Bishop John Wesley Hardt has died. I just heard the news. It happened a few hours earlier today. This makes me incredibly sad, as I know it does generations of Methodists here in Texas.
If you are a Methodist in Texas, it’s likely you have a John Wesley Hardt story. I also have one. And although many people have good stories, I’ll bet mine is among the most amazing.
What’s even MORE amazing is that I was literally talking about him last night, telling this very same story I am about to tell you….thinking about him for the first time in several years…
In the Fall of 1989, I was returning to Perkins for my final year, after a year away on internship. Bishop Hardt was now Emeritus Bishop there. I was a newly minted United Methodist Deacon, having been ordained just months before. (This was back in the days both when Elders first were Deacons, *and* you could get ordained and still be in school…)
Mom pulled me aside late that summer, and said, “Eric, when you get back to Perkins, you have to be sure and introduce yourself to Bishop John Wesley Hardt. He was the pastor in Atlanta, Texas in the mid-1950s when I was a girl.”
I quietly rolled me eyes.
Two thoughts ran simultaneously ran through my brain.
First, there was no way in hell that Bishop Hardt was going to remember Mom, or have any idea who *I* was…35 years after he was pastor in her tiny little home town.
I knew how this would go down. He’d look at my blankly, or with that polite Methodist Pastor look where we pretend to recognize somebody…. and then *I* would have to fumble through making the tenuous connection to our “Mays” family in Atlanta.
I knew immediately this would be embarrassing.
The second thought was that this request just like my Mother. Just like the kind of thing she likes to do. Mom has this theory that Atlanta Texas, or East Texas more broadly, is some kind of cosmic vortex. Give Mom a few minutes, and she can make some kind of East Texas connection between you and her.
Did you know, for example, that Ellen Degeneres lived in Atlanta in high school? Did you know that SMU President, Gerald Turner did too? Did you know that Don Henley grew up right down the road in Linden?
OK. You might have known that last one.
But, come on. What was the chance that Bishop Hardt remembered a thing about our family?
Mom saw my eye-roll. She pushed back.
“No, you must say ‘hello’ to him. He will remember you. He remembers all of us. Just tell him that you’re Patsy Mays’ son. You’ll see…”
“Patsy Mays,” btw, is my Mom’s maiden name. It’s a first and last name that is only ever used when talking about Atlanta, Texas.
So, a few days later, it was registration for the Fall of 1989. I was in Selecman Hall at Perkins. I spied Bishop Hardt across the room. Quite reluctantly, and only because I knew Mom would ask about it later, I went up to him.
“Bishop Hardt, you don’t know me…but I’m Eric Folkerth….my Mother was Patsy Mays from Atlanta, Texas…”
I quickly established my alibi as to why I was making this ridiculous introduction.
“She told me to introduce myself to you…”
I barely got those words out of my mouth.
“Eric!” HIs eyes lit up. “I know you. And I know your Mother.”
(“Right,” I thought…”)
“You have two sisters. And your Aunt’s name is Sandra, right?”
“Why…yes….” I stuttered.
“And she lives here in Dallas with her three girls?”
“Um, yes…they do…”
I was stunned. He wasn’t done.
“And I know that your grandfather, Sam Mays, died some years ago…”
“Yes, he did, Bishop…”
“But your great uncle Tom is still alive in Atlanta…”
“Yes, that’s absolutely true…”
Before he was finished that day, Bishop John Wesley Hardt had not only correctly identified the names and relative ages of about fifteen or so members of the Mays family, but he had also correctly identified precisely where they lived now, and what they were up to.
I was stunned.
It was my introduction to the photographic memory that was Bishop John Wesley Hardt.
I walked away no doubt feeling something like the woman at the well who told her friends Jesus had told her everything she’d ever done.
And that began our friendship. Over the years, he would tell me many stories about his time in Atlanta. He would visit us at Northaven for worship, now and then. He seemed genuinely proud of what we were doing there, and that I had become a United Methodist minister.
This was because John Wesley Hardt knew the whole story. The whole story of how I ever became a United Methodist Minister. As I said, like the woman at the well…
“Find me some day soon, Eric, “ he said as we left each other that day.
