Southern Baptist Part 2
One of my most favorite people, from my days at First Baptist Church, was Miss Helen Conger. She was, what some people might describe as, an old maid. Because of a cleft lip, she had a distinctive nasal speaking voice plus a feisty personality that I came to appreciate much later in life. Her “day job” was the first full-time librarian at the Baptist Sunday School Board. However, I knew her as the director of our church’s Primary Children’s Department.
In working with children, she would figure out what they enjoyed – cultivate it –engage the child and spark their interest. If a child liked music, she would ask them to help select the hymns to sing. If they enjoyed reading, she would encourage them to read out loud our weekly Bible verses, and so on.
For me, she picked up on my love of design and asked me to create the “interest center” each week. Now, an interest center consisted of going through a box of assorted fabrics and finding one to drape across the front table – along with choosing a flower arrangement or candlestick to display with an open Bible. For this young boy, who in later years would have a successful interior design career, it was a pretty big deal.
When I was in my thirties and my mother was struggling with cancer, Miss Conger would visit me at our family’s Christmas store, often bringing food. As an adult, I had the chance to get to know her better and came to love her even more. She shared with me a story from back when I was in her children’s department. It seems my dad had a stern discussion with her regarding me “decorating” each week. He felt it was something geared more for girls. He didn’t want me to be a “sissy.” (Of course, that ship had already sailed) Rather than asking her if she would stop encouraging me, he told her that was what she was going to do. Needless to say, Miss Conger, God love her, was not one to back down. She told him that I enjoyed creating the interest centers and that he needs to leave it alone and to “get with the program.” It must have worked because my dad never said anything to me and I continued working my magic, or as much magic as an 8-year-old can do with a box of fabric scraps and artificial flowers.
Another priceless story she shared with me, was one that she had also told her boss at the Sunday School Board, Dr. James Sullivan. Her mother, who must have been every bit as feisty as her daughter, was not happy about her going to work for the Sunday School Board. When she realized that she was not changing her mind, she gave her daughter a lump sum of cash and said it was her “go to hell” fund. Her mother told her when she had had enough of the Sunday School Board, she could tell them all to “go to hell” and walk out knowing she had a nest egg to fall back on.
When my mother died in 1985, Miss Conger sent me the most beautiful heartfelt letter. And then, two years later, when she passed away in 1987, my dad made arrangements for her cemetery plot to be beside our family’s plot.
I would imagine if you asked any child, that was blessed to have known her, they would remember, as I do, her signature line, said with total sincerity in her distinctive voice: “I’m just so proud of you.”
J. Ronald M. York, author of Kept in the Dark, is also an accomplished musician and founder of York & Friends Fine Art Gallery.
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