“Do you know how old I am?” I asked. “I know exactly how old you are,” replied Izak Marais, who called me in Colorado from Patterson, New York. Let me explain what led to that conversation.
I WAS born in Wichita, Kansas, U.S.A., on December 10, 1936, the oldest of four children. My parents, William and Jean, were devoted worshippers of Jehovah. Father was the company servant, the term then used for the one taking the lead in a congregation. My mother was taught Bible truths by her mother, Emma Wagner. Emma taught such truths to many individuals, including Gertrude Steele, who for years served as a missionary in Puerto Rico.* So I had many fine examples to imitate.
REMEMBERING FINE EXAMPLES
One Saturday evening when I was five years old, I was with my father, offering the Watchtower and Consolation (now Awake!) magazines to passersby on the street. At the time, the country was embroiled in World War II. An intoxicated doctor came by and verbally abused Father because of his Christian neutrality, saying that he was a coward and a draft dodger. The doctor put his face right up in front of Father’s and said, “Why don’t you hit me, you yellow coward!” I was frightened but so admired Father. He just kept on offering the magazines to the crowd that had gathered. Then a soldier walked by, and the doctor yelled, “Do something about this yellow coward!” The soldier could see that the man was drunk, so he told him, “Go home and sober up!” They both left. I look back with appreciation for the courage that Jehovah gave my father. He owned two barbershops in Wichita, and the doctor was one of his clients!
When I was eight years old, my parents sold their home and shops, built a small mobile home, and moved to Colorado to serve where the need was greater. We settled near Grand Junction, where my parents pioneered and worked part-time at farming and ranching. With Jehovah’s blessing and their zealous work, a congregation was started. There, on June 20, 1948, Father baptized me in a mountain stream, along with others who had accepted Bible truths, including Billie Nichols and his wife. They later went into the circuit work, as did their son and his wife.
We had close association and upbuilding spiritual discussions with many who were fully involved in the Kingdom work, especially the Steele family—Don and Earlene, Dave and Julia, and Si and Martha—who influenced my life very much. They showed me how putting the Kingdom first gives real meaning and joy to one’s life.
When I was 19, Bud Hasty, a family friend, asked me to join him in the pioneer work in the southern United States. The circuit overseer asked us to move to Ruston, Louisiana, where a number of Witnesses had become inactive. We were told to hold all the meetings each week regardless of how many attended. We found a suitable meeting place and fixed it up. We held every meeting, but for some time, only the two of us were in attendance. We took turns, one presented a meeting part while the other answered all the questions. If the part called for a demonstration, both of us would be on the platform with no one in the audience! Finally, an older sister started attending. Eventually, some Bible students, as well as some inactive ones, began coming to the meetings, and before long we had a thriving congregation.
One day, Bud and I met a Church of Christ minister, who talked about scriptures that I was not familiar with. This shook me up a bit and made me think more deeply about what I believed. For a week, I burned the midnight oil to get answers to the questions he had raised. That really helped me to make the truth my own, and I could hardly wait to meet up with another preacher.
Shortly thereafter, the circuit overseer asked me to move to El Dorado, Arkansas, to help that congregation. While there, I made frequent trips back to Colorado to appear before the draft board. On one trip, some fellow pioneers and I traveled together in my car, and we had an accident in Texas that rendered my car useless. We called a brother who came and took us to his home and then to the congregation meeting. There they announced that we had had a mishap, and the brothers kindly gave us financial help. The brother also sold my car for $25.
We were able to get a ride to Wichita, where a close family friend, E. F. “Doc” McCartney, was pioneering. His twin sons, Frank and Francis, were and still are two of my best friends. They had an old car that they sold to me for $25, exactly what I had been paid for my wrecked one. This was the first time I clearly saw that Jehovah provided a necessity for me because I was putting Kingdom interests first. On this visit, the McCartneys introduced me to a lovely theocratic sister, Bethel Crane. Her mother, Ruth, a zealous Witness in Wellington, Kansas, continued pioneering into her 90’s. Bethel and I were married less than a year later, in 1958, and she joined me as a pioneer in El Dorado.
After considering the fine examples we had grown up with, we decided to make ourselves available for anything Jehovah’s organization invited us to do. We were assigned to special pioneer in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas. Then in 1962, we were thrilled to receive an invitation to the 37th class of Gilead. To our delight, Don Steele was in the same class. Upon graduating, Bethel and I were assigned to Nairobi, Kenya. We felt a lump in our throat as we left New York, but how that lump turned to joy when we were met by our brothers at the airport in Nairobi!
We quickly grew fond of Kenya and our delightful ministry there. Our first progressive Bible study was with Chris and Mary Kanaiya. They still serve faithfully in the full-time service in Kenya. The following year, we were asked to go to Kampala, Uganda, as the first missionaries in that country. Those were exciting times because so many had a keen desire to learn Bible truths, and they became our fellow Witnesses. However, after three and a half years in Africa, we left to have a family. We returned to the United States. The day we left Africa, the lump in our throat was much bigger than the one we had when leaving New York. We had grown to love the people of Africa and hoped to return someday.
