Thanksgiving list: W. Jean Richardson

Marvin WestFeature, Powell, westwords

Getting old can be disconcerting. We keep losing pieces of who we are.

There is a flip side. More names and things are added to the Thanksgiving list.

Yesterday I re-read my fourth book, “Thank You Lord, for Beaver Creek Cumberland Presbyterian Church.” I lingered over chapter 9. W. Jean Richardson is my all-time favorite preacher. He served the church for 18 years.

Jean is getting older than I am. He is 88 and not in good health.

Richardson, originally from a farm in Hardin County, Kentucky, arrived in the Powell area in November 1956. He was a young minister with plenty of education, a winning personality and just enough of God’s grace to be an almost perfect fit at Beaver Creek.

We soon stopped worrying about his name, Jean. He was very much a man. His mother liked the French spelling of John. It caused minimum confusion “if you don’t count the time at a conference when I was assigned to the women’s dorm.”

The W. in front of his name took a while. He finally admitted it stood for Wilbur.

Through the years, the Rev. Richardson was never 100 percent sure how a preacher was supposed to look, act or talk. He had a warm, upbeat disposition. He liked people. They liked him. He laughed. Being 6-4 and from Kentucky, of course he played basketball with church youth. He was outstanding as a camp counselor.

I recall him once saying he might be a people person.

“I don’t feel any different in basic human nature than any other Christian. I have the same kind of doubts, fears, ambitions, hopes, frustrations and anxieties that I have observed in others with whom I have counselled and to whom I have preached.

“I have struggled to discover and maintain my true humanity.”

No doubt some tried to transform the pastor into something or somebody he was not and could not be.

Richardson spoke about pressure to appear more saintly, more spiritual, more pious and more sanctimonious. He did not come right out and say that, in his case, adaptation would have been phony.

Jean was an excellent presenter from the pulpit, inclined to speak more about the love of God than the fear of hell. He certainly could deliver a serious message, but he never took himself too seriously.

In 1961, when he was leaving the first time, among his going-away gifts was a glass jar of hot air labeled “bottled sermons.”

Richardson loved it. He had a genuine sense of humor. If there was a light, bright side, he could find it.

Jean was honored by a recall to Beaver Creek in 1971 and stayed until 1985. He was moderator of the general assembly of all Cumberland Presbyterians in 1981. That was a very big deal. The fellowship hall at the church was named in his honor.

He went away again. The Rev. Richardson oversaw a $5 million fundraising campaign for the denomination. He was senior pastor at thousand-member First Cumberland Presbyterian in Chattanooga for five years. In semi-retirement, he was interim minister here and there, as needed. Lake Forest church in South Knoxville loved him.

He and Regina always came home to Powell, to Broadacres.

I still believe his very best years were at Beaver Creek. It was the base for the best Richardson stories in the good book.

As you know, preachers are supposed to be brave enough to go to the front door of hell and point people in the other direction. Good ones follow their calling. Sometimes, along the way, they stop in unexpected places to do a little missionary work.

Harry and Walker Fersner were bright, young, personable adults in the Beaver Creek community. Their mother attended services, and sometimes the brothers came. They owned and operated a tavern (Richardson thought of it as a beer joint) near the Knox-Anderson County line on Clinton Highway.

One day, on a sudden impulse, the preacher decided to visit Harry and Walker at their establishment. He took the risk that some might see him enter or exit and proclaim that he clearly had yielded to temptation in broad daylight.

“As I entered the door, the brothers were standing behind the bar. The room was filled with chatter and loud laughter.

“When they recognized me, they froze and I do believe their jaws dropped. Harry recovered first and said, loud enough for all to hear, ‘Hello PREACHER!’”

That was not so much a greeting as a watch-your-tongue signal to customers who were enjoying a few brews. The crowd got quiet. Jean sat at the bar and sipped a cola. He traded banter with the Fersners. Others were as still as proverbial church house mice.

“I could sense every eye on me and hear the same unspoken question: ‘What is the preacher doing here?’

“I didn’t stay long.”

The next week, Jean and Harry happened to stop at the same gas station.

“Harry walked up to me, put a hand on my shoulder, turned on a devilish grin and said, ‘Preacher, don’t come into our place any more. You might ruin our business.’”

Marvin West invites reader response. His address is [email protected]

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