The summer of ’35 was a period of crucial change in several areas of my life. My classmate friend, Byron Whitford, from Little Genesee, New York, invited me to spend the summer with his family before entering the School of Theology in September. Being in New York State appealed to me if for no other reason than I would close to Helen Mae Button.
In the beginning of the summer Byron and I teamed up with his Dad, Ferris Whitford, selling HURLBURTIS STORY OF THE BIBLE and Bibles door to door in the rural area around Little Genesee. Our salesmanship was not very productive so we gave up on that project. Next Byron and I undertook cutting wood for a pulp mill. I believe we were to receive $6.00 per cord. The trees we cut were elm and willow growing near a stream. Our task was to cut down the trees–some quite large–saw them into four foot lengths, debark them and stack them in cords. I enjoyed working with ax and two man crosscut saw but Byron was inexperienced and that slowed our production. We didn’t stay with it long.
When it was the season to harvest hay, I moved to Helen Mae’s home and began working in the hay fields for neighboring farmers. The pay was $1.00 a day and dinner. I helped harvest the hay for three farmers I can remember and stayed in the Button home nights. Haying was hard, hot work but I soon learned the correct techniques for “pitching,” “cocking”, “mowing away” etc. When I stopped at Mr. Guilford’s barn for my pay, he stood up from his milking stool, paid me and said, “You were better help than I thought you would be”. (I had letters of recommendation from president Bond and Dean Harley Bond but the farmers weren’t interested in them.) It was while we were in a hay field at work that news came of the death of Will Rogers and Wiley Post in an airplane crash in Alaska on a round-the-world flight.
It was very pleasant living in the Button home while working on surrounding farms but as the summer wore on it became increasingly obvious that Helen Mae was no longer interested in more than a casual friendship with me. I suspect that through our correspondence she may have fantasized a “me” that didn’t measure up to her expectations. It is fair to say that I was devastated by the breakup of what I hoped would be a lasting and deepening relationship. She went to Salem College as a sophomore and I entered the Alfred University School of Theology. It tore at my heartstrings when friends in Salem reported to me that the word on the campus was, “Button, Button, who’s got the Button?”
I attended General Conference at Alfred in August and stayed with my uncle Alvah and Aunt Mary Randolph. Uncle Alvah was said to have the highest grade average of any Alfred alumnus up to that time. He taught me a valuable lesson that has helped me through the years.
At Conference I was asked to speak on the Young People’s program. wrote a speech and asked uncle Alvah to critique it for me. In the introduction I was apologetic. Who was I to be addressing the General Conference, etc., etc.?” On reading my speech, uncle Alvah said, “Elmo, if you have to apologize for what you’re going to say, don’t say it.” I rewrote the speech and have always been thankful for the advise.
How the arrangement came about, I can’t remember but Bertha Lewis went from Alfred Station, New York, to Salem College and lived with my mother. My first year in seminary I lived in Alfred Station with Bertha’s mother, Ivanna Lewis and high school age daughter, Jean. Mrs. Lewis was a brilliant woman who was Postmistress of the Alfred Station Post Office for many years. In high school Jean was an outstanding student. I enjoyed an interesting, happy year in the Lewis home. It was often fun teasing Jean and then retreating to my room where she was not allowed to enter. Ivanna Lewis was an educated conversationalist and a good listener. She helped me through homesickness and intellectual and spiritual trauma. The two mile walk to and from Alfred was good exercise but there were times when the wind and the cold were intense.
It was sometimes difficult going in the beginning days at the School of Theology. (Before leaving home in Salem I went to Pastor Shaw for any advice he might have for me. He simply said, “Just use your good horse sense.”) I did experience some loneliness and homesickness. It was my first extended time away from home and Mamma. Then, too, I had been in the limelight through college in Salem and in Alfred few university students knew me or cared. No doubt I suffered a deflated ego from the ending of my romance with Helen Mae.
