An historical marker in front of the Holiday Inn in Newport, Tennessee, gives a brief synopsis of the life of Ben Hooper. A compelling part of the story comes from Dr. Fred Craddock, an outstanding preacher. I have heard and told this story many times. Like most good stories there are numerous variations.
Dr. Craddock was professor of preaching at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. He and his wife needed a vacation. They went to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where they rented a quaint cabin beside a mountain stream.
On the first night of their getaway, the Craddocks visited a mom-and-pop restaurant. It was not a fancy place. It featured wooden chairs and tables, plaid tablecloths, and excellent down-home cooking.
As they waited for their meal to be served, they noticed an old man enter the restaurant. Wearing overalls, he looked the part of a mountaineer. He went around the room, moving from one table to another, greeting the guests at each table.
Fred Craddock thought, “We've come to Gatlinburg to get away from people! I'll bet this old man is going to bother us!”
Sure enough, the old man made his way around the room and came over to their table. “Hi, where are you folks from?”
“We're from Atlanta.”
“What do you do in Atlanta?”
Hoping to put him off, Craddock said, “I am a professor of homiletics.”
“Oh, you teach preachers how to preach!”
Dr. Craddock was confounded. The old man knew what the word homiletics meant.
With that, the old man pulled up a chair and sat down at the table with Dr. and Mrs. Craddock. He said, “I have a preacher story to tell you.”
Craddock thought, “I'll bet I have heard this story fifty times.”
The old man started spinning his tale: “I was born and raised right here in the mountains of East Tennessee. I never knew who my father was. My mother gave me her name, not my father's name, because she did not want me to hold a grudge against him. I was born out of wedlock, an illegitimate child. Back in those days, that was quite a stigma to live with.
“I always felt badly about myself. When I was growing up, my classmates at school said some very unkind things about me. When I went to town on Saturday, I had the feeling that people were talking about me behind my back. After I was born, my mother did not go to church anymore. She did not feel welcome.
“My grandmother knew how important it was for me to attend worship. Every Sunday, she took me to a little Methodist church nestled against the hillside. We would arrive just as the service started so we could avoid speaking to anyone. We would sit on the back pew. When the service was over, we would leave immediately after the benediction and scoot right out the door. We didn't want to talk to anybody!
“I would listen to the preacher, but I did not like him very much. He was a large man, with a big booming voice. He had bushy eyebrows that jumped up and down when he preached. He shook his finger a lot. I always had the feeling he was pointing right at me. That booming voice and that pointing finger were quite intimidating. I was afraid of the preacher. For fourteen years, we had been going to that little church.
“One Sunday, as we started to leave, the usher stopped us at our usual exit. ‘You can't go out this way. We've had a winter storm, and ice and snow have covered the steps. It isn't safe. You'll need to leave by the side door.'
For the first time, I found myself caught up in the line of people headed down front to speak to the preacher. I did not want to talk to that preacher. He frightened me so much! I was walking down the aisle, glancing to the left and to the right. I saw the side door and saw my opportunity to make an escape. As I started for the exit, I felt an enormous hand on my shoulder. I whirled around, and I was staring straight into the face of the preacher.
The preacher asked me the question that I had dreaded for fourteen years, ‘Boy, who is your daddy?'
The silence of that moment was deafening.
Then the preacher looked at me and said, ‘Oh, now I see the resemblance. You are a child of God. You go, and claim your inheritance.'”
Fred Craddock said he felt cold chills going up and down his spine. He looked at that old mountaineer and said, “Please tell me your name.”
The old man said, “My name is Ben Hooper.”
Then Dr. Craddock remembered his own grandfather telling him the story of an illegitimate boy who grew up in the mountains of East Tennessee, a boy who became an attorney, a boy whom the people of Tennessee later elected to two terms as their governor.
That boy was Ben Hooper.
On Father's Day those of us who have been blessed with a great dad have reason to celebrate. If our dad is still with us we can enjoy the opportunity to be with him. If our father is no longer with us, we have cherished memories and favorite stories to recall.
The truth is that there are many children like young Ben Hooper who have not had the benefit of a loving father. For some children, dad has been absent, negligent, or abusive. For those children it is important for someone else to bridge the gap. That person may be an uncle, a grandfather, a teacher, a coach, or, as in the case of Ben Hooper, a pastor.
People of faith affirm that every child has two fathers. We have an earthly father who may be a treasure or a bitter disappointment. We have a Father in heaven who never fails to be faithful and loving.
That is reason enough to celebrate Father's Day.
Dr. Fred Andrea is the pastor of Aiken's First Baptist Church.