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Saying goodbye

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By Georgia Green Stamper

“Bubby passed away at 5:30 a.m. – “ Verna wrote in her e-mail. I stopped reading, and sat quiet for a while nursing memories. Time enough to learn about “arrangements” later. But I had to smile. We both thought of this gentle giant – this man whose life had impacted thousands, perhaps indirectly millions – as “Bubby.” Certainly, Bubby was no Bubba. I never asked anyone how he got his nickname. It’s just what we called him all through school even as he grew very tall and handsome and his voice deepened into a booming resonance. Bubby’s family and my father’s both had roots that reached back to Brushy Creek. In the way of Owen County – and of other rural sections of Kentucky – our people had known and respected each other for generations. My first personal memories of Bubby, though, date to middle school when we kept running into each other at sub-district MYF functions. He and I belonged to the Methodist minority in a county where Baptists prevailed, and our uniqueness was a bond. Years later, he would talk about those MYF meetings, and tell me how he gripped the back of the pew until his knuckles were white. That’s how hard he resisted the call he felt to the ministry, he said. Like Jonah, he didn’t want to do it, and I can understand that. On a personal level, the ministry requires sacrifice. With Bubby’s sharp mind and easy way with people, he could have been successful at most anything. He could have become a wealthy man. As freshmen, Bubby and I became classmates at consolidated Owen County High, and we both signed up for a four-year stint with Mr. Stewart’s band. I was along for the ride, faking it with the glockenspiel so I could go on the band’s trips to the state fair and such. But Bubby was an excellent saxophone player. To this day, the saxophone remains my favorite instrument, and I think that’s because I watched Bubby, always a row in front of me, smoothing the jagged edges of band practice with the sax’s mellow sound. Had it not been for Sandy, I might have set my cap for him. But Sandy laid claim on him in grade school, and she was so beautiful, so perfect for him, no one else had much of a chance. From time to time, however, he would get a restless eye as teenage boys will do, and then Sandy would come and sit by me on the band trip bus. I would listen and advise patience. I was no Dear Abby, but I was confident of my advice because I’d noticed that she rarely had to be patient for long. We elected Bubby president of our senior class, and got a glimpse of who he would become as he led us through our various ceremonies with uncommon grace. On graduation night, he and I walked side by side down the aisle to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” – for no reason I recall other than his being the tallest boy and my being the tallest girl in the Class of 63. I don’t know when Bubby stopped resisting God’s polite request to preach. He didn’t casually talk about it at school. He was not sanctimonious. He cut up like everybody else, though he was never mean-spirited or wild. But not long after entering college, when he was 18 he preached his first sermon to his first tiny church. When Ernie and I married the summer after we graduated from college, we asked Bubby to officiate. He didn’t tell us until years later that ours was the first wedding he’d performed. Not yet fully ordained, he had sought special permission from his Bishop. Forty-one years later, we’re still together – and it tickled Bubby that his first wedding “took.” Life carried us to different parts of the country, and we saw each other infrequently in the decades that followed. Active in our local Methodist Church, however, we kept up with Bubby’s ministry. Each church he was assigned flourished under his leadership. Perhaps this was because he spent 15 hours preparing every 20-minute sermon he preached. Perhaps this was because of the new ideas he was willing to try, or his emphasis on “loving one another radically.” Perhaps this was because he never forgot to minister to individuals. When my mother moved to Lexington after Daddy’s death, she was in a fragile state. I hadn’t seen Bubby in years, but I called and left a message at his Lexington church asking him to call her if he had time. I never heard back from him – but Mother did. The next day he showed up at her strange new apartment, never telling her that I’d called, and talked with her for an hour or two. “There’s nothing like people from home,” she reported. It was a turning point in her grief. About 11 years ago, Bubby was hit by lymphoma. He fought it into remission three times, never slowing up on his life’s work. Sometime during this period, he was assigned to Brentwood United Methodist Church in Nashville. During his ministry there, the memberhip grew to 7,000. Longtime Kentucky friends of ours, Helen and Carroll Wood, were among those new members. When we visited a few years ago, we attended services together at Brentwood. With a full head of snow white hair, and towering in his clerical robes, Bubby looked like a figure Michelangelo might have painted. I was somewhat awestruck at the grandness of the church, too. As Bubby joked, his high pulpit alone was larger than some of the Kentucky churches he’d preached in. But when he began to speak in his powerful voice, I felt as though he were talking only to me. The people laughed, the people wept. The rafters shook. And I understood why God had been so persistent in calling Bubby to preach. Last year, colon cancer hit Bubby, and this time there would be no remission despite his daily conversations with God about the subject. Yet disease didn’t stop him. He wrote yet another book – this time a best-seller co-authored with the retired CEO of Dollar General Stores. He continued to preach every Sunday, in fact, until three weeks ago. The title of his last sermon was – “Don’t Stop.” The Rev. Doctor J. Howard Olds, 62, died July 23, 2008. Sandy and the boys were with him. But death won’t stop him.