There were three of us in Dean Bond’s first class: Marion Van Horn, Luther Crichlow and I. Through our years together we developed warm, strong ties of deep friendship. Marion was the son of a Seventh Day Baptist minister, Christopher Van Horn. I believe he was a Milton College graduate. His health was precarious. Luther Crichlow, a Negro, was a graduate of Howard University in Washington, D.C. He was a fine trumpet player and had played varsity football in college. (Alfred’s football coach persuaded Luther to play tackle on a winning team one year.) I believe Luther Crichlow was the first Negro I had known personally. He and I became fast friends during our years together. The three of us, with Dean Bond, became quite successful singing as a quartet.
I came to seminary with an open mind. There was no preconceived intellectual or theological position I was committed to defend. The conservative religious beliefs of Lon and Amelia Button seemed to work good in their lives and so I thought to lean in that direction until something better came along. In church and college experience I had been surrounded with people of intellectual integrity who practiced genuine Christian principals in their daily lives. The School of Theology proved to be an excellent environment in which to discover direction and meaning for my life.
Dean A.J.C. Bond served as a safe harbor in a stormy sea for me often. He brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to his role as Dean. Perhaps even more importantly, he loved and understood his students. A rich sense of humor was one of the attributes we lauded him for. His teaching field included Bible, homiletics and Seventh Day Baptist polity and beliefs. How fortunate we were to come under his teaching and to have him as a counselor and friend.
Dr. Edgar Van Horn was our professor of practical theology, giving us the techniques of pastoring and administering a church and congregation. In addition to his teaching, he pastored the Second Alfred Church in Alfred Station.
The whole range of history courses related to Christianity and other religions were taught by Dr. Walter Green. We admired him for his prodigious knowledge of his field and his enthusiasm in sharing it. In his college days he had been formidable as a football player. His presence was impressive.
Frail, sweet, elderly Dr. Powell was our Greek professor. Some university student wag was reported to say that he knew Dr. Powell moved because when he saw him at one point on the sidewalk and then looked minutes later he was not in the same place. Dr. Powell had a passion for Greek and tried valiantly to imbue us with it.
The little chapel in the Gothic was a perfect setting for the Sabbath Eve worship services Crich and Van and I conducted for Seventh Day Baptist university students. We took turns leading the services and received excellent support from the dozen or more faithful attendees. It was also in this chapel that we did our practice preaching under Dean Bond’s critical but compassionate ear and eye.
Another activity the three of us became en-aged in was the publication and distribution of the Seventh Day Baptist Youth Newsletter, THE BEACON. We ran each issue off on a mimeograph and when it broke down one option was to end the publication. Instead, we mounted a campaign with youth across the denomination to raise a fund for the purchase of a new mimeograph machine. The campaign was successful and publication of THE BEACON continued.
My first opportunity to conduct a Sabbath Morning Worship Service came when Pastor Harley Sutton invited me take over for him in the Little Genesee Seventh Day Baptist Church one Sabbath. I prepared an eight-typed-page sermon and placed the manuscript on the pulpit at the beginning of the service. At the insistence of the choir director, I wore a choir robe with flowing sleeves and before time for the sermon caught the robe sleeve in the corner of the sermon manuscript. Page by page the sermon fluttered to the floor.
A quick decision was called for. Did I go down the steps, stoop over in my robe, pick up the pages one by one and finally, put them in order? I thought, “I wrote this sermon and I know what’s in it, so let it lay.” I preached without the manuscript and at the close of the service an elderly lady stopped to shake hands and said, “If that was your first sermon, I’d like to hear your last one.” I did not ask her to explain her meaning.
On several occasions our Dean arranged for us to visit other seminaries for guest lectures or conferences. One such visit was to an Interseminary Conference at Gettysburg Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. On the afternoon before the conference began we three had a guided tour of the Gettysburg Civil War battlefield. The experience left a deep impression on us.
At dinner time Crich, Van and I went into a Gettysburg restaurant to eat. As we checked the menu, the waiter said, “Do you want to eat it here or take it out?” Taken aback, we replied, “We want to eat here.” Then the waiter said–looking at Crich–“Your friend can’t eat here.” When he suggested the two of us could stay and eat we informed him, “This place isn’t good enough for us, either”. We were stunned to experience blatant racial discrimination so near the site of a decisive Civil War battle fought less than a century ago.