2nd Opinion: Broad smiles, missing teeth, ‘noble calling to serve’

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I never will know if the student was serious or simply smile-seeking when he scheduled a visit to my office a quarter-century ago.

It was early in my Howard Payne University presidency. The student, whose name I don’t recall, presented a gift. It was a colorful poster showing a beautiful mansion, luxury sedan, sports car, decked-out boat and huge motor home. “Five reasons I want a college education,” the caption read.

don newbury130Don NewburyHe proudly hung the poster on my wall. I chuckled, but made a mental note to remove it in a week or so.

Later, two other students requested to see it.

Tenderly, yet purposefully, one said, “That’s not the reason we want a college education.”

Screams at a rafter-rocking concert couldn’t have been more jarring. My face reddening, I removed the poster immediately.

The students, enrolled in the university’s then-new youth ministry program, gently put me in my place. How rich are we who have sensitive friends to keep us on our mission.

And how obliged I am for a small band of ministers who proposed consideration of the new program—one that has more than 200 graduates and now includes master’s study.

Missing teeth

I’ve been thinking about two young men at HPU in the ’90s. Wise beyond their years, they had much in common, including the absence of front teeth.

The older, Shawn Brown, lost a tooth to a baseball bat while a student at San Angelo Central High School. The other, Brad Echols, was short two permanent teeth that never grew in. (Dentists bridged his “gap” with braces and other measures, but a gaping space remained.)

Both had ill-fitting prosthetics they called “flippers” that were broken, misplaced, forgotten or lost regularly….

Shawn played college baseball for a year, but youth ministry at First Baptist Church in Bronte almost 100 miles away—and courtship of Kathy Jo Muirhead, whom he married a couple of years later—used up his out-of-class hours.

Brad was bent on becoming a teacher and coach. Upon his HPU arrival, he continued playing tennis, having starred at Vernon High School. Upon college graduation, he spent two years at Terrell High School, then three as tennis pro at Plano’s Gleneagles County Club before returning to teach and coach in Vernon, his hometown.

Along the way, he married Erin Howell of Fritch in 2002. And in 2005, he opted for full-time ministry, first serving at his home church, First Baptist in Vernon, before enrollment in the HPU master’s program.

Youth ministry

In 2010, he began a four-year stint as youth minister at Field Street Baptist Church in Cleburne. Erin, an elementary teacher, was cited this spring as her school’s “teacher of the year.” They have two children—Macie Claire, 9, and Beckett Neil, 6.

Oh, back to the missing teeth. An anonymous Cleburne church member underwrote the cost of extensive dental preparation—then a permanent implant—for Brad. Now, he has a prize-winning smile.

“Others-centered as it gets,” HPU professor Gary Gramling said of Shawn and Brad.

He went on to describe both graduates as “exemplary students—none finer,” in a program he’s directed since it began.

A caring friend earlier provided an implant for Shawn. After he and Kathy Jo married, they moved to Fort Worth, where she taught during his graduate study at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

A tragedy at Wedgewood

In 1998, they joined Fort Worth’s Wedgwood Baptist Church. A year later, Shawn was felled by a gunman who killed six young people—then himself—during a Wednesday night prayer service. Two weeks shy of his 25th birthday, he was one of the first killed.

Al Meredith, in his 27th year as Wedgwood’s pastor, called the Browns “as good as it gets.”

Brad and his family recently moved to Midland, where he now is minister to youth at First Baptist Church.

Shawn’s widow, Kathy Jo, continues to teach in Fort Worth. She now is married to Marc Rogers, and they have two sons—Seth, 11, and Samuel, 3.

With peace that passes our understanding, Kathy, an Eastland native, is forever positive.

“If we’d known the man was sick, we’d have invited him over. Shawn would have counseled him, and I’d have cooked dinner for him,” she says.

Little is much when God is in it

Those with lives touched by Shawn and Brad credit them with far more than commonality of broad smiles and missing teeth.

Dr. Meredith, known for breaking into song during his sermons, cites a long-ago hymn that fits both men. It’s the chorus of the late Kittie Suffield’s 1924 hymn: ”Little is much when God is in it. Labor not for wealth or fame. There’s a crown and you can win it, if you go in Jesus’ name.”

Brad, 37, lives with the noble calling to serve. So did Shawn.

Don Newbury is retired president of Howard Payne University in Brownwood. He is a speaker/columnist and lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

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