Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Every Life a Story: Thomas Richard Hutcheson

“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.”

~ Eudora Welty, Author and Pulitzer Prize winner (1909-2001)

Welcome to the first edition of my new segment: “Every Life a Story.”

Thomas Richard Hutcheson, who most often goes by his middle name but is sometimes called T.R. or Dick, was born on August 21, 1916, in a farm home located four miles from the town of Morning Sun, Iowa, which is located in the Southeastern part of the state. Richard’s parents were Walter Edwin and Jessie (Turnbull) Hutcheson. His siblings included one brother, Matthew Maurice, and one sister, Mary Alice Elizabeth. (Another sister named Laura died in infancy.)

Richard’s mother Jessie had an interesting background. She was born in Oklahoma when it was Indian Territory. Sadly, Jessie’s mother passed away just a few days after her birth. Since there was no legal record of her birth, Jessie would eventually choose February 14 as her birthday. When Jessie was a young girl her father worked as a teamster for the railroad. After hearing there was work available at a mission being built by the Reformed Presbyterian Church, he decided to move Jessie and her older sister Dora to Apache, Oklahoma, where Jessie attended an Indian boarding school for two years. (Her father eventually married and had more children.) When Jessie was eight years old, it was determined that she and Dora should attend school in Morning Sun, Iowa, the hometown of some of the missionaries. Jessie lived with three different families before graduating from Morning Sun High School. Seventy-five years later, she was honored to be the featured speaker at the school’s alumni banquet. Jessie lived to be 96 years old.

An interesting side note: Richard’s grandfather, Matt Hutcheson, grew up near Olathe, Kansas, but left to find work in Iowa at the age of 16 because of the grasshopper plague in Kansas in 1873. The story is that the grasshoppers not only ate all the crops, but they ate the curtains off the windows and the handles off of pitchforks because of the salt from the farmers’ hands. Matt would meet Richard’s grandmother Annie in Iowa, and they eventually settled on 80 acres of land Annie had inherited near Morning Sun. This would be the farm home where Richard’s father Walter was born, and where Richard himself was born a generation later.

Richard’s mother and father met while they were attending the same Reformed Presbyterian Church in Morning Sun (Sharon Church). There was an entire colony of Reformed Presbyterian’s who moved to that area from Pennsylvania, and the church continues to have a thriving congregation to this day.

Sharon Church - 150th anniversary, July 1996

As a whole, the Reformed Presbyterian denomination has over 6,000 members nationwide, with missionaries in Japan, Cyprus and the Sudan. In addition, they operate a seminary and retirement home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and a college in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, known as Geneva College.

One unique aspect of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, which was officially established in 1743, is that the congregation always sings their hymns a cappella from the Book of Psalms. When I asked Mr. Hutcheson what particular beliefs distinguished Reformed Presbyterians from members of the traditional branch of the denomination, he stated that they believe Christ should be recognized as the Head of the nation, and not just the Head of the church. During World War II, the Church adopted an explanatory declaration for soldiers who were being promoted to officer status. The written declaration was attached to the Pledge of Allegiance and stated: “I take this oath with no mental reservation, but declaring my primary allegiance to Jesus Christ, the King of the Nation.” Richard also explained that in the 1600’s when the king of Scotland and England, Charles II, wanted to reestablish the Episcopalian form of government, most of Scotland compromised and accepted his proposal. Those who dissented, however, (known as Covenanters), were forced to meet in secret and suffered great persecution. History describes this tragic period as the “Killing Times.”

One year after Richard’s parents were married, they moved to Sterling, Kansas, to engage in farming. Since there were no crops that year, they became destitute and decided to return to Morning Sun where they rented a house. Richard’s siblings attended a country school, but by the time he reached school age the country schools had been consolidated in Mediapolis, Iowa.

Midway through the second grade, Richard’s family moved to the unincorporated town of Garland, Iowa, where his father began working as the manager of the Garland Elevator. There were only about six or seven houses in Garland, but they had a General Store located right in the railroad depot because the Railroad ran through the town. Richard said you could buy overalls and lemons at the store, but nothing that required refrigeration since they didn’t have electricity. (They used coal oil lamps.)

The family lived in Garland for approximately three years before moving back to Morning Sun where Richard’s father took work as a hired man. He worked ten months out of the year helping another family on their farm. His pay was $50.00 per month.

“Some people say that they were poor, but they never knew it,” Richard commented. “Well, we were poor and we knew we were poor. But we never went hungry.”

“What did poor look like for your family?” I asked.

“Well, you had to think real hard before you bought something. And you didn’t buy much,” he replied. “We had a garden, one pig and a cow for milk. Mother canned. We had fruit trees; every farm had a good orchard. We had to watch out for the worms, though, but it was worse to find half a worm. And we wore our clothes for a very long time. We wore the same pants to school for half of the year.”

Richard recalled a time when he received a new pair of high top leather shoes that were irritating the back of his heel. So he and his father went to the clothing store and the owner graciously agreed to accept the shoes back, even though they had already been worn. “I’ll keep them here,” he said. “And if somebody wants to buy them, I’ll sell them as used.”

