Forward—Ever Forward

Published 9:16 am Sunday, August 23, 2015

by Dr. Don Newbury

   It’s hard to believe I had a genuinely cordial “argument” involving a birthday observance, a $91 gift check, and a couple driving 3,000+ miles to spend two days with the honoree.

I confess to igniting the gentle disagreement, but the principal figure is Ethelyn Smith, a resident at Redstone Park in Brownwood, TX–where some residents round off–or round down–their ages.

With right hand-on-a-Bible solemnity, she claimed to be age 90 upon my expression of good wishes “at the beginning of her 91st year.” She balked. “Ethelyn, birthdays mark the year of completion, not the beginning,” I reminded. She wouldn’t budge, saying, “A year from now, you’d be right, but for now, I’m just 90.”

Oh, the $91 check. It was in a birthday greeting card from Mr. and Mrs. David Shing, whose wedding was the second performed by the late Dr. Robert Smith early in his 15-year pastorate at Pompano Beach First Baptist Church. (Mrs. Shing now has taught children’s Sunday school classes there for 53 years.) The check, Ethelyn said, was for each year since birth, with $1 to grow on–“nothing to do with a 91st year.”

Ethelyn taught newly-marrieds throughout the 1970s, and the class grew exponentially, since most members didn’t want to join the next age group. So they didn’t.

Bill and Judi Skeen’s first-ever road trip to Texas was a birthday highlight. They–like many others–were impacted by Ethelyn’s “alongside” guidance and friendship. Such friends marvel at this seemingly indestructible woman who faces whatever comes next with grit, humor, energy and above all, Christian commitment. Throw in the sufficiency of His grace, and she’s enabled to smile through it all.

“She and her son are making us smile at Redstone,” said Executive Director Janie Harper, noting Ethelyn’s sparkling personality and genuine, over-arching appreciation.

Plus, around 4 p.m. most days, Ethelyn plays hymns on the parlor piano, often attracting two-dozen of the 61 residents from their rooms. Son Robert, a resident just two doors down, often is there, too, unless he’s helping plant flowers, or on his electric scooter/delivery cart.

Himself a “cheerer-upper,” he moved to the assisted living center early this year, soon after his mother sustained three broken vertebra in a backyard fall.

For several days, she was in critical condition. The outlook was bleak for this woman who worked alongside her late husband, whose previous pastorates included First Baptist Churches of Pine Bluff, AR, then Houston, TX. We’ve all heard stories of preachers hired because their wives could play the piano. Ethelyn plays the organ, too, and has worked nobly during her husband’s pastorates, as well as his 25-year tenure as Professor of Preaching at Howard Payne University. She also assisted him with the Smith Sunday school class at Brownwood First BC, where he taught until age 85, when mounting health issues loomed. She has been the “family driver” for several years, and still makes short trips in their specially-equipped van so Robert Jr. can have an outing, too.

When her husband’s macular degeneration wouldn’t turn loose, she held up poster boards with big, black letters of his teaching outline. The “marriage made in heaven” phrase seems perfect for this couple who missed their 70th wedding anniversary by just four months

She envisioned widowhood in their home with Robert Jr., who has lived there most of his life. Her accident, some three months after her husband’s death, changed her plans.

Life is measured, someone said, by how we handle the rebounds. For Ethelyn–described by daughter Judy Bynum George as “Jesus with skin”–rebounding calls for shooting the ball again, usually from three-point range.

She’s a “smiler” and a “do-er,” always committed to looking her best. Upon regaining consciousness when her string of life seemed short and frazzled, she asked Judy to fetch her lipstick and wrinkle cream. Sustained by deep faith and rehab, she’s walking again. Hymns describe her. She knows whom she has believed, and is persuaded that He is able….Ethelyn knows she’s never alone, in the garden or any place else.

Currently, though, she’s miffed by her new driver’s license photo that “looks like an old woman.” Expect her to see if retouching is an option.


   Dr. Newbury is a speaker in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Speaking inquiries/comments to: Phone: 817-447-3872. Web site: Columns archived at, newbury blog.