Cameron Byler, SBC pioneer in recreation, disaster relief, dies at 79

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SAN ANTONIO, Texas – Cameron Byler, a pioneer in national disaster relief and men’s missions within the Southern Baptist Convention, died Apr. 28 in San Antonio after a bried illness. He would have turned 80 May 11.

A memorial service will be conducted at 1 p.m. May 3 at Trinity Baptist Church in San Antonio, where he had lived since moving from Tennessee last July. James Porch, executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, will officiate.

Cameron Byler

Byler was preceded in death by his first wife, the former Joyce Christian, and his second wife, the former Andrea Hawkins, who died two months ago. He is survived by three children: Barbara Garland, Portland, Ore.; Chris Byler, San Antonio, and foster son Brad Gray, Nashville, Tenn. He is also survived by three grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Relatives, friends and Southern Baptist Convention colleagues remember Byler as literally a gentle giant of a man who stood 6’ 1” and weighed some 400 lbs. Byler played tight-end on the football team at Howard Payne University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree. He later coached at various Texas high schools.

“Cameron had forearms bigger than my thighs,” says Jim Furgerson, a friend for 45 years, who followed Byler’s footsteps in Texas Baptist Men’s ministry and as national disaster relief director.

“I never saw anything he couldn’t lift. I’ve seen him carry a horse to a stall. When I first met him in 1963, he had a 28-inch waist and a 60-inch chest. Southern Baptists have lost a giant – physically and spiritually,” said Furgerson.

Vision and mission

Furgerson described Byler as a man of vision and mission.

"He was a pioneer in volunteer missions, disaster relief, men’s mission education and church recreation,” Furgerson added. “Cameron was one of those ground-breakers and a change agent’s change agent. He was one of the first Southern Baptist men brave enough to take volunteers on challenging international response missions into foreign countries like Albania and Nicaragua.”

Byler began his career in ministry at Buckner Baptist Boy’s Ranch in central Texas in 1956. Six years later, he moved his family to Lubbock, where he served as activities director at First Baptist Church – at the time, only one of a few such positions in the entire SBC. He moved on to serve as Royal Ambassador director on the staff of Texas Baptist Men, and as manager of Zephyr Baptist Encampment on Lake Mathis near Corpus Christi, Texas.

When Hurricane Beulah trounced Texas in 1967, Byler and fellow Texas Baptist Bob Dixon became the SBC’s first-ever disaster relief team, serving food prepared on “buddy-burners” from the back of a pick-up truck in the wake of the devastating Category 5 hurricane which killed 58 Texans.

In 1981, Byler and first wife Joyce moved to Anchorage, Alaska, where he served four years on the Alaska convention staff in church planting and Baptist Men’s ministry. He built the first Baptist recreational camp in Alaska, Furgerson said.

Disaster relief strategist

Byler was tapped as the Baptist Brotherhood Commission’s first man to develop and execute a national strategy on how the Southern Baptist Convention would respond to disasters nationwide, according to Jim Burton, a North American Mission Board (NAMB) staff member.

“Until Cameron came along, each state did its own thing, but even the states knew national coordination was necessary,” Burton said. “As Baptist Men’s director and national disaster relief director out of the Brotherhood Commission in Memphis, he was responsible for bringing the states together.

Recently retired NAMB staffer Douglas Beggs, who hired Cameron for the national disaster relief director’s job in the mid-1980s, said it was Byler who negotiated the very first agreement between Southern Baptists and the American Red Cross on how the two agencies would cooperate in response to U.S. disasters.

“Cameron was a great friend and mentor to me and so many others,” says Beggs. “If Cameron was your friend, you could count on him for anything. He was a great giver, both of his time and himself. He loved reaching young boys and men for Christ and spent so much of his Baptist career in RA and recreational work.”

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