part of our archives. And now we know a lot more about Mary’s husband, Gene, who was the original object of my pursuit.
Time and space fail me to condense the substance of what we now know about Rev. Gene McCombs. But one story will suffice to whet any normal researcher’s appetite. The story in its entirety is on the DVD interview with Gene’s brother. Red tells the story therein about when his brother was young and felt a call to the ministry. He said everyone tried to talk him out of it, even his pastor. That by itself is almost unprecedented in American religious history. Just imagine, if you can, a Texas Baptist preacher trying to talk a teenager out of a call to preach. I personally have never heard of such a thing, even though I have heard some preach to whom that advice might well have been given.
Gene’s sense of calling certainly seems justified, if one takes into consideration that he ended his long career as an associate preaching pastor of the nationally known television personality, Adrian Rogers, of the Bellevue Baptist Church (a church Elvis Presley used to sneak into late and leave early) in Memphis, Tennessee. But things did not begin that auspiciously for Gene.
According to Red, a mutual friend of his and Gene’s came to him one day when Gene was in seminary. The friend told Red that Gene was living close to poverty in order to chase his dream, the call to ministry he had heard. He told Red that Gene didn’t have much food in the refrigerator and that for income he was mowing lawns with a borrowed mower. Though he is a billionaire today, Red was not a billionaire then. But he made his way up to Dallas and saw firsthand that what his friend had told him was true. On camera, Red said that they both got down on their knees (most NFL owners only do that on Super Bowl Sunday), and there in prayer he told the Lord that Gene would live as he lived. Thereafter, Gene did.
Red’s support of his brother was not without its problems, as Gene mostly pastored small churches, but he always owned a new car, a new house, and took trips to Europe. This is one of my favorite “brother” stories of all time, as is one Mack Cole (to whom Red directed me for more Texas Baptist history) told in a sermon he sent me (a copy of which is in our archives). It’s a story that makes a trip over here to Wake Forest and our archives more than simply worthwhile. We have passion here as well as papers. I have already written up this story elsewhere, and would be happy to email a copy of it to anyone interested enough to send me a request at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition to some papers of Gene McCombs and three oral histories with his family members, the archives at Southeastern is full of many other Gospel goodies. A main focus of our collection strategy is the papers and oral histories of participants in what is known by its friends as the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention and by its enemies as the "Takeover" --as in unbiblical theft-- of the Southern Baptist Convention.
One of the leading collections in this connection is that of Texas Judge Paul Pressler, co-architect with Paige Patterson of the Conservative Resurgence. Pressler, characterized by a sloppy historian from Wake Forest University as a newcomer-sort-of-young-Turk to the SBC, is actually an eighty year-old descendant of one of the original founders of the SBC and a continuous host of Southern Baptist relatives who followed that founder from 1845 right down the trail to the Judge.
Not all of the collections in the archives are of Baptists. One recent addition to our holdings is the papers of the Lutheran scholar, Dr. John Warwick Montgomery. Montgomery is best remembered today for his debates with atheist Madeline Murray O'Hair and near atheist Bishop Pike. Another addition is the papers of the evangelical thunderbolt Francis Schaeffer, a Presbyterian.
And not all of the collections in our archives are of Baptists sympathetic to the SBC of which Southeastern Baptist Seminary is an agency. Some collections or individual pieces are from persons militantly opposed to the SBC. The overall collection policy I have implemented is one taught to me by the late Methodist Governor, Senator, and Duke University President, Terry Sanford. In reference to the Richard Nixon Library, over which Sanford's History Department fought him tooth and nail not to accept, Sanford told me in an oral history, "I would take the archives of the Devil, if the Devil would give them to me.” So would I.