FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–He’s older than his seminary alma mater. In fact, when Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary began in 1908, Ray Duckworth was already a young boy. With his 100th birthday coming April 2, Duckworth can look back at how his life and the seminary’s have intertwined throughout much of the 20th century.

Duckworth, who earned a diploma in religious education in 1925 and a bachelor of sacred music in 1931, answered God’s call to ministry at Texas Baptists’ Palacios Baptist Encampment in the early 1920s during the Southern Baptist Convention’s $75 million fundraising campaign, “Calling Out the Called.” He had no inclination to go to seminary until a Southwestern student came to First Baptist Church in Beaumont, Texas, where Duckworth told the student he didn’t know what to do about his call. The student told him to come to seminary “to find out what the Lord wants you to do.”

In 1923 Duckworth enrolled in Southwestern’s school of religious education. His professors included T.B. Maston, J.M. Price and L.R. Scarborough.

Returning to the campus for the first time nearly 80 years later, Duckworth admitted to being impressed.

“I’m amazed. I’m astonished. I’m lost. I just can’t believe it,” he said.

Duckworth’s classmates included a “very intense” Robert Naylor, who 30 years later became the seminary’s fifth president.

Duckworth recalled how careful the seminary was regarding interaction between male and female students. Women had to be escorted to Fort Worth Hall for meals. Men could visit just one evening a week.

There was no Recreation Aerobics Center, just volleyball courts the students lined themselves with lime, and there was no manicured lawn or shrubbery. When the man in the boiler room didn’t make enough steam, heat couldn’t make it to third-floor dorm rooms.

Duckworth lived across the hall from Naylor in Fort Worth Hall. He recalled that during those depression years, one student would go to preach in farming country and “would bring back cooked meat in his bucket.”

Single men were given rooms on the third floor and married couples were on the second floor. “Sometimes we’d forget and start down to the second floor and somebody would remind us we were on the wrong floor,” he said.

Conducting, taught by Ellis Carnett, was his favorite class, and he also studied under B.B. McKinney. Duckworth served as editor in chief of “The Decennial,” a booklet published to mark the 10th anniversary of the founding of the school of religious education.

Duckworth recalled riding a train to Abilene for one of the first big Baptist Student Union meetings in Texas “to try to get college people interested in the Lord’s work. During the trip we went down and shook hands and introduced ourselves to everyone on the train,” he said.

On a tour of campus, Duckworth did not recognize Cowden Hall, the music school building he helped construction crews build. He also did not recognize much of the city around the campus.

“There were streetcars when I was in school, and the seminary was the terminal. They had to turn around and go back. That’s all we had. You had to catch it here and go to the steel mills, and then you had to catch another one and go to town,” he recalled.

Students would then catch another streetcar to go to any church, he said. One token would get you where you needed to go.

Duckworth sang in the choir at Polytechnic Baptist Church and sometimes attended Travis Avenue Baptist Church where one of his aunts worshiped.

Early on in his ministry, Duckworth — like most other ministers of education — was trying to earn respect for himself and his position.

“The minister of education was something new that the preachers didn’t know anything about,” he said. “They didn’t know what it was and they wanted to tell you what to do.”

As a result, Duckworth moved from church to church. He admitted that sometimes he was likely to blame, but at other times, it was the church’s fault.

“Preachers are called of the Lord and by the churches,” he said. “I felt like the Lord called me to the church rather than hiring me. The church’s idea is that we’re hiring somebody. It’s gotten worse. God called you or he didn’t call you. The deacons didn’t call you; the preacher didn’t call you.”

Duckworth still was ministering at the time of his visit to campus last year and continued ministering until falling and breaking his hip last September. Until then he led the singing in his Sunday school class at First Baptist Church Windermere near Orlando, Fla., and at Wednesday night prayer meetings. He also led the singing every week at a nursing home where many of the residents were younger than him and for his Saturday morning men’s prayer breakfast.

“I don’t think you can have a meeting much without a song,” Duckworth asserted, saying that singing helps people get ready to meet.

In January the men in his Saturday morning prayer breakfast decided to drive the extra 30 minutes to Ray’s nursing home so that he could be part of the group again.

“The men drive because it’s more important to have Ray in there with us than to do it without him,” said Steve Marcereau, director of administration at First Baptist Windermere. Church members still drive to pick him up and bring him to church every Sunday and Wednesday, Marcereau said.

“Ray is an inspiration for the church. He is much loved,” Marcereau added. “He is a reminder that you’re never too old to serve God.”

When he still led singing, Duckworth called on his old favorites: “Blessed Assurance,” “When We All Get to Heaven,” “Majestic Sweetness Sits Enthroned,” “Send a Great Revival,” “Teach Me to Pray, Lord” and various others.

During this interview, Duckworth willingly sang his favorite hymn, “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine.” He sang it strongly, especially for a 99-year-old. Minutes later, he challenged a prospective music student touring campus to show how he would direct someone singing the hymn, afterward encouraging the budding musician to conduct more forcefully.

His stint in the 1940s as a singer in evangelistic meetings is still evident, especially in his lament over the lack of preaching on heaven and hell.

“After you reach the age of accountability, you’re going to one of two places. You’re not going to find any alleys or sidetracks. It’s all on the mainline,” he said.

When Oma Lee, his wife of 64 years, 10 months and five days, passed away two years ago, Duckworth asked for a sermon on heaven at the funeral.

He met his wife when he was being considered for a music leader position at University Baptist Church in Shawnee, Okla., while he attended Oklahoma Baptist University. After he led one service, Oma Lee, one of the pastor’s daughters and a member of the search committee, commented, “He’s a fairly good song leader, but he can’t sing.”

The two dated for a while, broke up and started dating again after Duckworth moved to Texas. The love they shared is evident in his words and tears whenever he speaks of her.

After they married, a Southwestern staff member came to their church to supply preach. After the sermon, Oma Lee, who had been actively involved in church all her life, went forward to pray for salvation.

“So the seminary has had an effect on our family,” Duckworth said.

Reflecting on living through all but one year of one of the most eventful centuries in history, Duckworth looks back to the Great Depression as among the most impacting times. People lived on bread or gravy and biscuits, they wore the same clothes, and churches couldn’t afford to pay their ministers, he recalled.

“Everybody had to make do,” he said.

Duckworth’s secrets to long life are simple.

“Of course God is the secret,” he said.

Then he deadpanned, “I use a lot of salt, a lot of sugar, don’t drink any water and leave the women alone.”

Duckworth did have a word of advice for ministers of education today: “You better have a tough hide. Every leader, I don’t care who it is, [even] Jesus, had critics. If you can’t take it, you better get out of the britches. And it wouldn’t hurt to study psychology, I suspect, how to get along with people.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: MEETING GEORGE B. SHEA, STILL SINGING.

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  • Matt Sanders