JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP) — Radiant in an ivory dress suit, a smiling Bernice Tatum told mourners she met Jim Tatum nearly 63 years ago on a rainy July evening when he sought shelter from Florida’s rain.
It was the first time he ever set foot in a church, she said. What followed was a dedicated life of service to God and to the church, his wife told hundreds at a memorial service at First Baptist Church in Jacksonville.
Jim Tatum, a longtime Sunday School teacher at First Baptist, a leader in state denominational life and the father of four adopted children, died May 26. He was 85.
Known throughout the Southern Baptist Convention for his “Suits for Servants” ministry, Tatum clothed thousands of ministers and missionaries, domestically and internationally.
After a successful career in insurance, Tatum opened a string of men’s clothing stores but eventually invested his time in operating only one while he traveled to show his wares at conferences, conventions, schools and seminaries.
Bernice Tatum joined First Baptist Jacksonville’s pastor Mac Brunson, executive pastor of education Steve Clifton and Florida Baptist Convention’s executive director-treasurer John Sullivan on the platform behind the flag-draped casket where her husband rested May 30.
She thanked those in attendance for honoring her “sweet husband” and lightened the moment with a revelation. “Can you believe he told me to do this?” After pausing for laughter, she said, “I thought that was stretching the submission.”
Recalling young Tatum as a “very handsome visitor” at the young persons’ fellowship following church those long years ago, Bernice spoke affectionately of his long, black, curly hair and his olive skin, blue eyes and “nice smile.”
“I don’t remember the first sentence I spoke to him, but I know what his was: ‘Can I get your phone number?'” she chuckled.
A few weeks later the two were smitten and after four months (it took her mother that long to sew the bridesmaids’ dresses) they were married, but only after Tatum was saved. After he had “gotten out of the rain,” Bernice said. “He was immediately changed and eager to find out more and more and more.”
The most meaningful habit the Tatums had in their marriage was their daily devotions, Bernice recalled. He made the coffee, fluffed her pillows, and then they spent time reading the Bible and praying together.
“God gave us four wonderful adopted children, and they gave us nine wonderful grandchildren; and so a lot of our prayer time was devoted to them, and he prayed by every one of them by name,” Bernice said.
“He’s just a man of prayer, he’s the real deal. The same at home and at church,” Bernice said. “Except he didn’t shake as many of our hands.”
What she will miss the most, Bernice said, is her daily quiet time with her husband. Reading Ecclesiastes 7 the day after he died, Bernice said she was surprised at Solomon’s words, “the day of death is better than the day of birth.'”
While she pondered this, Bernice said that although some fear death and avoid going to funerals, “there is still time to change, to examine the direction our lives are going and have time to confess our sins before God before we have to stand in front of Him as our judge.”
“Jim and I lived 63 happy years, and I pray that for all of you,” she concluded. “Give God and His Word first place in your lives, and that’s the most exciting life that you could ever live. Don’t just show up at church Christmas and Easter. Give Him your best. All that Christ has done for us, how can we do less?”
Brunson spoke comforting words to family members and those gathered, reminding them Tatum had a great capacity to love. “Jim Tatum loved this church,” Brunson said. “Because he loved this church, he loved the house of the Lord.”
Comparing Tatum to Barnabas of the Bible, Brunson said Tatum was an encourager who taught people in his Sunday School class at First Baptist to go out and knock on doors to visit people before fellowshipping with each other.
“He loved people. He loved saved people, he loved lost people and he loved preachers,” Brunson said of Tatum. “He pastored that class…. There’s a legacy left to us in the man.”
Through the business and ministry Tatum developed, Brunson recalled the layman taking men’s suits to students at a seminary in upstate New York where the young men often would proclaim, “It’s the only suit I’ve ever had.”
In Germany, where First Baptist has a partnership training pastors in a church where Baptists’ forefathers’ worshiped, “a third of those preachers there I know have been clothed by Jim Tatum,” Brunson said.
Speaking of Tatum’s dedication to Christian ministry, Brunson said the World War II veteran not only knew Jesus but like David in the Psalms, Tatum “walked with Him day in and out.”
“I have never seen anyone get as much kick out of ministry as Jim Tatum,” Brunson said. “He loved serving others; it was the generosity of his heart.”
In describing what he anticipated would have been Tatum’s first words in Heaven, John Sullivan imagined him standing at the gates of heaven and sizing up the Apostle Peter: “‘You’re about a 46-long,'” Sullivan joked.
“I loved my friend Jim Tatum, and my friend Jim Tatum loved me,” Sullivan said quietly.
Citing a Bible passage which refers to Paul and Timothy being servants of Jesus Christ, Sullivan recited, in part, Philippians 1:6, “He which has begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.”
“That simply means that Jim Tatum’s life on this earth is over, but let me tell you until the day of Jesus Christ, his Christian influence will continue to live. That’s the secret of the Christian life. That’s the secret of what it means to follow Jesus,” Sullivan said.
Citing 1 Samuel 20:17-18, Sullivan spoke of the story of Jonathan and King David, of the “friendship and love” between the two. Tatum likewise loved his king, Sullivan said. And he loved his family.
Telling a story about a family who was going to give up a child, Sullivan recalled the grandmother of the family insisting those adopting be “a Christian family.” The counselor remembered 18 months earlier “a family by the name of Tatum had adopted a child.” That’s the way the Tatums adopted their fourth child, Sullivan said. “How do you measure that?”
“He loved him as he loved his own soul,” Sullivan said of Tatum’s son. “He loved his family, and his family loved him. They were attentive, and they took care of him. They take care of their mother because of their deep love and appreciation.”
Sullivan, who also is a member of First Baptist Jacksonville, said he appreciated his friend’s wise counsel and the way he taught his Sunday School class — “He could get more out of a verse of Scripture than I could” — and his “impeccable integrity.”
“Trying to catch the character of a man like Jim Tatum and the influence that he has exerted and continues to exert is like trying to catch the St. John’s River in a teacup,” Sullivan said. “You just can’t measure, and we don’t know how. We just know what we know. There are things that he did that are hidden and known only to God.”
A leader in Baptist work in the state, Tatum was serving a third three-year term as a member of Florida Baptist Convention’s State Board of Missions. He served as second vice president of the Florida Baptist State Convention from 2003 to 2004. He previously served on Florida’s SBOM from 2001 to 2006, was appointed to FBSC’s committee on nominations in 1997 and was elected to the committee on order of business from 2006 to 2009.
Tatum also is survived by four children and nine grandchildren.
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.GoFBW.com.