Dad had a heart as big as Texas and he gave it to his children. A key truth in the Bible concerning parenting concerns the giving of the heart to a child – and only then they will give you their heart.
“And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers…” (Malachi 4:6)
As early as I can remember, my Dad had given me his heart. I saw it especially in his priorities. He had his own business and was self-employed and in the early years of my life he sold tires, welded, repaired automobiles, and also sold batteries and auto parts. Sometimes I would go to work with him and help answer the phone – “Alabama Welding and Auto Parts, how can I help you?” That was the extent of my help. I directed the calls to whoever could help the best.
Gradually he transitioned into the bus business full-time. He still had some men that helped him with car repair on site, but he began to make his living by providing a transportation service. It was called “Johnson Bus Service”. This meant that he was gone overnight and occasionally several consecutive nights on trips.
However, we never felt like we were in second place to his job. He took an active interest in our lives. When I was in my junior high years I think I went to Six Flags over Georgia five or six times during the summers- just me and Dad. He would have booked a trip and ask me if I wanted to go with him. When we got to the park all of the folks he brought on the bus dispersed with their friends and Dad and I went through Six Flags by ourselves. I didn’t realize how special that was then, but it means more to me now that it did then.
On another occasion he had a trip to take the high school delegates from the Huntsville and Madison area to Boy’s State (a program that teaches civic responsibilities). The program went from Monday to Friday and was at Troy State University that year.
Our entire family and my cousin, Donnie, also got on the bus early Monday morning and picked up the guys at a single location. Once we dropped all of the guys off at Troy our family headed on down to the Gulf coast and spent the week on vacation. It was one of the funnest trips ever! One of the best parts was just the six of us – Mom, Dad, Melanie, Hoss, Donnie, and myself – on that big red and silver bus. Dad loved to talk about that trip.
When I played football in high school I had a problem. We were a 6A school (the largest school in the state of Alabama student population-wise) and though I loved football I was too slow to play anything but the line and I only weighed 170 pounds. Slow and small are not a good combination, especially at a large school when all we played were other large schools. Dad drove the bus for the games and knew the coaches very well and so they came up with a plan to help me to gain weight.
They told Dad to feed me a lot of protein that would help me not only gain weight, but it would turn into muscle with the weight-lifting we did Dad did everything he could to make that happen. We bought a special protein formula that we mixed with eggs and peanut butter (and other things) and I had a super-protein shake every night. (It tasted terrible!)
The most touching thing Dad did to help me gain weight was that he took me out to eat
steak and other meat to supply the protein. We never had done this as a family. The money was always tight and eating out was a treat, and eating steak and other meats was very rare. Even though I was young I knew this was a great sacrifice for Dad financially and he was doing it to help me. The funny thing is that I didn’t gain a pound, but I knew I was highly valued by my father.
Because Dad owned his own business he was able to frequently drop by at football practice. It wasn’t unusual for me to look over on the sidelines and see him standing there watching, sometimes talking to other fathers. Even more special was the fact that when we played on Friday nights, home and away, he was also on the sidelines as the coaches allowed him to stand there with the coaches and players. He did this with Hoss, too. (I call football games at the same stadium during the fall and often I look at the sidelines where we spent a lot of time together and remember good days).
Years later when my brother, Hoss, went on to play college ball at the University of Alabama we would travel all over the place to see him play. Dad was always very conservative in his dress, but when we went to see Hoss play he wore red pants, a white shirt, and a red hat. Though I was not a great athlete, my brother was. He excelled in basketball and football. Hoss had scholarship offers from every major university in America to play football. He was a coveted recruit and a lot of articles were written about him in the paper.
I went on to Bible college and the ministry. Hoss started for a glamorous football program and had a stint in the NFL with the St. Louis Cardinals and Tampa Bay Bucs. Obviously my brother (who I am very close with) had a much more visible and popular platform. In fact, he is somewhat a celebrity in our hometown. However, I never felt I was in competition with my brother for my father’s approval. Nor did Dad elevate the fact that I was in the ministry as being superior to anything my brother was doing. He loved Hoss, Melanie, and myself the same and never made us feel unimportant.
As an adult I knew that I was important to my father – and I cherished that feeling. Once when I was serving in a tiny church in Dayton, Tennessee in the fall of 1977 we had a special revival meeting and my entire family drove up on Sunday night for the service. I worked with the teenagers in the church and also played the piano for the services. It was the first time they had ever been to a church where I was serving (it was the first for me!) and I was so glad they were there.
