Her name was Dolly, a frail child-adult of about 15. I was 19 and the pastor of a small Baptist church in Northern Arkansas. I'd finished college, and could not enroll at New Orleans Seminary until after my 20th birthday. The associational missionary, Jack Lafferty, set me up with the church as an interim pastor until the fall term began. Dolly eased up to me after a morning service. "Brother Jimmy, I need a ride to church next Sunday. Can you help me out?" "Sure," I said without thinking of what people might say. "Tell me where you live."
She did and the next Sunday I was at her house back in the woods in plenty of time to pick her up for Sunday school. Dolly needed a ride regularly after that. Every Sunday morning I'd come motoring into the church parking lot, with Dolly beaming at my side.
One morning, after she had gone to her class, Deacon Dick Tucker caught up with me. "Preacher, I see you brought Dolly again." "Yes sir, she needed a ride, and I was happy to help out."
"You've helped her out for six Sundays in a row."
"Uh, huh. I haven't been keeping count."
He placed a fatherly hand on my shoulder. "Well, son, some folks are beginning to talk about you and Dolly riding together by yourselves. Nobody's accusing you."
I blushed. "You think somebody else should pick up Dolly?"
The deacon nodded. "Yes. I'll find a family to bring her to church."
He did me a favor.
That fall I enrolled in seminary, as planned. One morning in chapel an old preacher talked to us along these lines:
"How many of you single students are interested in the opposite sex?" he asked.
Slowly, hesitantly, with some faces reddening, hands began slipping up. "Come on, now," he urged, "don't be bashful. Opposites attract. That's normal. Now, how will you know when you've found the person God wants you to marry? Would you agree that your chosen one should be a Christian, preferably a Southern Baptist?"
Heads nodded all around.
"Would you also agree that your beloved should be committed to ministry, and to standing with you in good times and hard times?" We agreed.
Then he really began meddling. "Too many young preachers give more attention to the qualities of an automobile, than they do the attributes of a wife. Don't wait," he advised, "until you've lost your head and heart. If you haven't already, decide now on what you want in your life partner."
We got a lot of advice like that in seminary. More than once I heard older counselors say. "Marrying the wrong woman messes up more young preachers than anything else. Determine now on what you want before you are blind-sided by what you think is love."
I didn't. Like most of my fellow seminarians I figured I'd know her when I saw her.
I wrote off the seminary women. At age 24 to 30, they were too old and too sophisticated for me. High schoolers, I figured were too young. Student nurses seemed more my type. A nurse, I figured, could always get a job when extra income was needed in a pastorate.
I joined the Napoleon Avenue Baptist Church near the Baptist Hospital School of Nursing. Saturday nights, I met more nurses at the weekly Christian Youth Fellowship. When the CYF elected me president, I figured I could take my pick among the nurse attenders. That proved to be true.
One evening after CYF, about thirty of us went out for sodas. A young blonde from Alabama caught my eye. Carolyn (not her real name) had come with another seminary student. That problem was solved when she sat down beside me. I got her back to Charity Hospital in time for the 1 a.m. curfew. Her first escort went home alone. Carolyn and I became a regular couple.
We were already talking about serving the Lord together, when I met her nurse sister and doctor brother-in-law. Neither were Christians. The young doc and I didn't hit it off well. We argued about evolution and creation for the next three hours.
Carolyn invited me home with her to meet her parents. At the dinner table the three of them got into a riotous row while finishing the meal:
"How stupid can you get."
Stomach churning, I slipped outside and plopped wearily down in a lawn chair.
After awhile Carolyn came upon me staring morosely at the grass. When I didn't look up, she said, "Do you still love me?" I mumbled a weak assent, adding, "I've never heard family members talk like that to one another."
"You'll have to excuse us," she said. "Mother and Daddy don't go to church. And I haven't been a Christian as long as you." That was one miserable weekend.
I continued to date Carolyn through the end of the seminary spring semester. In June, I left town to direct a week's Vacation Bible School and preach a revival on an island off the Louisiana coast. Friday, a sad, heart-rending letter came from Carolyn.
She wrote about the pressures from her parents, sister and doctor brother-in-law, and the Catholic nun instructors at the hospital. "I can't take it any longer," she said. "I can no longer be a Christian." Three long, insufferable days later I was back in New Orleans. Carolyn and I talked for hours. Wednesday evening, she agreed to attend prayer meeting with me. She sat like a dead person, her face ebbed with sadness, as people sang and prayed around us. I drove her back to the Charity nurses' dorm. We both knew there was no future for us together.
Word got around New Orleans Christian youth circles that Carolyn and I were no longer a pair. A Christian woman at Mid-City Baptist Church, where I was now a member, confided, "I never believed you and Carolyn were meant for each other. I could count on her to play the piano for our youth department when you were in town. When you were away preaching, she didn't bother to come to church." When my mind cleared, I did what I should have done long before. I set down guidelines for what I wanted in a wife.
1. Her interests, hopes, and dreams must be somewhat similar to mine.
2. Her home need not be rich or poor. But there should be love and affection and Christian training.
3. She should have a loving attitude towards others, even the unlovely. She should be able to get along with almost everybody.
4. She should conduct herself on a high moral plane with boys.
5. She should be emotionally stable so as not to be overcome by frustrations and ordinary problems of life.
6. She should have self-respect and like herself, but not possess a stubborn pride that keeps her from seeing her faults.
7. She should be gentle, courteous, kind, sincere, and true to people.
8. Her love for me should be physical, emotional, and spiritual.
9. Her faith in God should move her to be daring and adventuresome. Her dedication should make my own faith stronger.
10. She should be attractive to me in every way – physically, mentally, morally, and spiritually. I should value her more than any other person in the world.
I ticked off the names of the eligible "prospects" I knew. At the head of the list was Marti Smedley, with just one throwback. Marti was only a high school senior. I would soon enter my third year of seminary.
A scene of a church trip in a truck to a lake for a church weiner roast flashed through my mind. Marti had been along. She and I had talked the whole way, while Carolyn stood by frowning.
Marti had been helping me on the weekly Christian radio drama which I then produced for a small network of twelve stations. A versatile female actress, Marti could play any role I assigned to her. Carolyn never participated in the radio ministry.
The question came: who do I enjoy being with more than any other girl? The answer came easy: Marti Smedley, whose entire family had found the Lord at Mid-City Church. Vivacious, self-giving, interesting and interested in everything, a talented musician and actress, and smarter than some of my seminary student buddies. That was Marti. I ran down my written list of qualifications. Marti scored tops on every one, including looks.
How could I have been so dumb.
I had also been in her home and witnessed the love of her parents for each other.
I began finding more ministry opportunities for us to work together. Among other things, Marti played the accordion at street meetings where I preached.
Then off she went to Mississippi Baptist College in Clinton, Mississippi. I missed her. Oh, how I missed her. I wrote. She replied. Returning from a trip to Arkansas, I detoured around by Clinton and gave her a ride back to New Orleans for the weekend. Thanksgiving, 1952, we became engaged.
May 8, 1953, we were married by our pastor, J. Paul Driscoll at Mid-City Church. Many friends told us. "We just knew the Lord would bring you together."
Today, three wonderful daughters and seven marvelous grandchildren later, we're more in love than ever. And we're still serving God together. Long ago, I memorized Proverbs 3:4, 5: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and lean not unto your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths." I recommend this verse to any young Christian seeking a life mate. Especially a young preacher who is in danger of being blind-sided by romance.
I never cease to thank God for directing my path to Marti, the "crown" of my life.