My Friends, I ‘ve always felt a need to explain myself. You are getting this message because you are one of our Saturday riders, a group that two or three of us started some years ago. I keep all of our names and email address in my computer and send out announcements every week telling where we’re riding and having breakfast. We now number almost 300. I call us the Greater Liberty Riders, partly because our home bike shop is in Liberty but mostly because it’s greater liberty that excites and motivates me. Greater liberty from all limitations, physical, mental, spiritual, social. Now I’m hoping to take us beyond the small towns we ride to on Saturdays. Printing Unlimited is at this moment preparing a special folder to explain my plans. Before long I will have one for each of you, which you can pick up at Biscari Brothers Bicycles. As preparation for this, I’m asking you to read the story below. If you are to go with me into Greater Liberty, you should know more about me. We start here.
Rabbi Ben Ezra and Bobbie from Humble
By Ed Chasteen
He was a red headed Irishman who loved poetry. I was an East Texas teenager who loved football. Our lives intersected in his college classroom. A class in Victorian Poetry. A poem by Robert Browning called Rabbi Ben Ezra seized my mind. I still have that book, though I never have to look at it to recall these first three lines I read when I was 19. “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made.”
Like neon in the night, these words lit up my life, giving me reason as a young boy to think that farther along I would understand why. Understand why I was here. And what I should do. In a mysterious and magical way beyond my understanding or planning, that is precisely how my life has unfolded.
At almost the same time I met Rabbi Ben Ezra, I met Bobbie from Humble. I was a sophomore. The Baptist Student Union on campus had entrusted me with the sacred task of getting the names of in coming freshmen who were Baptist. It was not lost on me that performing this religious obligation would also give me first look at all the freshman girls. I could keep two lists: one for the BSU and one for me.
I spotted her as she came into the room. And watched as she approached where I sat. “Hi, I’m Bobbie from Humble.” Please be a Baptist, I thought to myself. “I am,” she said when I asked. “My dad is a deacon.” I put her name on both lists. Then she was gone.
Momentarily she was back. “You stole my fountain pen,” she said to me. And pointed to a real ink pen, a Parker, that lay on the table. “My dad gave me that pen, and he told me not to lose it.” From the twinkle in her brown eyes, I said to myself, “She’s flirting with me.”
Freshmen had to attend the first football game. I called Bobbie. “Go to the game with me,” I said. She said yes. On Good Friday some 18 months later she said yes as we stood before her preacher in the first Baptist Church of Humble, Texas.
On three other good Fridays a few years later, our children were born, the first one, our daughter, Debbie, before Bobbie finished her senior year. I kept her and wrote my master’s thesis while Bobbie finished and got her teaching certificate. She planned to teach while I went to seminary and became a Baptist preacher.
My high school pastor loved everybody. His sermons were elegant and eloquent. One Sunday morning when I was 17, I walked down the church aisle when the invitation was given and told Brother Clinard that I was surrendering to preach. “I want to be like you,” I was saying to myself.
When I graduated high school, I walked across town a few days later and enrolled in summer school at our local college. By the time Bobbie and I finished college, Brother Clinard had left my boyhood church and become a professor of preaching at the seminary.
Bobbie and I devised a plan. We would go to Ft. Worth. If with Brother Clinard’s help, I could find a part time job, I would enroll in Southwestern Seminary and become a preacher. If I couldn’t find a job, we would go to Austin. Bobbie would get a teaching position, and I would go to the University of Texas, get a PhD and become a teacher.
I had loved school since the first day in first grade. Words in books were magic to me. They took me to places I’d never been and showed me things I’d never seen. Teachers were to me gatekeepers to the life of the mind and imagination as preachers were to the soul and the spiritual. Both were noble callings.
I didn’t find a job in Ft. Worth. We went to Austin. Bobbie signed a teaching contract in a nearby town. Then we discovered our second child was on the way. Bobbie couldn’t teach. I found a job teaching high school English in Round Rock, a little town of under 2,000 people about 20 miles from Austin. Our landlady took Bobbie to the hospital one Friday morning in January while I was teaching. David was born before I got home.