Richard also remembered when he was about ten years old and his father went shopping for the family’s first car.

“How much are you asking for this one?” his father asked the salesman, pointing to a coupe, single-seat automobile.

“Fifty dollars,” the salesman replied. “You can pay me so much a month until it’s paid off.”

After doing the math, Richard’s father asked why the total amount came to more than the price of the car.

“That’s interest on the money,” the salesman explained. “If you went to the bank, you’d have to pay interest. We’re really lending you the money.”

“That was my first lesson in finance,” Richard remarked.

“I’m just curious. How was it that your family could afford to buy a car for $50.00 when that was all the money your father made in a month?” I inquired.

“That’s why we were poor,” Richard said with a smile.

After completing his sophomore year of high school in Morning Sun, Iowa, Richard’s family moved back to his grandfather’s farm near Mediapolis. Out of the twenty-three students who graduated from Mediapolis High School in 1934, only one girl found work at a grocery story (due to the depression). As for Richard, he spent the next year helping his father on the farm and doing odd jobs for neighbors.

In the fall of 1935, Richard enrolled in junior college in Burlington, Iowa. He was able to live with his sister whose husband worked for Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad (CPQ). The following year Richard decided to transfer to Kansas State Teachers College of Pittsburg, Kansas, (now Pittsburg State University), to pursue his interest in journalism. The cost of tuition was $37.50 per semester. While in Pittsburg, Richard lived at the YMCA and worked there for his room. He also worked as a porter at the Rexford Café for his meals, and he held a job at the Family Shoe Store on Saturdays for $2.00 per day.

Richard returned to Pittsburg in the spring of 1938 after deciding he wasn’t “mechanically adept” enough to be a printer. His new area of study was history and social studies.

In the fall of 1938 one of Richard’s friends named Ralph Kilpatrick contacted him about a job opportunity in Pennsylvania. Ralph was a student at Geneva College (in Beaver Falls) and he had a good job at a funeral home. So Richard transferred to Geneva College with the understanding that when his friend returned the following spring, he would relinquish his position at the funeral home. Richard also worked in the maintenance department at the college in exchange for a reduced tuition rate.

When Richard’s friend came back to reclaim his job, Richard returned to Pittsburg once again for the spring semester. Then in the fall he stayed home to help his father harvest five acres of tomatoes which he had contracted to grow for the Heinz Ketchup Company. The following spring (1940), Richard returned to Kansas State Teachers College where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in education. Since he was awarded a lifetime teaching certificate, Richard is actually still certified to teach English, History, Social Studies and Printing.

“I’m certified,” he added wryly, “but I’m not qualified.”

The summer after graduation, Richard headed for “grain-raising territory” in Northern Minnesota where he worked harvesting wheat and flax. His life would take a dramatic turn that fall when Richard was accepted into the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

I asked Richard when he first considered going to seminary.

“Oh, it occurred to me off-and-on over the years,” he replied.

Richard’s family was very devout in their faith, and many of their activities centered around the church. In the town of Morning Sun (population 800), there were five churches, and every year each church would hold revival services; and every year young Richard would attend each one. In addition, Richard’s father led his family in a brief worship service every morning, which included reading a chapter from the Bible (with each family member taking turns reading verses), and kneeling in prayer.

Richard told me about an incident that happened in the sixth grade which might have hinted of things to come. He said his teacher was giving the class a spelling test and she asked them to write the word “profit” (without giving the definition). Richard was the only student who spelled the word “p-r-o-p-h-e-t.” Later on when he was in college, several of his friends from church commented that they thought he should become a minister.

During his second year of seminary, Richard met his future wife, Eleanor McLam, a music student at Geneva College. Eleanor was also a member of a Gospel singing group, and she would eventually become a music teacher, traveling to different schools in the area. During this same time, a friend of Richard’s arranged for him to travel to Barnet, Vermont, to preach a sermon at a church there.

After graduating from seminary in 1943, Richard received a call from the church he had visited in Barnet, Vermont, asking him to serve as their pastor. Richard accepted the call. (Coincidentally, Richard’s future in-laws were from Barnet and attended the same church).

Thomas Richard Hutcheson's seminary graduation picture

On June 27, 1944, Richard and Eleanor were married in the Barnet Reformed Presbyterian Church. Since most people were married in their homes at that time, Richard and Eleanor were the very first couple to be married in the church, which was built in 1833.

Eleanor taught piano lessons in their home, and the couple had two sons who were born in Vermont named Martin and Harvey. Then in 1947 the family moved to Almonte, Ontario, Canada, after Richard accepted the call from a congregation there.

A third son, Dean, joined the family in 1949. The family stayed in Almonte until 1952 when Richard received another call from a Reformed Presbyterian church in Rose Point, Pennsylvania, approximately 50 miles north of Pittsburgh. Rose Point is also located near the famous Slippery Rock University which was founded in 1889. (The university’s first president was James Morrow whose granddaughter, Anne Morrow, married Charles Lindbergh.)

