A new teacher but already a middle-aged man, Mr. Vickers introduced himself to his first chemistry class at Paxton Community High School, “My first name is Mister.” He was always quite formal, organized, and meticulous, and he proved to be an excellent instructor in chemistry and physics. His instructions were orderly and systematic. If we did our part, we had no excuse not to learn in his classes. I was pleased when he offered me an opportunity to take part in a special summer class for prospective science majors at Northwestern University after my junior year in high school. That was the summer I also took advantage of an opportunity to acquire a Methodist License to Preach though the Illinois Wesleyan University licensing school.
Mr. Vickers did not have much use for religion. He did not reveal this through disparaging words, and we as students never heard him say what experiences had led him away from the involvements in religious organizations that typified many of his teaching colleagues in that community. He did not know that my thoughts about the future were divided between pursuing studies in science or religion. At the end of that summer someone must have told him of my divided interests.
Not long after the beginning of school that fall, Mr. Vickers interrupted class to invite me into the hallway. I was apprehensive that I had done something wrong. His manner was usually sober and severe, so there were no clues that his interest was paternal. He explained that he had been disappointed to learn that I was thinking about a career in Christian ministry. “That would be a waste of a good mind,” he said. He had several other things to say about it that I have forgotten, but that sentence stuck in my thoughts.
My pastor at the time, Glen Sims, was a learned and compassionate man. Without his example of an intelligent person serving courageously and usefully in that community, Mr. Vickers might have been more persuasive. As it was, I knew that Mr. Vickers sincerely cared about me and my future, and he gave me a preview of challenges to come.
Mr. Jones, the speech teacher, soon added another viewpoint. Public speaking was a much more uncomfortable subject for me than chemistry or physics. You have to be able to cry on cue, if you’re going to be a preacher, Mr. Jones said in words to that effect. Preachers appeal to the emotions, not to the intelligence, according to Mr. Jones. Mr. Barth, the English teacher, also added his advice. His brother was a Lutheran minister, he said, and it’s not an easy life. You have too rosy a picture of it as a career. You have to be prepared to be lonely. People have many unrealistic expectations of the clergy.
The advice began to accumulate. Most other career choices were not subject to such interest. Just about everyone had an opinion about religious vocations. Mr. Vicker’s advice stood out among the rest. I heard him say to me that I had a good mind. That was a source of pride. I also heard him issue the challenge, “Do not waste such a gift. It would be easy to waste it, going in the direction that he thought I was going.”