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Pianist’s missions legacy resonates at Ridgecrest

RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–Piano teacher Wanda Collier loved music, but her heart was in missions.

In a fitting tribute to a life devoted to both, Clarence Collier, her husband of 50 years, donated his wife’s beloved piano to LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina, a place that she visited almost every summer for 55 years for Woman’s Missionary Union state conferences.

Wanda Collier, who lost her battle with ovarian cancer three years ago at age 72, was a stalwart champion of WMU, friends and family said — someone who epitomized the WMU’s goal to equip members to become “radically involved” in the mission of God.

“She had a worldwide vision for missions because she had heard so many missionaries over the years at Ridgecrest talk about the miracles God worked. People called me ‘Mr. WMU,’” laughed Clarence, who has had a longtime commitment to Baptist men’s organizations.

Wanda held many positions with WMU in North Carolina, having been raised in the program from the time she was old enough to be a Sunbeam. For the 10 years prior to her illness, she volunteered as Montana’s state WMU director –- the first director that state ever had. A piano teacher for five decades, she sought out churches to place her membership where she was needed to play during services.

Those who knew and loved Wanda Collier say having the Kimball Baby Grand piano she played in her home for 25 years now make its home at Ridgecrest is a fitting tribute to a person and a place devoted to God.

Ridgecrest gratefully accepted the special in-kind gift, said Bill Keesling, the eastern region manager for LifeWay’s capital resource development department. While Ridgecrest and its sister conference center –- Glorieta in New Mexico -– often receive donations and in-kind gifts to support operations and provisions, gifts such as Wanda Collier’s piano hold a special place.

“This gift to LifeWay commemorates the experiences, spiritual moments and the special life of an exceptional woman,” Keesling said. “It is our hope that it will not only serve to honor Mrs. Collier, but also inspire others through her commitment of service.”

The piano was a 25th anniversary present from Clarence, and the family decided Wanda would have wanted it to go to Ridgecrest, which held such a special place in her life and her heart.

“Wanda was the extrovert. I was always the introvert,” Clarence said. “She had that mother instinct, and everyone recognized it. She would walk into a church, and the women, like a magnet, would be drawn to her. I would walk in and the men would all go the other way,” he cracked.

“She was so warm and loving. She praised me and encouraged me,” said Beth McDonald, who first met Wanda Collier at Ridgecrest more than 30 years ago.

Collier was serving as Baptist Women’s director in the Pee Dee Baptist Association in North Carolina when McDonald was first asked to be Baptist Young Women’s director.

“I was young and green and still wet behind the ears and pregnant with our second child,” she recalled. “Wanda took me under her wing and taught me to love WMU and missions as well as how to do my job. She also played for me to sing on numerous occasions.

“She fits my favorite definition of the word mentor -– a trusted friend and wise adviser,” McDonald said at a 2003 memorial of her friend. “Our friendship spanned the years and the miles from Pee Dee Association to Wilmington, N.C., to Montana and back again.

“Wanda was that rare individual who made you feel important and made you feel special,” she added. “When she made a friend, it was for life. She was always interested in your family and your family was her family.”

The call to the plains of Montana came at Ridgecrest after the Colliers met Doug and Dorothy Hughes, who served on the SBC’s former Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board). The Hugheses asked the Colliers to come help in Montana.

Clarence Collier said while the couple had planned to do some sort of ministry after his retirement from BellSouth, their move to Montana was not initially an easy decision for his wife. They were living in Wilmington, N.C., and had settled into a comfortable home after moving from Laurinburg, N.C., where they had lived for 20 years before.

But Montana was calling, and they knew the need was great, having visited there in 1961 on a family vacation. They were especially touched by the desperate need on the state’s 10 Indian reservations, and as Clarence is part Cherokee, the plight of Native American culture was important to him. Amid deteriorating living conditions, many men there suffer from alcoholism and many children suffer sexual abuse, he said.

So, in 1989, when Clarence was 57, they went from an income of $100,000 to $15,000 and answered the call to be volunteer directors of Montana’s WMU and Baptist Men. The Colliers traveled around the enormous state training men and women in Southern Baptist life and missions. On their tour of the state, Wanda turned to Clarence in the back seat of the car they were riding in and told him it was OK to sell their home in Wilmington, and not just rent it after all.

The number of churches they served grew from 83 to 140 in the time they were in Montana, and Wanda was recognized in the book, “And So Much More: Living Legends of North Carolina Women on Mission” by Dorothy Allred.

During their initial transition to Montana, Baptist associational leader James Nelson told the couple he wanted them not just to be about the serious work they were called to do, but that he wanted them all to have fun doing it, Clarence Collier said.

Periodically, when she was walking by his office, Wanda would poke her head in and say, “James, are we having fun yet?”

“We had fun,” Clarence smiled simply.

    About the Author

  • Andrea Higgins