RECEIVING A NEW ASSIGNMENT
We settled on the western slope of Colorado, where my parents lived. Soon after, our first daughter, Kimberly, was born, and 17 months later, we had Stephany. We took our new assignment as parents very seriously, and we set out to instill the truth in our beautiful girls. We wanted to mirror the examples that had been set for us. It was sobering to think that while a fine example is a powerful influence for molding children, it is no guarantee that they will grow up to serve Jehovah. My younger brother and a sister left the truth. Hopefully, they will again imitate the fine examples that were also set for them.
We very much enjoyed rearing our daughters and always tried to do things as a family. Since we lived near Aspen, Colorado, we all took up skiing so that we could occasionally ski together. These periods of recreation afforded us time to converse with the girls as we rode up the ski lifts together. We would also go camping with them and would have very enjoyable conversations around the campfire. Though young, they asked such questions as “What will I do when I grow up?” and “What kind of marriage mate do I want?” We endeavored to instill spiritual values in our daughters’ minds and hearts. We kept before them the goal of the full-time ministry and the wisdom of marrying only someone with a similar goal. We tried to help them appreciate that it is best not to marry too young. We coined the phrase “Stay free until you are at least 23.”
As our parents had done with us, we worked hard to attend the meetings and have a regular share in the field service as a family. We arranged to have some who were in the full-time ministry stay in our home. Also, we often talked with fondness about our time in the missionary work. We expressed the hope that someday all four of us might take a trip to Africa together. Our daughters really wanted to do that.
We always had a regular family study, during which we would act out situations that could happen at school. We would have the girls play the part of a Witness answering questions. They had fun learning in this way, and it gave them confidence. As they got older, they complained at times about having the family study. Once, in desperation, I told them to go to their rooms and that we would not have the study. They were shocked and started to cry and said that they wanted to study. Then we began to realize that we really were instilling appreciation for spiritual matters in their young hearts. They grew to love the study, and we allowed them to express themselves freely. It was hard at times, though, to hear them say that they did not agree with some aspect of the truth. Yet, we learned what was really in their hearts. After we reasoned with them, they would be satisfied with Jehovah’s thinking on matters.
ADJUSTING TO MORE CHANGES
This project of raising our daughters went by much faster than we could have imagined. With the help and direction of God’s organization, we did our best to raise them to love Jehovah. We were so grateful when both daughters started pioneering after finishing high school, and they developed skills to support themselves financially. They moved to Cleveland, Tennessee, with two other sisters to serve where the need was greater. We missed them very much, but we were pleased that they were using their lives in the full-time service. Bethel and I then began to pioneer again, which opened up other joyful privileges for us. We did substitute circuit work and convention work.
Prior to moving to Tennessee, our daughters took a trip to London, England, and visited the branch office. There, Stephany, then 19, met Paul Norton, a young Bethelite. On a later trip, Kimberly met one of his workmates, Brian Llewellyn. Paul and Stephany got married—but after she turned 23. Brian and Kimberly got married the next year—when she was 25. So they did stay free until they were at least 23. We wholeheartedly approved of each one’s fine choice of a marriage mate.
Our daughters have told us that the examples we and their grandparents set helped them to obey Jesus’ command to ‘keep seeking first the Kingdom,’ even when they had difficult financial situations. (Matt. 6:33) In April 1998, Paul and Stephany were invited to the 105th class of Gilead, and afterward they were assigned to serve in Malawi, Africa. At the same time, Brian and Kimberly were invited to work at London Bethel and later were transferred to Malawi Bethel. We were extremely happy, since there is no better way for young people to use their lives.
ANOTHER THRILLING INVITATION
In January 2001, I received the phone call mentioned at the outset. Brother Marais, the overseer of Translation Services, explained that the brothers were arranging for a course in English comprehension for translators around the world, and at age 64, I was being considered for training to be one of the instructors. Bethel and I prayed about it and discussed the matter with our aged mothers to get their advice. They both wanted us to go, even though they would be without our help. I called back and said that we would be very happy to make ourselves available for this wonderful privilege.
Then my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I told her that we would stay and help my sister Linda with her care. “You will do nothing of the kind,” Mother replied. “I would feel worse if you didn’t go.” Linda felt the same way. How we appreciated their self-sacrificing spirit as well as the help of the local friends in the area! The day after we left for the Watchtower Educational Center in Patterson, Linda called to tell us that Mother had died. As she would have encouraged us to do, we immersed ourselves in our new work.
Much to our delight, our first assignment was to the Malawi branch, where our daughters and their husbands were serving. What a reunion that was! Next, we taught the course in Zimbabwe and then in Zambia. After teaching the course for three and a half years, we were asked to return to Malawi to document the experiences of the Witnesses who had suffered persecution there for maintaining their Christian neutrality.*
Again with a lump in our throat, in 2005 we returned home to Basalt, Colorado, where Bethel and I continue pioneering. In 2006, Brian and Kimberly moved next door to us to raise their two daughters, Mackenzie and Elizabeth. Paul and Stephany are still in Malawi, where Paul serves on the Branch Committee. Now that I am nearing 80 years of age, it gives me great pleasure to see younger men with whom I have worked over the years take on the responsibilities that I used to have. The joy we have is due, in large part, to the fine examples that were set for us and that we have endeavored to mirror for the benefit of our children and grandchildren.
For example, see the life story of Trophim Nsomba in the April 15, 2015, issue of The Watchtower, pp. 14-18.