Thursday, September 5, 2013
My long-ago friend Bob Phelps died Monday.
His obituary cites his love for Christ as a defining factor in his life.
When I first met Bob back in the 1980s, he defined himself as an agnostic; the last time I saw him a few years ago, he told me that contact with me and my family had contributed a little bit to his becoming a Christian.
That’s odd because Bob’s newspaper columns made him a celebrity with wide-spread influence; at the time, I worked as a minimum-wage mail clerk at the paper with no influence at all.
When Bob’s first wife died in tragic circumstances, I think he was the one to discover her body in the garage. When I offered condolences, Bob told me his lawn needed cutting and he had neither time, energy nor spirit to cut it. So I loaded my lawnmower in the back of my old clunker and drove to his affluent neighborhood. Nobody home, so working alone, I cut grass.
What witness is there in cutting grass?
I thought it was just the decent thing to do.
That, and a bit of verbal testimony, eventually led to his accepting Christ as Lord, but his decision came about through someone else’s ministry.
If I remember correctly, early on, Bob was one of the guys at the newspaper who teased by calling me a Rabid Fundamentalist, the title still on my website today.
Once he became a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, Bob followed whole-heartedly and his wholesome testimony for Jesus spread to many foreign countries as well as throughout Florida.
The man had a way with words. Once he visited our home just after our 5-year-old Jennifer had broken her ankle falling off her bicycle; she dashed around the house on a new pair of crutches. In one of his newspaper columns, Bob wrote that walking with Jennifer was like walking next to a knee-high helicopter!
Here is an excerpt from Bob’s September 4th news obit written by Florida Times-Union reporter Dan Scanlan:
Retired veteran Florida Times-Union writer and columnist Robert L. “Bob” Phelps died Monday in his Live Oak home after a short illness, according to the family.
The 70-year-old veteran journalist wrote more than two decades of stories and columns in the Times-Union and its sister paper, the Jacksonville Journal. His retirement was followed by years of volunteer work, including overseas mission trips and a traveling campground ministry.
Harry Reagan, a former television journalist and Jacksonville city councilman, knew Mr. Phelps for decades.
“He was a good journalist who did his job and asked me the tough questions,” Reagan said.
Pamela Terczak remembers when Mr. Phelps and his wife were Sunday School teachers in the late 1990s at Shindler Drive Baptist Church.
“I don’t know of any more caring and loving person,” she said. “… The fact that he adopted [daughter Jenifer from Haiti] I am not surprised. They have such a love for the Lord.”
The Erie, Pa., native went to Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. A U.S. Air Force veteran, he began his newspaper career in Joplin, Mo., and came to work at the Jacksonville Journal in 1977. He wrote for the Times-Union when the Journal was shuttered in 1988.
A July 20, 1999, story announcing his retirement said he was “hitting the road” at age 56 after he had “covered everything from politics at City Hall to wart hogs at the zoo,” including a regular column for 12 years called “Phelps’ People.”
Then he and his wife traveled from campground to campground holding Sunday-morning services and Bible studies through their Campfire Ministries, the “best years of our life,” Linda Phelps said.
Mark Middlebrook, who worked with Mr. Phelps’ as a writer and editor, said they reconnected in recent years on Facebook, discussing a mutual love of nature.
“I will miss him a lot,” he said. “He was a really fine person with a good eye and he was a good storyteller and a good writer.”