After deciding that “seven years was long enough,” Richard and his family moved from Rose Point to Superior, Nebraska, (near the Kansas line) to serve as pastor of Superior Reformed Presbyterian Church. There he would also serve as pastor of Beulah Country Church, located approximately twenty miles from Superior. Richard said that the majority of his time as a pastor was spent preparing sermons, visiting the sick, and acting as the “shepherd of the congregation” in various capacities. In Superior, he and four other area pastors also took turns serving as chaplain for the local hospital, writing a devotional column for the newspaper, and providing a fifteen-minute weekly radio devotional.

In 1962, Richard developed a mysterious problem with his vocal chords making it difficult to continue in his current profession.

To be continued . . .

The Hutcheson Family (with cousin on far left)

The doctors were never able to determine for certain what caused the problem with Richard’s voice, but it didn’t stop him from changing careers. In 1962 Richard began working in Holton, Kansas, for the State Department of Social Welfare (now known as SRS), which was operated by the Jackson County Commissioners and the Board of Social Welfare. Richard’s job responsibilities included providing aid to dependent children, placing children in foster homes or up for adoption, and finding nursing homes for the aged. In 1976, Richard and his wife moved to Topeka, so Richard transferred to the Topeka office where he concentrated more on medical assistance to the aged, blind and disabled.

Richard eventually retired on August 1, 1981. Sadly, Eleanor passed away in 1990 from cancer. Richard sold their home three years later and moved into an apartment in Topeka. Then in 1997 he moved into the independent living area of the Presbyterian Manor where he continues to live today.

In addition to their three sons – Martin and Dean, who live in Kansas, and Harvey who lives in Virginia – the Hutcheson’s have been blessed with seven grand-children and four great-grandchildren (two sets of twins), with two more on the way later this year. Richard said that one of his five-year old great-grandsons Samuel, recently surprised his parents by telling them, “You know, Jesus loves us no matter what!”

Before concluding our interview, I decided to ask Richard a few more questions about his faith. Here are some excerpts from Richard’s comments:

“You can be religious and not have a relationship with Christ. The Pharisees were very religious. But if you have a relationship with Christ, you’ll be religious.”

“Religion can be a hazard if it gives you a false sense of security of eternal life; that is, if you depend on your religion for your salvation. The Pharisees boasted about fasting and tithing, and when they prayed, they thanked God they were not like other sinners.”

“That’s right,” I added in agreement. “Jesus was harder on the religious people than He was on the sinners. He told the Pharisees that they washed the outside of the cup, but inside was like dead man’s bones. He said, ‘You make people twice as fit for hell as you are yourself!’”

“There are two things Jesus did for us,” Richard continued. “He took our sins and He gave us His righteousness.”

Next, I asked Richard if there was anything that he would have changed about his life if he had it to do over again.

After taking a moment to consider the question, Richard replied:

“I would have brought my wife more flowers. I would have paid more attention to my family during my life. I neglected my children more than I should have. God took care of them, but I would have done more hugging. I went to some meetings when I could have been home with the family. I really didn’t need to go to those meetings.”

“I hope you don’t mind me asking you this; do you fear death?” I inquired cautiously.

“No, I don’t fear death. Of course, I’d like it to be easy without suffering, but I guess we can’t control that. But death is a promotion to Heaven; our time on Earth is preparation. The Book of Psalms says: Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside Thee.”

“I’m ready for death whenever it comes, and it won’t be long; I’m 91 years old. When I look at the obituaries in the paper, most people are younger than I am now.

“We’re told a few things about Heaven. Heaven will be the absence of tears and pain; eternal bliss. I suppose the greatest joy would be the absence of sin . . . it’s a delight to think upon that. We can’t imagine it, really.”

“Do you ponder who you’ll be reunited with when you get to Heaven?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied, “but being with Jesus and spending eternity in His presence will be the greatest delight.”

I asked Richard what he tells people who question the teaching of Christianity that Jesus is the only way to Heaven.

“Jesus said I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, and no man comes to the Father except by Me.”

But what about people who have never heard about Jesus, I asked.

“In the first chapter of Romans [vs. 20] it says: For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.”

“We have our consciences also,” Richard answered. “We don’t need the Ten Commandments to know that murder is wrong. God writes His law upon our hearts.”

Finally, I asked Richard how he hopes his sons and family will remember him.

He pondered the question for a moment, searching for just the right words to summarize his hopes for a personal legacy.

“Ideally, I hope that I reflected faith in Christ,” he replied. “And that they saw that I had joy because I am a believer. That’s the way I’d like them to remember me.”

“Anything else?” I asked.

“No . . . I think that’s all,” he quietly responded.

In the short time that I spent with Thomas Richard Hutcheson, that is definitely the way I will remember him.

“When David’s time to die was near, he charged Solomon his son, saying, I go the way of all the earth. Be strong, and show yourself a man; Keep the charge of the Lord your God, walk in His ways, keep His statutes, His commandments, His precepts, and His testimonies, as it is written in the law of Moses, that you may do wisely and prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn…”

~ I Kings 2:1-3