(The following was created from the notes used during the remarks made by Roger Baxter at the funeral of Johnie E. Baxter, his father. This text is slightly expanded and so may differ slightly from the audio recording made during the actual funeral, but the structure and meaning remain the same.)
How do you condense nearly 90 years of living into a few words?
I can only tell you what I knew of Johnie E. Baxter ... and what I learned from him.
Many of you knew him longer than I. Two of you knew him as your brother. One knew him as husband. Two of us knew him as father. Many knew him as fellow Christian. Many, many more knew him as their friend.
You would often see him with a tooth pick in his mouth. And sometimes on a job site it would just be a splinter of wood that he was chewing on.
For almost all of the first third of his life he lived and worked within approximately 12 miles of his final resting place in the Buncomb community roughly halfway between Naylor, Missouri, and Corning, Arkansas. For about a dozen of those years he went to school, got married, farmed, ran saw mills, and lived within about one mile surrounding his grave. The last half-dozen of those years were spent in Corning building houses, hauling gravel, and doing concrete work. You can still to this day see his name stamped into the sidewalk at the northeast corner of the courthouse in Corning.
During the middle third of his life he mainly lived and worked as a maintenance carpenter at a factory complex in Rockford, Illinois. While there he built four houses. For about six years in the middle of that time he moved his family back to Naylor, Missouri. He spent his time there farming cotton, soybeans, wheat, corn, cantaloupe, and watermelons, doing concrete work including floors and bridge supports, and building ten houses in the Naylor, Missouri, area.
The last third of his life was spent in retirement: first back in Naylor where he built another house and made custom cabinets for others in the area; and lastly in Granville / Mark, Illinois, just down the street from his two grandchildren, where he built three more houses - the last one when he was 83 years old.
Johnie Baxter was a kind and thoughtful man. In the years just before both I and my sister left home and went off to college we had a little short legged miniture dachshund. Dad always claimed he didn't care for having a dog around the house. But after the two of us were gone from home I returned to find a special platform he had built ... and carpeted ... in the front passenger seat area of his old work car so that Katrinka was able to see out of the car windows as he drove her around town.
He was a gentle and generous man. I never knew him to raise his voice in anger. He spoke ill of no one. He once provided a job on our farm for an unemployed minister during the winter when there was really nothing for him to do other than "make work" projects. When he was peddling watermelons and had just a few left over in his truck, he would stop and give them away to poor families we had never met before in houses along side the road.
He was a sensitive man. During their first move as a married couple he had everything they owned loaded on one horse drawn wagon. That included the three chairs they owned: one for each of them and one for a visitor. Along the way, which wasn't very far - probably less than a mile, one of the chairs fell off and broke. He sat down in the middle of the road beside that broken chair and cried.
He easily came to tears ... at the telling of a touching story ... or at the sight of a lost sinner turning to God for salvation at a church alter. There would be tears in his eyes as he sang a song that was often requested he sing at special church meetings: Does Jesus Care which goes on to say "Oh, yes, He cares! I know He cares! His heart is touched with my grief. When the day is weary, the long night dreary, I know My Savior cares." And you knew that he had felt the pains of living himself ... and had known the peace of trusting in God's love for us.
He was devoted to duty. He would work the extra hour, take the extra step, to make sure the job was done right. He was a true craftsman. While building Earl Nall's house in Naylor he was finishing the final trim work. At the end of the hallway was a closet door. The moulding around that door extended right up to the wall on either side. And on each side the edge of the moulding was going to be forever hidden by the moulding of doors opening into bedrooms on either side of the hallway. The outside edges of that closet door moulding had to be ripped down slightly to make it fit up against the wall properly. That sawed edge was never going to be seen by another human eye until the house is torn down, but he didn't leave it with a rough saw cut edge. He took that trim board to the jointer he had out in the garage to plane the edge smooth, and then it took it back inside the house. But then, before he started to nail in that piece of moulding with the edge that no one else would probably ever see, he noticed a slight bump along the edge caused by a moment's hesitation as he drew the piece across the joiner blades. So to make it good enough to meet his own standard of craftsmanship, he took it back out to the jointer once again. However, this time as he ran the board across the jointer the board tipped and sent his hand into the spinning blades ... and he lost half of his middle finger on his right hand.
As a result of this accident he went back to his job as a carpenter maintenance man in Rockford, Illinois, leaving an unfinished house as just a foundation there in Naylor. That house was the only "spec" house he ever built. All of the others had either been for his own family or as built to order custom houses for other people living in the Naylor area. That is the house that Herschel and Helen Hobbs later bought, but we will get back to the story of that house in a few minutes.
I, of couse, knew Johnie Baxter as his son. When he was concentrating hard at work he would often stick out his tongue just a little bit. I can remember trying to learn how to do that myself as a child. Now I do it as a matter of habit (and as I write these words I notice that I am doing it again). And I can recall seeing his father, my grandfather, doing the same thing. I wonder how many generations that peculiar manerism goes back?
Likewise, I have inherited from him a love for the smell of fresh cut wood. And based on family stories, I know that that trait probably goes back for at least four generations of woodworkers and woodcutters in our family tree.
