HANNIBAL, Mo. (BP)–She has stayed at an American president’s peanut farm in Georgia, interviewed the head of the Coptic church in Egypt and traversed the Philippine islands in a canoe to hear people tell their stories.
Interviewing hundreds of people to write dozens of books, Marti Lou Hefley is no stranger to asking questions and getting answers.
Recently, she got a little more than she bargained for when talking on the telephone to her husband of 50 years, James Carl.
Surrounded by bed pillows in the comfort of her calming blue bedroom, which matches her bright, but tired, eyes, Marti simply listened while Jim related a bizarre tale of his day at the nursing home.
For more than five decades she has listened to him woo congregations with his steady preaching and radio voice. She has heard him challenge students with his intellectual musings and listened while he dissected story ideas. And she has heard him discuss the Vietnam War and Southern Baptist politics with almost equal intensity and fervor.
But on this day, she simply had a hard time following what he was saying until it seemed his emotions finally caught up with the mostly one-sided conversation.
“I tell everyone here every day that I love Marti Lou!” he pontificated.
And there’s no doubt, it’s the love of a lifetime.
Late last year I visited Jim and Marti Hefley, my mentors and friends, in Hannibal, Mo., after learning she has two terminal diseases which have left her weak and bedridden. Jim has battled Parkinson’s for several years but, besides being confused at times, has been in pretty good health.
Shortly before Christmas, after our visit, things took a turn for the worse and Jim was stricken with both flu and pneumonia. The toxins that raged through his body left him not only confused but also angry and frustrated and caused a radical change in his demeanor.
For his good, and so that Marti could get some rest and their daughters could take better care of both of them, the family decided he should reside in a nearby nursing home.
It was while in Hannibal and chatting with Jim and Marti that I was reminded of their great love and affection for each other — and how simple declarations of love can make a difference.
Marti and Jim met when she was 17 and he was 21.
“Jim and I got to be friends before we were sweethearts,” Marti told me last year, describing how they were both involved in ministry at their church.
“I would just as soon have been a sweetheart right away, but at 21 he was already in seminary and so far ahead of himself,” she chuckled.
It was at a Valentine’s banquet at church that Marti remembers hoping each of their halves of a torn Valentine card would end up matching.
“So, of course, Jim and I matched,” she smiled.
“I remember praying about it and the thing that came to me was I knew he needed me,” Marti said. “From day one I was going along behind him picking up the stuff he would leave.”
Marti said even then his mind was focused on “higher things” he was involved in writing about — like the Vietnam War; like scientists and others who are believers; like heroes of the faith or astronauts.
“He could get more facts in a 1,200-word article than anybody I know,” Marti recalled. “I could always do better with giving people character and describing people.”
Even with his attention often focused elsewhere, however, Marti never had to worry about falling off the pedestal a country boy from Arkansas put her on all those years ago.
“To Marti, my wife, who as the mother of my children is a hero of the faith in her own domain,” Jim wrote in 1963 on the cover of their book, “Heroes of the Faith.”
In 1971, he wrote in another one of their books, “My lovely lady who has taught me more than I have taught her. Love, Jim.”
And in November he crowed his own personal melody — “Marti Lou, Marti Lou, I love you, I love you,” while riding with me from a Sunday morning church service and talking about Marti, his “sweet girl.”
From the beginning of my 18-year relationship with the Hefleys, whom I first met as a college student, Jim has always spoken of Marti with the utmost respect and pride. While modeling for me the research and organization involved in writing, he reminded me to ask Marti about the “heart” of writing.
As a team, they have taught me the very essence of writing, while at the same time opening their godly home and family to me. His love for her, and her faithfulness to him have steadied me in my own marriage.
This Valentine’s Day, it is my hope and prayer that the love and hope that is in Christ will penetrate the minds and hearts of unbelievers in the same way Jim’s love for Marti continues to penetrate the fog in a way that brightens even the darkest day at the Hefley home.
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of Florida Baptist Witness, on the Web at www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com. She is a 1992 graduate of Hannibal-LaGrange College in Hannibal, Mo., and was the first full-time employee of Hannibal Books, a division of Hefley Communications, a business founded by James and Marti Hefley, now owned by Louis Moore in Dallas, Texas. James C. Hefley, Ph.D, is the author of “The Truth in Crisis” series on the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention and former writer-in-residence at Hannibal-LaGrange College in Missouri, where Marti Hefley directed the New Edition Drama Troupe and taught communications classes. Marti Hefley also is a former trustee of the SBC’s Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board) in Alpharetta, Ga. The Hefleys won the 1980 Gold Medallion Award from the Evangelical Press Association for “By Their Blood: Christian Martyrs of the Twentieth Century” and have written more than 50 books and Bible studies on topics ranging from John Birch to education. Those who wish to send a card to Marti and Jim Hefley can address it to 31 Holiday Drive, Hannibal, MO 63401.