The following message was delivered by former resident Bernard Cochran at the reunion on the Lakeland campus on April 11, 2010.
Marcel Proust, the French writer, is widely regarded as the greatest novelist of the 20th century and his major novel, Remembrance of Things Past, the greatest novel of the 20th century. In all candor, I have only read parts of the novel and certainly not in the original French — the novel is seven volumes in length. Not the size but the content is what merits the accolades.
In Remembrance of Things Past, Proust explores, among other things, the theme of memory. This seems a good springboard to dive into what we’re involved in this weekend — reunions, homecomings, all involve the exercise of memory — recalling where we came from and what happened along the way — how we not only survived but prevailed.
The incidental things, the amusing, even the sad, were a part of that past:
- Learning to swim in Bunker Ditch — without a single fatality
- December camping at Palmdale — any wildlife within 5 miles was at risk from 2 dozen shotguns.
- Cutting a load of wood with the help of Uncle Whidden and Sol Lance:
- Sol: “That’s a bee tree.” Joe Johnson: “There are no bees in that tree, 501.”
- Sol: “I mean, it’s gonna be here when we leave. I ain’t messin’ with that big old ‘bee’ tree.”
- Writing a letter for publication in the Children’s Homes’ occasional newspaper: The Orphan Helper: It was a chore but it taught us to be thoughtful of others. We all ended our letter with the same line: “I will close now and leave room for the others to write.” You see, that’s just being thoughtful — you didn’t want to pre-empt all the letter-writing space — right?
- Playing sports at DeSoto County High School
- Getting out of school on Laundry Day — we rotated, as I remember, because laundry was every week.
Taking choir trips with Uncle Max when he was the visiting minister, He brought his own choir along. Truth be told, Uncle Max was not a trained, gifted choral director — he knew that the director waved his hand but he assumed it was just up and down
A bit more seriously, we were provided — not just shelter, food, and clothing, and education at the local public schools — but also a spiritual atmosphere, a faith perspective. The local Baptist church provided the usual classes and activities.
T. M. Johns (Children’s Homes’ superintendent) provided very memorable Wednesday night chapel services. I think they were summer only, when school was out. No hell-fire and damnation, but they were devotional in nature, mixed with practical wisdom as an aid in our growing-up process.
Also, we were encouraged to dream. Marcel Proust concluded that “if a little dreaming is dangerous, the cure for it is not to dream less but to dream more, to dream all the time.”
The U. S. Army slogan of “Be all that you can be” was invented later. We learned it early.
The Depression years meant that lots of doors seemed closed — but a college education, military service or both, or finding a future that fit each of our separate needs was held out as more than a remote possibility. I’m certain that a college education would never have been possible for me and Earl apart from the Children’s Homes.
Many of us turned to a future in the field of education. Sales, government service, pharmacy, journalism, law, and scores of other noble and contributing professions were open and pursued. Each of us was encouraged to find our own niche and to be the best that we could be.
As you know, life wasn’t perfect in those days and neither were we. Proust, again, reminds us that “There is no man, however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or lived in a way, the consciousness of which is so unpleasant to him in later life that he would gladly, if he could, expunge it from his memory.” Fortunately, most of our shortcomings were not life-threatening.
We were unlucky in that, for most of us, our parents died at an early age and few relatives could manage additional child care during the Depression. We were lucky that the Children’s Homes existed, even within the cultural limitations of Arcadia. We were also fortunate that no drug temptations existed then, unless you count an occasional Hav-A-Tampa cheroot cigar at Palmdale as a drug.
A few might complain that we were occasionally “drug” to church or “drug” to chores.
I awakened twice one morning. The first time was to turn off the alarm in order to catch just 5 more minutes of sleep before going to the barn to milk my 4 or 5 cows. The second great awakening came when Uncle Whidden encouraged me to wake up and then “drug” me to the barn 30 minutes late. Those were the “drugs” — not all bad.
Finally, by precept and example, we were encouraged to give back: to the Children’s Homes, the church, and to society in general. Each of us in varying ways has already gratefully given back to the Children’s Homes in terms of service, contributions, or, perhaps, leading Florida congregations to do the same.
Since Stetson University gave applicants from the Children’s Homes free tuition, I have contributed to a Stetson scholarship fund, with first choice being given to applicants from the Children’s Homes — no big deal but it is a way of giving back to both. The Children’s Homes is in my will. A college professor’s retirement income won’t allow that to build a new building, but it will be more than symbolic, ideally to meet some pressing need perhaps even 30 years from now?
Our lives have been marked by different but also common experiences. Given the choice — which no one has — being orphaned and growing up in the Children’s Homes would not have been at the top of our list. However, each of our lives has been immeasurably shaped and guided by that life-changing experience.
So today and every day, we acknowledge our profound gratitude to Florida Baptists and other friends of the Florida Baptist Children’s Homes and wish it continued success in its ministry of rescue and redemption.