Papa Tee died on Mother’s Day. For 39 years, this towering six-footer had a profound influence on my life. Our incredible story began with a preaching assignment in St Louis, Missouri. An ordinary annual missions convention provided the opportunity to meet two extraordinary luminaries, Thomas and Thelma Smith.
No one imagined that that encounter in 1982 would have such an overwhelming impact on my family and me. Within two weeks of our historic meeting in St Louis, the Smiths were in Jamaica on a pre-arranged vacation. It was during that visit they met my wife in hospital, where she had just given birth to our last child. Within one month of the missions convention, some networking began that would influence our family in unbelievable ways.
Almost ten years later my family migrated to the United States where my wife and I pursued advanced studies. We lived in a suburb north of Chicago. It was during our first experience with American Thanksgiving, the Smiths taught us that Thanksgiving was a season when families got together. So, they were expecting us to join them and drive the 300-mile trip to St Louis.
Five of us loaded into a borrowed car and headed south. The warmth of their home was welcomed – it was my family’s first winter in the United States. The huge park opposite, the rich family history and military stories were our introduction to an African American home.
“David,” said Papa Tee, “our Bible Study group has been praying for you and your family. We also began a fund to get a car for you, here are the keys.” The car was licensed, insured and filled with gas for our return trip to Chicago. “In addition,” said this ex-marine, “use this credit card to put only high premium gasoline in the car.” That display of generosity enabled us to own or first car in America.
The Smiths were instrumental in endearing us to a number of firsts in America. Frequent trips to St Louis allowed us to meet other members of the Smith family. Mama Tee, as she was affectionately called, communicated with hundreds of students through Bible correspondence courses. She delighted in taking us to her basement where she had her beauty salon. She showed pictures of her famous clients, including her brother Chuck Berry, one of America’s Rock & Roll pioneers.
Our family pictures remind us that the Smiths also traveled north to our graduations and special events. Other events were not as celebrative. Officiating at the funerals of Mama Tee, their daughter Pam and Mama Tee’s brother Paul, reminded us that family life includes moments of joy and sorrow.
Papa Tee was an encourager. Frequently, he would remind us that he prayed for us everyday. He was constantly advising the children on ethnic challenges in America. He followed their academic progress and challenged them to excel. My wife was occasionally called into private sessions with Mama Tee. Upon exiting, her head and hands were filled with ideas and ladies’ fashion. Papa Tee never missed an opportunity to encourage me to publish my sermons. For me, he was far too generous in his accolades. He even left instructions that I should preach at his Thanksgiving Service.
Papa Tee loved baseball – he loved the St Louis Cardinals. He was as familiar with their history as with the status of current players. He also had a tremendous sense of humor. After the passing of his dear wife, he was approached by a few ladies. He made each one to know that his name was not Abraham, and they were not Sarah. If they did not know the Genesis story, that too would make them ineligible.
As I reflect on his 99 years, I am prone to ask myself, what words best describe Papa Tee? I believe the words, HE LOVED OTHERS would apply. Ask his family members, ask the few surviving colleagues, and ask Bill. They embraced Bill as a teenager and poured their lives into him. Now he is fully retired and has poured his life into their lives.
Within recent years, Papa Tee would answer every phone call with the words, John 3:16. Whatever you wanted to share with him was secondary to his passion to talk about the Lord Jesus. He talked as though Jesus was literally in the room with him. You would not dare try to gossip, be offensive or crass with your comments. His love for Jesus gave him a craving to be with Jesus.
One of his doctors told him that he should discontinue having shrimp and lobster for dinner. “Why,” he asked. “Would that kill me? Thank God, I am ready.” He literally enjoyed every facet of life. He never feared death. He lived for his Lord and looked forward to meeting Him.
On Mother’s Day 2021, as the world remembered the women that showed care, I also remembered Papa Tee, my towering, caring giant.