Remembering a Childhood Mentor

I was recently reading James Dobson’s biography, “Turn Your Heart Toward Home”, and came across an interesting chapter that made me pause and go deeper in my past.   The title of the chapter was “Four Men”.  

In it he talked about the four primary mentors that shaped his life.   Details were given of how they were a key part of helping him to advance in his career and make wise decisions.   He wanted to honor them and let others know how they had influenced him.

When I finished the chapter, it stirred my heart and motivated me to remember again people that had impacted my life.   I wrote down some of their names and the qualities they had that inspired and instructed me and I thanked God for them.  (As I grow older, many of them has passed on).

Then, I asked God to help me to be a good steward of those attributes and to model them for His glory. 

Photo by Uriel Mont on

As a little boy growing up in church, I had a great regard for spiritual leaders – not only pastors, but others that had spiritual influence in my life.   In my elementary years one of them was Mack Smith.

Our family was close to the Smith family.  For many years we went camping over the fourth of July week.  I have wonderful memories of nightly fireworks, large campfires surrounded by chairs filled with loved ones and friends talking and laughing by a beautiful lake.  Every day we went swimming, I learned to water ski behind Mack Smith’s boat as did my brother and sister.  They were simple times.  These are some of my most treasured memories.

One of them stands out.   There were tents for all of the families (another family came with us and guests dropped in, too), but on this night I slept outside with a couple of the big folks on my cot and sleeping bag under the stars by the dying fire.   It was late at night and I was listening to my Dad and Mack talk. The lanterns were out, the light from the fire was almost gone, and the darkness highlighted the stars on that clear night.  

Dad and Mack began to talk about the beauty of the stars and for the first time I noticed how many there were – and how many I could see.  Growing up in the city, I had never noticed that many stars and their brightness because of the city lights.  Under that cool summer sky, I was impacted by the sheer might and awesomeness of God that had made them.   It opened the eyes of my soul and I began to ask some questions about the universe and my mentors (Mack and Dad) explained how the stars arranged into certain shapes and figures.   I learned some about astronomy.   It was a special and memorable night for a young boy. 

A few years later, when I was thirteen, my grandfather passed away suddenly.   We were very close and spent a lot of time together; I am named after him.  Just minutes after it had happened, I was sitting alone in a chair in my grandparents’ living room in shock and grief.  Melanie and Hoss were doing the same.   Mom was helping her mother, my grandmother, as the ambulance and emergency crew was on site.   Dad was on a bus trip in Atlanta.   I felt alone and desperately needed someone that I knew to grieve with me, to help me somehow. I had never hurt that bad before. My heart was crushed and broken.

Soon, the front door opened and a childhood mentor walked in and came and stood by me as I sat in a big, overstuffed chair weeping. He simply placed his strong hand on my shoulder and stood there and didn’t move. He never said a word.   He didn’t have to because I saw the compassion and sorrow in his face.   It was Mack Smith.   He was there at one of the worst times in my life. 

Almost four decades later, Mack passed away after struggling with a debilitating disease.  I had seen him several times through the years and would recall the events I wrote above and others, where he had impacted my life, as a leader in our church when I was a boy.   

His family asked me to speak at his funeral.   It was a sacred privilege.    I love Mack and am grateful for how God used him in my life, especially as a youngster.

The other day I had a thought that when Mack and I were gazing at the stars that night in the late 1960’s that it never entered Mack’s mind that “one day this quiet, shy fellow will speak at my funeral“.   I’m fascinated by how life works like that. The people that are heroes to you, that one day you can in a small way return the favor. To me, it was an honor.

He was like a second father in a lot of ways, someone I looked up to.  he impacted my life by the way he lived.

We never know where the seeds we sow will end up and how they will develop.   Take some time and invest in those young boys and girls at church.  Even the ones you don’t know well. Get to know the children of your friends; be genuinely interested in them.  Don’t see children as a nuisance.   One of them might speak at your funeral.    What might they say about you?

Here’s what I said about Mack at his funeral.

I love Mack Smith for a lot of reasons, but the biggest reason is that he made a difference in my life. Some of the greatest memories I have are related to Mack, Lucille and their sons, Joe, Sparky, Ricky and John.

As a boy I remember going over to their home on Richardson Drive a lot, probably more than any other family. My parents would sit for a long time talking to Mack and Lucille and Melanie, Hoss and myself would be playing in the back yard. I remember their big back yard….the black and white boat parked on the side…the little garden with the tomato plants that would grow and the big house that was directly behind the Smith home.   In fact, I clearly remember that it was there while I was visiting with my Mom when John burst into the living room and shared that John F. Kennedy had been shot. On November 22, 1963 I was only five; John was four. But I remember that.

