About a dozen years ago on the evening of the Fourth of July, I was sitting with my father at a picnic. The entire extended family was there at the Glorieta Conference Center near Santa Fe, New Mexico. Because of the holiday, the conference leaders choose to have a barbeque picnic with patriotic music and festivities, honoring our nation. I was especially proud when they had members of the various military branches stand up. When they called for the Marines to stand, I helped steady my father’s portable lawn chair as he stood proud.
As he aged, it was more and more difficult for Daddy to stand up straight, but on this particular occasion he was as tall as I remembered when I was a kid. Daddy’s size was something that always impressed me. I don’t know if it was because I was so small and weak, but I considered him to be the strongest man around. As young children, I remember both Linda and I trying to arm wrestle him but we could never even move his strong right arm.
It is not surprising that when it comes to remembering and honoring his life, strength is the first thing that comes to mind. Not only did Daddy stand strong, but he was the source of strength for so many other people.
It is hard to comprehend the amount of courage he possessed as he and his fellow Marines stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima. On that seemingly inconsequential volcano in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, he suffered a loss that forever changed his life and impacted the lives of everyone who knew him. A mortar blast led to the eventual amputation of his right leg and one of the defining moments of his life.
More than three years in and out of the hospital, a tragic automobile accident in downtown Amarillo, a tornado ravaging their home just a few days after Linda’s birth, the emotional struggle of dealing with the devastating effects of polio on his oldest son – none of these events deterred him, they only served to give him additional strength.
Daddy loved his family but he loved the church even more. I don’t say that with regret or condemnation. Serving the church was his life. He heard God’s call to the ministry in 1951 when he had a wife and two very young children, no education, no experience, and no money. He went off to college but he didn’t have time to finish before God led him to pastor a little church in a nondescript town in southeastern Colorado.
He gathered that small congregation in an auto garage. He joked more than once that they were the only church in town with a grease rack. Daddy went to work repairing shoes, a task he knew nothing about, but it was an opportunity to supplement the meager income from preaching. He built that church into a strong congregation and as far as I know it still stands today, sixty years later.
He then took his family to the town of Monte Vista, located deep in the Rocky Mountains. At least this church had a meeting place but it was a one room building about the size of a good bedroom. We went to Sunday School in cars in the parking lot. If you were a visitor you might be told that your class met in the blue Buick on the north side of the building. He literally built a new building for this church, which was quite a feat given Daddy’s carpentry skills. I remember one time he told me the only difference between a screw and a nail was that you can remove a screw.
Next stop was East Side Baptist Church in Colorado Springs. It was called East Side because the building was on the last street on the east side of town. The parsonage was next door to the church and we often had Sunday School classes meeting in our basement. I will always remember this church because this is where Daddy baptized me one Sunday evening. I can remember someone picking me up and handing me to Daddy standing in the water. He held me in his arms, placed me on a stool in the water, and baptized me. It was one of the proudest moments of my life.
Years later when this church was celebrating an anniversary or a milestone of some sort, they invited Daddy and other former pastors to the celebration. They told him that after reading through the church minutes it was discovered there were several Sundays when Daddy didn’t get paid – the church did not have the money. They made up for it that day and gave Daddy a nice check. He was grateful for the gesture and the money, although he did say he needed the money a lot more back then than he did now.
From Colorado Springs, Daddy took his family to Thornton, a suburb of Denver. First Baptist Church was the largest church Daddy served and at the time, one of the largest Baptist churches in the entire state. Steve was born while we lived there and I remember having to share a bedroom with a little brother, although he was not my “little” brother for long. During this pastorate Daddy became very active with Colorado Baptists and was placed in several positions of responsibility and honor. It was not surprising that others recognized his great strength.
This was Daddy’s last full-time church to pastor, moving next to serve dozens of churches in Eastern Colorado as an Area Missionary. He was extremely well-known, liked, and respected. It was always an honor for me when I would meet someone in one of Daddy’s churches and they would quickly identify me as “Bill Austin’s son.” Years later, after I had been a pastor in the Texas panhandle, Daddy and Mama moved to Amarillo. Whenever Daddy would visit a church they would say to him, “You must be Terry Austin’s father.” However, that did not last long. Soon it was reversed and people were again saying to me, “You must be Bill Austin’s son.” I have never been embarrassed by that designation.
Perhaps the greatest asset that I have to help me be successful was Daddy. Because he managed with one leg, he understood what it took to accomplish things with a decided disadvantage. I remember asking him one time if he wished he had his leg. He said no, with no reservation in his voice. His answer confused me for many years and I eventually learned that he knew it was a defining experience of his life.
He never allowed me to make excuses or take a shortcut. When Mama wanted me to go slow and not take a risk, Daddy pushed me out the door. I remember him saying more than once, “If you fall down we’ll pick you up!” And he did, every time.
The only time I ever remember Daddy getting angry was when a Cub Scout leader came to our home in Colorado Springs and told us I could not join the Scouts; they were not equipped to deal with a kid in a wheelchair.
