To make a point early in this recollection of a fine man and friend, I must confess that religious sects and doctrines have never meant as much to me as a person’s power of faith and how they show it in their lives. Hence, I have close friends whose religions span the theologies and beliefs of mankind.
But among them a couple of individuals shine with light that can be described only as a few notches below saintly. One of them was a former newspaper editor turned Church of Christ preacher.
Bro. Hoyt was an influence on my life and that of my family, although we were never members of his denomination. He didn’t care. What was important to Hoyt was sharing laughter, tears and prayers.
Hoyt and I wound up in the same Southern Appalachian community because of career paths that had remarkable similarities. Both of us were newspapermen. He had been editor of the Alexander City Outlook before answering the call to become a full-time minister.
As editor and publisher of the local newspaper, I knew there was always one person in town I could turn to for advice about local politics or how to handle a potentially embarrassing, controversial story.
He was a regular contributor to my newspaper, both as a writer of thought-provoking letters to the editor and as a columnist on our church pages.
He also penned a couple of sharp-witted sports page articles during college football season about the annual Iron Bowl.
Hoyt was a graduate of Auburn University, and – despite being a man of the cloth – took no guff from local University of Alabama fans. For those not familiar with the rites observed the week leading up to the Auburn-Alabama game, even church congregations tended to divide up by allegiance. The Sunday after the Iron Bowl game was pure Hell, excuse the expression, for the side of the church that lost.
But Hoyt with characteristic equanimity always lauded the winners from his pulpit, despite the outcome and as much as it might hurt.
“The true measure of Christian brotherhood,” he extemporized in my office one afternoon after the newspaper’s deadline, “ is showing charity to those people who wear the crimson and white.” Alabama had beaten Auburn by a field goal the previous week.
In our small rural community, routines were important. The editor and publisher of the newspaper often personally delivered the first copies of the latest issue – hot off the press -- to the drug store on the courthouse square. An area in front of the pharmacy had been reserved for two tables, eight chairs and a commercial coffee machine. The druggists could ply their trade and take part in conversations that changed in shifts, according to the time of day when the Democrats and Republicans, teachers, elected officials and lawyers gathered.
The cost was a nickel a cup, and the commentary and advice was free. Hoyt presided over one of the tables. People called him “Preacher,” with no reference to his denomination. He was a conservative force in the community and a fierce debater. He also had the bad habit of searching through my newspaper for typographical errors and grammatical mistakes and then, tongue-in-cheek, revealing these failures to the assembled coffee drinkers while I sputtered into my cup.
Hoyt also was a spirit of civic consciousness. Whenever I saw him marching across the street toward the newspaper office with papers clutched in his hands and a determined look, I knew we would be asked, encouraged and cajoled into supporting another fund drive or community project.
Bro. Hoyt is gone now to a place about which I am more certain because he was my friend. He died of a heart attack at age 81, mourned by an entire town, the churchgoers and sinners alike. Whether you had stepped through the doors of his church or not, he loved you.
My fondest memory of Hoyt was his face – he had one of those huge grins that radiated happiness and friendship – when I asked him for a personal favor.
Indeed, he promised: “I will preach your funeral, no matter that you are a deep-water Methodist. But you will have to trust that what I say will be appropriate to the life you lived – and remember, I know a few things about you!”
He laughed, and I still remember the twinkle in his eyes.
■ Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor in Tennessee and Alabama.