John and I were best of friends and spent hours at the lake shooting fireworks and almost always sat in church together with my Mom while Lucille and my Dad sang in the choir. Our favorite song in the hymnal was page 96, “At Calvary”.  To this day, whenever we sing it at church I always think of John and the simplicity of my life then.

Ricky was especially close to my parents and a teenager when they worked closely with the youth group, so he was often a visitor in our home. I always admired Sparky and Joe.  Sparky was a great wrestler in high school and Joe could build anything with his hands – in fact, he and Sparky renovated my grandmother’s home in the 1970’s.

Though our paths rarely cross anymore I still consider Joe and Sparky as some of my childhood heroes; Ricky as one that was so much fun and always made me laugh, and John as one of my closest childhood friends.

Lucille has always been one of my mother’s best friends and they have both helped and encouraged one another through the most difficult of days.

It seems that it was just a few months ago that we were camping on the shores of Guntersville Lake.  John would get the lawnmower out and prepare a place to put the tent by cutting the grass. We always had the Smith boat tethered to a tree by the shore line and Lonzo Parker had his boat tied just a few feet away. Dad brought some old tires from work and we made a big fire at night with some wood that would last for hours.   For a week we swam, went skiing, ate some of the best food ever cooked on a grill, shot Roman candles in the sky and used M-80’s to blow up Styrofoam cups and the bark off of trees.

Those days marked my life and much of the reason was because of Mack.

1. Mack influenced me spiritually.

When I was in the 4th-5th grades, before we went to our Sunday School classes, we had a large assembly program for about 10 minutes. Announcements were made, visitors were recognized and a brief devotional thought was given from the Bible. The leader of that assembly was Mack Smith.  It was evident that he was a leader.  One of the reasons I listened to him was because I respected him and I knew that he cared about me. It made it easy to open my heart to God’s Word because here was a man that I knew that loved me and my family.

2. Mack influenced me intellectually.

When we were at Guntersville Lake during those weeks of camping, on several occasions sleeping outside on a cot with some of the guys, Mack would point out things in the Heavens on a clear night. He made me want to learn more about God’s creation and the universe He had made.  

3. Mack influenced me emotionally.

On the morning of Saturday, September 4, 1971, one of the most important people in my life died, my grandfather.  He was only 56 years old and had a massive heart attack and died without warning.   Dad was in Atlanta for the weekend on a bus trip and we were at my grandparent’s home – Mom was helping her mother, Melanie and Hoss were grieving in their own way, and I was sitting in a big chair dealing with the sudden and devastating reality that my grandmother, who I idolized, was gone.

I needed someone to help me, but Mom was unable to and Dad was gone. In less than 30 minutes the door opened and Mack Smith walked in. It was just like my own father walking in at a time when I needed him the most. He simply came and stood by me and put his strong, big hand on my shoulder. He taught me that day that importance of just being there when someone has had a tragedy in their life. There was no counseling or advice, just the kind presence of a man that I respected greatly and that I knew loved me.

After I graduated from High School, I began my own life as a young adult and I didn’t see Mack and Lucille very often, but I never forgot the powerful influence that Mack had on my life. He was one of the most formative adults in my life and I am grateful to God for him.

And I want to leave this simple thought with the family and you dear friends, he influenced me not with his wit, intelligence, or charismatic personality. He influenced me with his heart, because he cared about me.

And of some have compassion, making a difference”. (Jude 22)

It was compassion for young boys and girls that caused him to get involved in their lives in leadership in Sunday School. It was compassion that gave him the patience and kindness to answer a young boy’s questions about the stars and constellations at night while sleeping outside on a cot. It was compassion that made him leave his home on a Saturday morning and take time to comfort a grieving family.

I am a better person for having known Mack Smith. He touched my life and it was his compassion that made a difference in my life. 

The people who make a difference are not the ones with the credentials, but the ones with the concern”.

When you lose someone that has made a profound difference in your life it is a difficult loss. Certainly, Mack is enjoying the glories of Heaven because He knew the Lord Jesus as His Savior and He is far better off than we are here, but we are left with memories.

I would encourage you to count the mundane moments of living as being precious with those that have influenced your life, especially with their heart.

‘We Have This Moment’

(Bill and Gloria Gaither)

Hold tight to the sounds of the music of living,
Happy songs from the laughter of the children at play;
Hold my hand as we run
Through the sweet fragrant meadows,
Making memories of what was today.

Tender words, gentle touch and a good cup of coffee,
And someone who loves me and wants me to stay;
Hold them near while they’re here,
And don’t wait for tomorrow
To look back and wish for this day.

We have this moment to hold in our hands,
And to touch as it slips
Through our fingers like sand;
Yesterday’s gone,
And tomorrow may never come,
But we have this moment today.”

About familyencouragement

Pastor of Friendship Baptist Church in Huntsville, Alabama. Married for 41 years with seven children and nine grandchildren.
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