In the early 1980s, I had the privilege of serving as Ethel’s pastor. I was a seminary student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., and served a church near Raleigh where she was a member.
This was long after her retirement, and after the death of her husband, Bill Smith, who had served for a period as president of what was in those days was Wingate College.
Ethel was, in what may be the most understated statement I have ever made, a formidable woman.
First of all, she had an opinion about everything. From education to politics to religion and philosophy — apparently she had read all the books that were housed her name. So far as I know, she had never been wrong — at least, in her own mind.
She also had strong opinions about how young pastors were supposed to comport themselves. And believe me — she was not shy about sharing her opinions.
“Now let me tell you how you will succeed in the ministry,” she told me one day. “Don’t let people think you know everything — even if you do.” This was followed by a wry smile.
“If someone tells you that someone is in the hospital, even if you already know it, just nod and say thanks. Don’t tell them you already know, just let them tell you — they need to do that.”
Thanks, Ethel. You were right.
Ethel had a keen sense about people. She knew that her young pastor, struggling through seminary with a wife and four children, was as poor as a church mouse. The home that her church provided us to live in was a mansion. All of the furniture we owned would have fit comfortably in the living room.
Ethel saw right away we were way out of our rural Alabama element. But she was delicate about it. She called me one day with this observation.
“I notice that you wear the same clothes every Sunday.” Blue sport coat, khaki pants, blue button down shirt, blue tie. That was my Sunday uniform in those days.
“I want to buy you a proper suit,” she said. “Meet me downtown this afternoon. If you are going to be a professional, you need professional clothes.”
That day I donned the first suit I ever owned. I still have it. I can’t wear it anymore, but I still have it.
But that was Ethel’s approach to life. You make things right. You take what resources you have, and what abilities you have, and you work to make things right.
If there is something in world that doesn’t work the way it should, find out why it is not working and fix it.
She called me one afternoon to come to her home. It turned out that she had breast cancer. The prognosis was not good. The purpose of the call was not for me offer her comfort, which what pastors are supposed to do. She wanted to give me information about her memorial service.
“This is what I want,” she said — with no room for argument.
I think of Ethel often. I remember her dedication to learning — which is why there is a library named after her.
But I remember more her humanity — abrupt though it may have been.
She reached into the life of a young seminarian and helped him find confidence and courage.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala. He can be reached at email@example.com.