As providence would have it, The Baptist Blogger was seated next to Dr. R.E. Smith and his wife, Marilyn, on a Delta flight from Salt Lake City home to Dallas, TX, on the Thursday morning following the 1998 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The conversation launched a friendship of two decades, through bitter disagreements (he once called Wade Burleson and me “Satan’s legions” in an all-trustee email about the Klouda lawsuit), clandestine collaborations, a few funerals and weddings, and regular conversations that made me a better minister, and a better man.
After 89 years, R.E. Smith went home to Jesus on Friday, Sept. 7, 2018. He’d battled Parkinson’s for decades. He’d nursed his wife through cancer and prayed her through to a miraculous cure. He’d maintained a home in Austin, TX, so he could be near his daughter and grandchildren. But he was a permanent fixture in Southlake, TX, at First Baptist Dallas where he served as a deacon and Sunday School teacher, in Texas Republican politics, and at Southwestern Seminary where he served as an officer on the Board of Trustees.
He was without a doubt among the most generous, courteous, and delightfully stubborn laymen upon whom a Baptist congregation ever laid hands. When I was needing a new car, R.E. sold me his old Mercury for $3,000, allowing me to make monthly installments for a year until it was paid off. When I wrote him the last check for $500, he endorsed it and dropped it in the offering plate of the Parkview Baptist Church in Arlington, TX.
When Paige Patterson fired me from a part-time position in the Southwestern press office, stripped me of my grading responsibilities for a Southwestern theology professor, and removed me from the presidency of the Southwestern Student Theological Society, R.E. Smith delivered $400.00 cash every month through Patterson’s then Chief of Staff to help me make ends meet.
When David Allen — now dean of Southwestern’s School of Preaching — was advocating the hiring of Sheri Klouda, R.E. Smith hired me to read Klouda’s published writings and cull them for suspicious theology. I found nothing, and reported back to R.E. that Klouda’s published scholarly work raised no concern about her agreement with the Baptist Faith & Message.
When Southwestern Seminary revised its bylaws, R.E. Smith worked with Miles Seaborn, the longtime pastor of Birchman Baptist Church, to tighten the language of trustee authority. I sat for several afternoons in Smith’s living room in Southlake pouring over the language, proposing edits, and weighing the consequences of certain amendments.
When Paige Patterson wanted to hire a prominent Texas pastor to serve as the seminary’s chaplain, R.E. Smith called me. He told me that somebody had inadvertently delivered a package to his home with my name on it. The package would be sealed on his front porch, and he didn’t want me to knock or ring the doorbell. He just wanted me to pick up the package and never mention it to him.
That evening, after dark, I drove over to his home in Southlake and picked up the package, no clue what was inside. It turned out to be the entire audit report that had precipitated the pastor’s resignation from the Dallas-area megachurch. The package also included copies of redacted email correspondence between Smith and a Vice President of Southwestern Seminary. There was a handwritten post-it note on the front. It read “Call Lollie.”
Within days, the pastor declined the position at Southwestern. The rest of that story (minus the linked attachments, which we made private years ago), can be found here.
For a long time thereafter, Patterson would chide R.E. about his friendship with me, and blame him for “leaks” from the trustee board. We always got a laugh out of that.
In April of this year, I gave R.E. a call. I could tell he was frail. His words were a little more slurred than usual, a consequence of the medicine he was taking to combat the effects of Parkinson’s.
But his mind was sharp, and his laughter energetic. We talked at length about the ups and downs of our friendship. We both talked about how much we missed Lollie Cogswell. And then, despite our agreement some ten years prior not to discuss Southwestern Seminary or Paige Patterson, R.E. turned the conversation to the Fort Worth School.
“I think it’s time for Paige to step down,” R.E. said.
He’d been following the news — and some of the blogs — and was aware that finances at the school were in bad shape. He told me he’d been designating his contributions to the seminary for the exclusive purpose of student scholarships, but he wanted to know what I had heard about the enrollment numbers.
That afternoon, I sent R.E. copies of the enrollment reports that showed the school’s steady decline under Patterson.
The next day, R.E. called me back. He’d been reading The Baptist Blogger and he had a proposal. He had done the math, and estimated it would cost a little more than $1 million to fund a recent offer we made. He pledged to give a matching $5 contribution to help start the fund.
R.E. had a great sense of humor, and we had a few conversations after that.
Several weeks ago, I called R.E.’s home to check on him. His son, Alan, answered the phone. He told me his dad had taken a spell, of sorts, and was in the hospital. He wasn’t doing well, Alan told me, and they didn’t know how long he would last. He lasted a little more than a month.
I remember well the last time we spent the day together. A mutual friend had died and I picked R.E. up so he could ride to Denison, TX, with me for the funeral, which I was to preach. We got to the funeral home, found a cup of coffee, and sat down alone on the front pew well in advance of the family’s arrival.
I told R.E. that day that I was planning to exit full-time pastoral ministry, and that I planned on moving to Washington, D.C. or attending law school. R.E.’s countenance fell a little.
“The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable,” he told me. And he told me in no uncertain terms that he’d considered his support of me through the years as an investment in the Kingdom. He told me that using my gifts in the political arena was like putting a grand piano in the barn.
I preached the funeral (through blinding tears), went to the graveside, and then R.E. and I drove home. At some point in that drive, R.E. interrupted conversation and said, “You realize this means Paige won.”
“Won what,” I asked?
“He’ll tell everyone that you quit the ministry because of some failure.”
“What’s one more lie about me from Paige?” I responded.
For the rest of the ride home, we talked about the Southern Baptist Convention, First Baptist Dallas, and reminisced about conventions past and Republican politics.
Royal Everett Smith, Jr., loved Jesus. He loved the Freemasons too, something we’d disagreed about despite my accompanying him as a guest for some Masonic honor ceremony in 2004.
He loved his wife, Marilyn. He loved his family.
He loved his church, the First Baptist Church of Dallas. And he loved Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
I will miss R.E. a great deal, and every ministry that benefited from his consistent encouragement and financial support will miss him too. But I’m glad he lived long enough to see Southwestern entering a new semester of promise and hope, and not another chapter in the long history of Patterson-led decline.