May 23, 1997
I grew up in the Presbyterian faith because my best friend was the preacher's son and because the church was just across the street from our family home at Eighth and Elm, where the high school parking lot is now located. The Methodist church was a block to the east and the Christian church was less than a block to the north, where the remnants of a service station now stand at Eighth and Fir, but our family composed of Mother, Dad, sisters Jeanice and Gloria, and me, toddled across the street each Sunday morning to the domed pink stucco building housing the Presbyterian church. I thought it was mostly a matter of logistics.
As a barefoot boy with cheek of tan, I knew almost nothing about Presbyterianism, its theology or characteristics that might distinguish it from that of any other congregation. I think I always assumed my folks went there because it was so close, and that was principally why I went there, too. We were always there for Sunday school, morning worship, Sunday evening service and fellowship, and any other special services that might he scheduled during the week. All of us proudly wore lapel pins attesting to varying periods of perfect attendance. As pre-schoolers, we attended Mrs. Crawford's Kindergarten Church in the church basement, and we learned some things there besides cutting out Bible figures from the material Mrs. Crawford brought each Sunday morning in the aging suitcase that her husband lugged down the steps to our meeting room.
David Sleeth Thomas was the older son of our pastor, the very dignified Rev. David Thomas, and his wife, Eula. With their other son, Harcourt, they lived in the manse which was adjacent to the Presbyterian church. Because the manse was so near the church, our members expected Mr. Thomas to stoke the furnace in the winter and have the entire building toasty by the time Sunday school classes began. In the summer, he opened the beautiful stained glass windows on the east and west walls of the sanctuary in hopes of capturing any stray breeze that chanced to be abroad. There was no pretense at artificial air-conditioning while I was growing up, but the Davis Funeral Home and Newton Funeral Home provided plenty of cardboard fans for the congregation's use, and we thought we were comfortable waving those until the unbearable August heat arrived. For that one month of the year, we canceled all services and allowed members to visit the church of their choice while the Thomas family took their annual vacation.
If he objected to firing the furnace in winter and opening the windows each Sunday morning in the summer, Mr. Thomas never let on about it. He would never have dreamed of complaining, being the gentleman he was. Thinking back on the subject, I can believe that he just considered those chores to be part of his ministry. He served this church for something like 30 years, including the era of the Great Depression, and his salary was not what you would call generous. It was all we could afford, and sometimes we thought we could not afford it. I remember some years when W. P. (Bill) Elliott Sr., a big, burly contractor, would get the congregation together in the church basement to discuss the budget shortfall. Bill always had the answer for the problem each time it came up. He would point at various individuals around the room, look them squarely in the eye and say something like, "You, John Smith (or whatever the real name was), put a hundred dollars in the pot." He categorized each one according to his estimate of their financial ability and told them unequivocally what they must do. And we all did it, just as he said, because you did not want to get crossways with Bill Elliott, so the deficit always was wiped out.
In later years Mr. John Morgan, a bachelor farmer; and his unmarried sister, Jennie, addressed this problem in their wills and bequeathed to the church a farm, with the stipulation that annual proceeds of $500 be placed in the budget specifically to help meet the pastor's salary. When the church grew and prospered after World War II, that provision became unnecessary but the Morgans' benevolence did make possible the construction of a fellowship hall and educational building. The latter bears the name, "Morgan Building," as a tribute to their generosity and thoughtfulness.
Eula Thomas had been a missionary in India before she met and married Rev. Thomas, and she provided a dynamic, effervescent personality that served as a perfect counterpart to his soft-spoken and courtly manner. His pulpit delivery was slow, measured and thoughtful. It was not uncommon for his emotions to bring tears to his own eyes as he discussed matters that called for our prayers and concerns. Those who remember him well believe he was one of the most saintly men they have encountered. and Eula was cast from the same mold but with a sparkle that he did not pretend to have. A terrible blow befell them when their son, my friend David, was killed in action as the result of an Infantry engagement in Europe during World War II. I don't think they ever fully recovered from that, or perhaps it was a matter of their lifetime of devoted service catching up with them, but after the war they both seemed to decline rapidly. Eula was first to go, after Rev. Thomas retired, and he then moved to Stillwater to be near their other son, Harcourt, who now lives in Tulsa.
In a short time, Rev. Thomas joined Eula in Paradise and the entire community of Perry was saddened. His service here spanned nearly thirty years, but I believe he left an imprint on those he served as a minister. friend and counselor that will transcend the parameters of time as we know it, and I feel he is continuing to minister to each of us today.
How fortunate I am to have grown up living across the street from the family of Rev. David Thomas in Perry, Oklahoma.