Back when I was 23 years old I had accepted a job as editor of a state magazine in Charleston in the jungle maze known as the Statehouse.
I was greener than the grass that is now a staple of Charleson’s drug-infested, rundown East Side. Back then, a different variety served as a garnish for the lawns of the stately houses along Jackson and other east end streets.
I had rented a room on Lewis Street from an elderly Orthodox Jewish widow. Coming from rural Gilmer County I knew little of Jews except that they were mentioned in the Bible and a family had owned a clothing store in Glenville.
Shortly after I arrived in Charleston I received a telegram and a letter. The telegram arrived at the office and scared the bejeebers out of me, as I had never received a telegram and had always assumed they told of sickness or death.
However, the telegram was from Bob Weaver congratulating me on my new job and wishing me well. I had met the genius boy Weaver when he was a student and I was serving my student teaching assignment at Calhoun High. Little did I know that he would someday be my editor. Had I known, I might have treated him nicer.
The letter was from the Reverend Glendon McKee. It was one intended for encouragement and I’m sure to keep me on the high road amidst all the worldly temptations that for some strange reason have always been associated with West Virginia politics.
For the record, Glendon McKee, who in the fashion of the hills we always referred to as “Preacher McKee,” never preached at you out of church, but subtly got his message across through well-chosen words interspersed by poignant Biblical quotes.
I framed the letter; it meant that much to me. I gave no thought about my landlady who might have found it, on church letterhead paper with the cross emblazoned upon it, along with my King James Bible, a little out of place in an Orthodox Jewish home.
She never complained, but perhaps to orient me a little, each Friday when I began my trip home to Gilmer she would hand me a paper bag containing funny-looking baked disks. She called them “bagels,” something I had never experienced in my gourmet country meals.
Try as I might to eat them, I found them tough and unappetizing even when I covered them with condiments including sausage gravy. I finally assumed they were the unleavened bread spoken about in the Bible, and I gave thanks that we were Methodists as I devoured my mom’s biscuits and cornbread.
Sometimes when I stayed over on a weekend I would come in on a Friday evening and find people seated around the dining room tables with candles lit all over the room. It was a little scary, because for all I knew those folks could have been into devil worship. Little did I know that the Jewish Sabbath was on Saturday and this was part of a religious service. In such a manner, we might well misunderstand the problems in the Middle East as I don’t recall anyone in Gilmer County praying several times a day in the direction of Mecca.
The letter from the preacher carried special meaning for me. He was the closest we ever came to having a family minister. I can’t remember the details of how we adopted each other except he had been a pastor on the Normantown circuit which had included our Walnut Grove church at the mouth of Barbecue Run.
According to what I have read, he began his service on the Normantown charge in 1944. We had moved to Glenville in 1943. We may have attended Walnut Grove a few times after moving, and the preacher had visited my Grandma in our home when she lay dying of cancer.
My dad could never adjust to the “city” church in Glenville; the preacher there wore a clerical collar and garb, and my dad said he resembled a Catholic priest. There was only a handful of Catholics around back then, and sadly to say, they were as misunderstood as other minority religions.
So, most of my boyhood years we attended country churches, such as the EUB at Letter Gap. Another complaint of my dad was that he never knew when to stand up or sit down in the ritual in the town church. In the country churches he was also free to let a loud “amen” when the spirit warranted it without scaring the wits out of a bunch of college professors.
Glendon and Eupha, his wife, along with Roanna—Roger wasn’t around yet—visited us often in our home. They had meals with us, and anyone who has ever experienced Eupha’s cooking knows that I took advantage of anything offered from her kitchen.
My dad died in 1953. As he lay on his sick bed over several weeks the good preacher was often there. He preached my dad’s funeral in the Letter Gap church, overcome with his own emotions. He so admired my dad that he said that it was one of his most difficult funerals.
At Calhoun High I taught English as a student teacher under the preacher’s supervision. I’m sure he gave me a better grade than I deserved. And over the years, especially after I began a column in the West Virginia Hillbilly, he would write to me.
I often would shudder after a column came out wondering what the preacher might think of my sometimes a little off-color comments. But he never criticized; he carried a good sense of humor along with the righteousness.
I regret that I didn’t stay as close in later years. But last year when Shirley and I visited the humming newsroom of the Hur Herald. Bob Weaver suggested that I should pay the preacher a visit. He made a call and I spoke to Eupha who in her ever-cheerful voice said that they would be most happy to see us.
I found the preacher confined to bed, and I became aware of the terrible suffering he had endured, yet his mind was the same as years past as we enjoyed talking about people we knew and experiences from the old days. He had Eupha’s care, which made his days more easily endured, a result of their long-standing loving relationship.
Glendon McKee died on Friday, April 16, at the age of 89. My dad will welcome him, knowing that at last he has his country preacher with him and he can shout to high heaven either sitting down or standing up in his worship of the Lord.