During this particular service the preacher brought a great message on the family and it’s importance. At the end of the service he had a time of response to the message and then asked those in attendance to go to other family members that were in the room and simply express their love to them.
I was playing the piano softly for the invitation time and wanted so bad to go back to my parents and my brother and sister and tell them how much I loved them, but I felt if I did so if would be a disturbance when I stopped playing. So I continued playing.
About thirty seconds later I sensed a presence behind me and then felt a strong hand on my shoulder. There standing behind and beside me was my entire family with Dad’s big hand on my shoulder. I was overwhelmed by the love in our family – them for me and me for them – and tears began to flow down my face and their faces, too.
Years later after I moved back to Huntsville from Virginia Dad was traveling a lot in his bus business and would often get home late at night. He had one of those great big cell phones in the early 90’s that was about 14″ tall and weighed 2 lbs and had a 6″ antenna. Almost every week our phone at home would ring around 10:30 p.m. and his voice would be on the end of the line.
“Son, I’m just getting home from a bus run and wanted to know if you wanted any Krystals?” (These are hamburgers for those that are uninitiated!) It was late and I would say, “No, Dad, that’s alright; we’re not hungry”. “Well, come on and eat some with me anyway. I’m pulling up in the driveway right now and I have a sack full. See if Jeremiah and Jon want to eat some with us”.
Sometimes it wasn’t Krystal hamburgers, but Krispy Kreme doughnuts. He always bought plenty and left the rest with us. Sometimes the boys had just gone to bed, but I would get them up and they would sit in the living room with their father and grandfather eating Krystals or Krispy Kremes”. It really wasn’t about eating a meal for Dad, but spending time with people he loved.
When my father went to Heaven in July of 2008 I went over to the funeral home an hour earlier before the family so I could just remember and think about all he meant to me. I sat in a kind of bar stool chair the funeral home provided before his casket and reminisced about the many things he had done for me and what he had meant to me.
Dad had big hands and I noted his hands and thought about how important they were to me now. I remembered the time at Westside Baptist Church in Dayton, Tennessee on a Sunday night when I played a song on the piano and he stood there beside me with his hand on my shoulder. I recalled the many times he carried a big bag of Krystal hamburgers or a box of Kryspy Kreme doughnuts up to our house late at night, not so much as to eat a meal, but as an excuse to be able to just talk with us. I’m glad we allowed the kids to stay up late and talk with their grandfather. And I’m glad he wanted to spend time with us.
One final story. When I was about nine years old Mom went to visit relatives in Arkansas and took Mel and Hoss with her and I stayed home with Dad. He took me somewhere special every night during that time, just me and him. As Malachi 4:6 exhorts fathers, he was giving his heart to me – and I knew it.
After we went put-putt golfing one night my heart was so full because I knew he loved me and was doing things that I enjoyed doing. I wanted to express to him how much I loved him, but something made it difficult for me to do. Finally, I couldn’t hold it in and as we drove away from the putt-putt course I said, “Daddy, I think you are the best Daddy in the world”. It’s was short, but I meant it with all of my heart.
A little over forty years later on Thursday evening, July 10, 2008 I stood up from my chair by Dad’s hospital bed after spending three hours with him. He couldn’t say a lot, so I did the talking and he responded with nods of the head. “Dad, I have to go home now. I’ll be up here to see you again tomorrow”.
He nodded again. I paused and put my hand on his head and playfully rubbed it as I often did. He had been through a difficult week and we had just met with hospice the day before to bring him home. All of us could see him getting weaker . While I rubbed his head I said, “Dad, you’re the best Dad in the world and I love you very much. See you tomorrow”. He nodded and cried as he often did, especially in recent years. I walked out the door and down the hall. It was the last time I saw him alive.
I know I am not a perfect parent, but I am a sincere parent. My Dad taught me to parent not only with us actions, but best of all, with his heart. He loved me and I knew it. It was easy for me to turn my heart to him because he had turned his heart to me for over fifty years (Malachi 4:6). No, he wasn’t perfect by any means, but he was sincere and his heart was focused on his children.
Dad, thanks for giving your heart to Melanie, Hoss and myself and to your grandchildren. We miss you and look forward to the day when we will reunite. One of the best parts of giving your self to us is that you taught us to parent the same way, by giving our heart to our kids. You’re the best Dad in the world.