Daddy literally taught me how to trust. Because I could not walk up and down stairs and it was difficult for Daddy to carry me up and down stairs, he would get at the bottom of the steps and tell me just to fall and he would catch me. That might be easy for a six year old, but trust me; it’s not easy when you are fourteen or fifteen.
At the age of twenty-one, I mustered up the courage one Sunday evening to tell Daddy that I felt like God was calling me to be a preacher. Once I told him I was confident there would be no backing out. I knew he would encourage me, but I was surprised when he said, “I’ve known it for a long time.”
As I neared graduation from seminary, Daddy called one day and asked if I was interested in pastoring a church in Colorado. That had been my plan all along and I knew that if Daddy just said, “My son is ready to be a pastor,” a church would call me. He said I would need to complete a questionnaire that he asked of all his prospective pastors. When I returned the completed form, he sent it back to me along with a letter explaining that I had answered a couple of the questions incorrectly. We had some theological differences that neither one of us was willing to overlook so I never served a church in Colorado.
This really illustrates one of Daddy’s greatest qualities – he never wavered from his convictions, even when it was inconvenient. It might seem that he was being unreasonable or mean-spirited. But the reality is that he was willing to act on his beliefs. I was disappointed about not getting to pastor in Colorado, but I am proud that he was unwilling to violate his convictions for my convenience.
But our differences were never a problem between us. Daddy never made you feel unworthy if you disagreed with him. When I finally did become a pastor (in Texas, not Colorado), Daddy was always the first and only person I called when I had a problem or a question. After awhile, I realized his advice was always the same, regardless of the problem or situation. All he ever told me was to “love the people.” I could never do it as good as he did but it was always the correct advice.
Loving church people might have been what Daddy did best. I remember as a kid how he always embarrassed us when we went to a restaurant or somewhere a group of people were gathered. He could walk into a room not knowing anyone but walk out having spoken to everyone. He told me once that is was difficult for him because he was basically a shy person. Few people would ever know that he was shy.
I know people felt loved by him because for years he has constantly had people contact him to see how he is doing. Folks he had not heard from in years. People who were in one of his churches. He was always telling about someone who called or came by. People felt drawn to “Brother Bill.”
In spite of the fact I was not doctrinally sound enough to pastor one of his churches, Daddy always supported my ministry. He came and preached a revival for us in the Texas panhandle. He knew that I had been trying unsuccessfully for years to get one hundred people together for a Sunday service. About midway through the revival, he began telling the folks that we should try to have a hundred people in church on Sunday morning. That’s all he did – no big promotion or slogan, just a simple reminder. Sure enough, on Sunday morning we had a hundred people there. The first and only time in my thirteen year ministry at that church.
Daddy was always proud of all his kids. When you spoke with him on the phone he was quick to let you know what was going on with the others. He always knew what was happening with Linda in Colorado, he kept in touch with Steve’s baseball exploits (in fact, in the final week he called Steve to see how an Arizona tournament was going), and he knew Jeff’s family schedule and kept up with all their activities.
Whenever I write a book, Daddy buys them by the box and gives them away to friends and people he meets. He always loved to call and tell me that someone told him they read one of my books and they said it was the best book they ever read. It seemed to give Daddy more pride than me.
That is what I will miss most about Daddy. Those once a week phone calls asking how I’m doing and what’s new in our lives. It will be hard when my next problem arises and I will not be able to call Daddy and ask him what to do. Nor will I hear him say, “It will be ok, God will take care of it.”
I think that is why Daddy was so strong – his unwavering faith in God! He had learned, through some very hard lessons, that God will take care of everything. He taught me how to trust God, the most valuable lesson a father can give to a son. The reason I was able to understand this truth is that I knew if God ever did fail, Daddy would be there to pick me up and help me start over.
When a loved one dies, the family usually selects a memento to remind them of the person they lost. That will not be necessary for me. When I was seventeen years old, the doctor put me through a long ordeal in order to do a spinal fusion to help ease the complications caused by polio. The plan was to chisel some bone from my thigh and lay it next to my spine so it would grow into a solid piece. At the last moment, the doctor decided I did not have enough bone for the surgery. Without hesitation, Daddy offered bone from his only leg and it is been a part of my backbone for forty-four years. It is the only reminder I need of his sacrificial love.
At that Fourth of July rally in New Mexico, Daddy turned to me and asked if I would preach his funeral when he died. I immediately said, “Let’s don’t talk about that, you’re not going to die.”
However, as I thought about it, I realized what he was saying. Before we left the picnic I told him I would be honored to preach his funeral. In fact, I can’t think of anyone who would do a better job.
The main goal in my life has always been the same – to be half the man Daddy was.
In our final conversation, just a few days before he died, I asked Daddy if he was concerned about the outcome of a biopsy. Without any reservation in his voice, Daddy said he was not worried. Then he added, “Romans 8:28 has always been true.”
And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.