I did not like high school teaching. When I would send unruly boys to the principal’s office, he would say to them. “Mr. Chasteen is a young teacher. You have to be patient with him.” He was teasing hungry lions with raw meat. And I was making so little money that I had to get my check early most every month.
When that school year ended, I enrolled for the summer term at the University of Texas. A class called Sociology of Religion, taught by the department chair, Dr. Warner Gettys. He asked me to write a paper on the theodicy principle, the attempt by religion to explain suffering. I loved that class and that teacher.
The Baptist Children’s Home in Round Rock needed a housemother for a girl’s cottage. Bobbie got the job. Now the four of us had a place to live, food to eat, a small salary, and every other weekend off. I could study full time at the university.
Then at the end of the fall semester, Dr. Gettys retired. The new chairman from California brought graduate students with him. He and I did not hit if off. And the children’s home was proving a hard place to be with two young children and 14 teenage girls. We had to leave. We found a garage apartment in Austin. I got a part time job at a dime store lunch counter.
One of my fellow students was pastor of a small church. He recommended me to another small church 40 miles from Austin, and in April 1961, the four of us moved to Jarrell and I became pastor of the First Baptist Church. I quickly discovered that I was not equipped emotionally to be a pastor. When I would get home in the afternoon from a day in class at the university and Bobbie would tell me about an illness or other tragedy among our members, I would not want to go. What would I say? But duty demanded that I go. I did. And every time I would cry more than those I went to comfort. I felt like a failure.
My grades went from A’s in the fall to C’s in the spring. I dropped my plans to attend summer school. A PhD has no standard course requirement. The number of hours and the particular classes required are not stipulated anywhere. The PhD applicant must take whatever number of classes and whatever particular classes his graduate advisor and committee deem necessary. The PhD is granted if and when the committee decides the applicant will well represent the discipline and the university. They would never approve me. I decided not to go back.
I soon learned that I didn’t know anything about pastoring a church. I hadn’t been to seminary. There was no depth to my preaching. About the other duties of a pastor I had no idea. These good people endured my efforts, though I suspect they were as unsure of me as I was. My future as a minister looked bleak. So it looked also as a high school teacher.
Then on a summer day a stranger came unannounced to town looking for me. Where I was I have long forgotten, but I was not in town. With Bobbie and the kids, I had gone somewhere. The stranger knocked on doors of neighbors and asked about me. They reported to me when I returned, though who he was and what he wanted they did not know.
A few days later a letter came in the mail from an Oklahoma college informing me that they were looking for a Sociology teacher and asking me to apply. When I went for an interview, the department chairman identified himself as the stranger who had come to town to ask about me.
On another Friday in January, our son, Brian, was born in this Oklahoma town where we had come the previous September so I could teach at the college. I loved the job. I had found my calling. But to have a future at the college level, I had to have a PhD. So Bobbie got a teaching job in a nearby town. We saved our money and I applied to another university’s doctoral program. And at the end of our second year in this place we all loved, we loaded all our possessions in a U-Haul trailer behind our car and set out for Missouri.
Long distance phone calls were not commonplace in the 1960’s. When now and then we made one back to Texas, Bobbie’s dad would want to know what was wrong. On one occasion, Bobbie’s mother voiced her concern. “When you got married, we thought you wouldn’t finish school. Now we’re wondering if Ed will ever quit going and get a job.”
The University of Missouri had turned me down when I applied. Said my scores on standardized tests “were not predictive of a high level of performance.” I wrote them a letter regretting that I would not get to learn what they might have taught me. They wrote back to say they were reconsidering my application. Then another letter admitting me on probation. And a final letter asking me to teach as a graduate assistant.
At the end of the first semester, the department offered me the biggest fellowship they had to give. It required that we move to Kansas City and that I choose a dissertation topic of relevance to Kansas City. I spent the fall of 1963 and the spring of 1964 on campus in Columbia. The summer and fall of ’64 and the spring and summer of ’65 in Kansas City. Bobbie sandwiched typing my hand written notes between caring for three little kids. And I became Dr. Chasteen.