“I have stories to tell you…”
Sometime later, we made that date to get together, and he told me more stories of his time in Atlanta, and his many detailed memories of the Mays family. He remembered the “Mays Supercash Grocery Store,” which had been owned by my grandfather (Sam) and his older brother (Abe Sr.). They had taken it over from their father, Samuel “Ches” Mays. (Samuel Chesley Sr)
It had always been something of a mystery as to how my grandfather, the second boy born, ended up with the family name, and not his older brother, Abe.
Bishop Hardt was about to tell me. And, really, as I said, tell the story of how I got to be a United Methodist Minister.
Apparently, to hear Bishop Hardt tell it, “Ches” Mays” (my great grandfather) was a son-of-a-bitch. These are not Bishop Hardt’s words. He was much kinder.
Ches owned a bar in town. He was a hard living guy.
One day, Ches decided to go to a Methodist tent revival in town. Bishop Hardt tells me that my great-grandfather, Samuel Chesley Mays Sr., got “saved” at that revival.
He came home to his wife, threw the keys to the bar on the kitchen table, and said, “I quit.”
He vowed to close the bar down for good. He vowed to be a better husband, and to open a grocery store.
And, he did all those things. He closed the bar. He opened the “Mays Supercash.”
And…he named his next child, his first son, after the Methodist revival preacher from that fateful night: Abe Mulkey.
“Abe Mulkey Mays,” my grandfather’s older brother, would become a good friend to Bishop Hardt. He was, for a time, mayor of Atlanta. He was, by all accounts, quite a gregarious, larger than life, guy.
I gathered that my grandfather, “Daddy Sam,” and his youngest brother, Tom, somewhat lived in the shadow of Abe.
Anyway, THIS is the incredible story Bishop John Wesley Hardt told me about my family in 1989. A family story NOBODY in my family had ever bothered to tell me. An amazing story which tracks a clear moment in time that changed the trajectory of our entire family’s future.
It’s probably how my Mom could eventually afford to go to college.
It’s most definitely how I got to be a United Methodist Minister.
I mean, sometimes people wonder “How did we get to be Methodist?”
Well, now I knew. Which meant, I also literally knew the turning point to my entire career too.
So, sometime later, I told Mom the incredible story. And yelled at her a little for never telling me.
She got quiet.
Then, it hit my why she’d never told me. Because Abe’s story ends in tragedy. The kind of tragedy nobody talks about.
He committed suicide in the early 1960s, just around the time I was born. He and Daddy Sam were being audited by the IRS. There were rumors (Later confirmed by Bishop Hardt) that the audit was a maneuver by political rivals, designed to bring scorn and embarrassment to the Mayes.
Apparently, it worked. The grocery store was closed by the time I was six or seven. While the IRS audit was resolved, Abe took it hard and took his own life.
Which is why, despite the fact that Ches Mays’ conversion changed his whole family’s life, it sort of feels like the end of the story is horribly tragic.
But, then, there was last night. Yes, last night.
Because last night there was a Mays family wedding. One of the grandchildren of youngest brother, Tom. (My grandfather’s youngest brother). Here in Dallas. I mean…LAST NIGHT.
Keep in mind, everybody lives different places now. Some still in Atlanta. Some in Dallas. Some in Houston, Austin…elsewhere.
We never see each other. The cousins of my generation are all scattered about.
We’re talking tons of family members, who just happened to be here LAST NIGHT, all together, for a happy occasion….the first happy occasion in years. We’ve been together in recent years for far too many funerals.
The sons of Ches Mays are long gone. Even several of my Mom’s first cousins have passed on now….several died far too young…one just this year. (I believe I’m right: she’s the oldest remaining cousin in her generation…and I’m among the oldest in mine…)
And so, last night, at the dinner table, I am telling some of the younger cousins of MY generation the story that I have just related to you. LAST NIGHT!!!
Around the dinner table, I mentioned Bishop Hardt by name. I passed on this family story that so many in MY generation have never heard, to cousins I never see.
And then, hours later, I hear that Bishop Hardt has died.
We took this picture at the end of the night.
Ches Mays’ life was hard.
Abe Mays’ life ended harshly.
But you can draw a straight line between that story Bishop John Wesley Hardt told me, and the fortunes of every single person in this family picture. We are where WE are today, because of the events in that story John Wesley Hardt remembered, and passed on to us.
Or rather, the story he gave *back* to us.
And for this, I will be eternally grateful for the life of John Wesley Hardt.