He was always a diligent worker. He often repeated to me what I have heard his father, also, say: "If it is worth doing, it is worth doing right." He lived by that creed ... and it is worthwhile for us to do the same.
Regrets. I know that he had a few. His first child was a stillborn son. I don't think that he ever forgave himself for it. From things he said to me, he thought he caused the loss of that son because in his youthfulness at the time he required too much work around the farm from my mother during that pregnancy which resulted in the its death. That baby is buried at the Eaton Cemetery where we will be going in a few minutes. And it is my guess that that is one of the reasons he wanted to be buried there, too.
Another regret is that he and his brothers took their father's drivers license away at a much younger age than he continued to drive himself (with me telling him that he should to stop driving). In later years he thought he had been too tough and had not understood all the implications of loosing one's driving privileges. And he wished that he had taken more time to learn about his father's life and family with his father when he was still around to talk to.
Several times when asked to sing at church I heard him tell the story of another regret he had. He and his crew were doing the concrete work on the "new" (now replaced) high steel truss bridge over the Little Black River at Success, Arkansas. I don't know all the details, but there was a young worker who fell and died as an unbeliever / a non-Christian. My Dad always felt a sense of regret for not having spoken to that young man about becoming a Christian. And then, after he had told that story, he would sing in his clear tenor voice You Never Mentioned Him to Me.
He was a Christian man. Several of you here today knew him as your Sunday School teacher. Many of you knew him as the song leader in church services. Until his final years he was a soloist always in demand at whatever church he visited. He was a devoted student of the Bible and his library shelves are filled with various versions of the Bible and many well worn books about the Bible. He took to heart the Bible verse 2 Timothy 2:15 which instucts us to "Study to show thyself approved to God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth."
Johnie E. Baxter lived the most Christ-like life that he knew how to be ... and that I have ever witnessed. He didn't "waste time" reading comic strips in the newspaper, but he didn't force the same restriction upon his family. He wouldn't play any game using standard playing cards - for him they too closely resembled gambling games - but he loved to play Rook, checkers, dominoes, and other family games.
He loved music. Like his father, he played several instruments: violin, piano, and organ. He enjoyed singing and could sight read shape notes. By the time he was fourteen he had learned shape note singing at the country singing schools held by traveling teachers throughout the area. He met and first courted his wife, my mother, at a singing school at Buncomb Baptist Church. The four part harmony of southern gospel music quartet singing was his favorite and we would drive for miles to see one of those groups perform. Throughout his life he relished attending the monthly singing conventions held at various churches around the Corning area and many of his lasting friendships were made around those singing events. Until about 1965 our family car didn't have a radio; and so as he drove down the road he would sing and tap his foot on the accelerator pedal in time to the songs he would sing. And he continued playing and singing at home up until a couple of years before his death when his mind could no longer keep up with the notes and finger positions of the shaped note music in his song books. One of the most worn pages in his hymnal is Tell Mother I'll Be There.
I am confident there were many miracles in his life. There are probably many that I don't know about, but two I do know:
A half dozen years ago or so, Dad had bought an old Dodge pickup with holes in the floorboard that he had to cover over with a board. He had a gasoline powered pump and tank rigged up in the back of the old pickup. He would park it along the side of the road to get water out of a nearby creek and then pump it out to water his garden and yard. One day, just seconds after he had moved away from the driver's side rear, the truck was struck by an elderly driver that didn't notice the truck parked on the edge of the road. It totalled the truck, the driver of the other car went to the hospital, but Dad was untouched. That day we were miraculously given the gift of just a few more years to be sure to tell and show him that we loved him.
But the biggest miracle I know of was during the time I was in college in Des Moines, Iowa. It was my first time asway from home and I was having trouble adjusting. I was worried that if I failed to continue that line of study that I would be a terrible disappointment to him.
So I wrote him a letter. At that time he was staying with my Grandmother, his mother Kate Baxter, in Naylor, Missouri, as he worked to complete the house next door to her (that unfinished house mentioned earlier) so that it could be sold. I mailed that letter late one afternoon from Des Moines. By some miracle that letter was delivered to Grandma's post office box in Naylor the very next morning. It had to be a miracle to get that letter though the U.S. Postal Service all the way from Des Moines to St. Louis, then to Poplar Bluff, then on to Naylor, and finally into that P.O. Box - though several transfer points and over 500 miles - in less than 12 hours!
Just as surprising is the fact that on that morning my Dad went to the Post Office just as soon as it opened before he started working on the house. He got that letter, read it, and immediately picked up the telephone and called me. The college officials came and got me out of my class that morning because my Dad was calling with an urgent message that could not wait.
Over the telephone that morning he told me that he loved me ... regardless of how well I did in school ... or whether I stayed at that particular school or did anything else that I wanted to do ... whatever ... he loved me and would always love me.
And that unconditional love that my Dad gave to me is a perfect example of the love of Jesus Christ for each of us. Johnie E. Baxter lived his life as a true Christian. His life example is the greatest legacy he has left for each of us to cherish in our memories, and has provided a path for us to follow in his footsetps.
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