We had planned to go back to the Oklahoma college. They had helped with my graduate expenses. But a job opened at William Jewell College just as I got my doctorate. William Jewell was in Liberty, just a few miles out of Kansas City. And I had met so many people in KC, had gotten to know so many community issues, so much local history. I didn’t want to leave.
I took the job at Jewell. I repaid the Oklahoma college. Bobbie and I thought we would stay a year. Two at most. My first week at Jewell, I was invited to Dr. Hester’s house to play rook. Dr. Hester had recently retired from Jewell as Professor of Religion. At the college in Texas where I met Rabbi Ben Ezra, I had taken religion classes at the Baptist Student Union where we studied Dr. Hester’s books on the Old and New Testaments. During the evening, Dr. Hester took me aside to give me advice. “You need to find a place to put down your roots. You don’t have to move around to make your mark.”
William Jewell was a medical doctor in Columbia, Missouri and a member of the Baptist Church. He died of a heat stroke while working on the first campus building, Jewell Hall, dedicated in 1849. I taught all my classes in that building. When the year was up, I signed on for another. Bobbie and I bought our first house, just a block from the church we had joined. We could walk there.
With the coming of spring each year and the time for signing new contracts, I would think of what Dr. Hester said. And I would sign. When now and then I was offered a job at another college in another place, I would think of Dr. Hester . And I would say no.
Then one spring I was offered a job at a college in Texas in the town where Bobbie and I had always thought we would like to live. Not far from Austin, we had often driven through the town when we were living in Round Rock, at the children’s home, Jarrell and the garage apartment.
We drove there to meet the folks at the college and in the town. We would be near our folks. The place was beautiful. “What do you think?” we each asked the other. “It doesn’t feel right,” we both said. Neither of us knew exactly why it didn’t feel right. I think neither of us could feel right about leaving Liberty. It had become home. We said no.
Under Brother Clinard’s preaching, I had surrendered to preach, only to discover a few years later that I was not emotionally equipped. Teachers, books and classrooms I had loved from first meeting. In William Jewell, I sensed, I had found the perfect marriage of faith and learning. I had never been to Missouri until I came to the University and never heard of William Jewell College until I came to Kansas City. Long range planning had not brought me to either place. Opportunity seized!! An unseen hand at work. Providence. Unmerited good fortune. Dumb luck.
The rabbi I met when I was 19. The girl from Humble I met when she was 17. The one Good Friday and the three good Fridays that gave context to my life. The teaching I didn’t like. The pastoring I couldn’t do. The teaching I loved. The university that rejected me, then took me in. The college that welcomed me. More than I long to understand these good things that came to me, I have made it my life-long mission to live out the possibilities each set in motion.
I joined the Jewell faculty right out of grad school and stayed for 30 years (Debbie teaches there now). Bobbie and I bought our first house and have been here 42 years, with no plans to leave. We got married 52 years ago. We both became teachers. Our grown children live nearby and come often. And few days pass that I do not think of Rabbi Ben Ezra and what he said to me when I was young. I’m glad I was listening.
Liberty became our town when Jewell became my job. Over the years I would dream we had moved away, and I would wake up in a cold sweat. The campus and the community became such a part of me that, misapplying Patrick Henry, I would say to myself, “Give me Liberty or give me death.”
I have now lived longer than the three score and ten the Bible says we should expect. According to the way we are taught to reckon time, I’m closer to death now that I am old. But over the years, I’ve had friends, loved ones, students who have died at every age, causing me to think we are all always close to death. Accident, random violence, sudden illness, genetic defect, natural disaster and innumerable other dangers lie in wait for us with every breath we take.
I’ve never been as old as I am right now. I’ll never be as young again. To get to my present age, I had to live through all those that came before. I loved them all. I hope to love what lies ahead, whether many days or few. When I am gone, those who remember me will have reason to smile and be kind to everyone.