We are fortunate as young people if we come across that rare individual who takes us under wing, nurtures, and guides us. Of course our parents do that, and their gifts are the most foundational. But I’m thinking about when we leave home and begin to make our way in the world. At such a time we sometimes have the gift of an elder who sees potential in us and gives generously as a mentor.
Dr. Harry Hunt was such a person for me.
I went to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth in the summer of 1977 to begin an MDiv degree. I happened onto Harry Hunt as my Hebrew professor. I had heard he expected a lot of his students and that you learned a lot. It was true. I think I was a good Hebrew student, but not a great one. Yet Harry saw something in me, and he started a relationship beyond teacher-student: a relationship of mentor-protégée. He could be tough and demanding. He liked calling well before 8am with some simple matter to mention, relishing the opportunity to ensure I was on the job early. But I liked hard academic work and usually appreciated his pushing in a direction I already wanted to go.
Harry died this week, and I miss him a lot.
Harry was remarkably generous, always having time for me — seeming to constantly think of what would help me develop more as minister and scholar. Every semester that I was his Teaching Assistant, he’s send me to the seminary bookstore to pick out something I wanted. It was a precious gift: usually an expensive commentary that I otherwise could never have afforded. He was teaching me the value of a good library. And upon retirement, he gave me countless books from his own extensive collection.
There was a period of time, while working on my PhD, that I was living 75 miles away from school in Forestburg where I was pastoring a church. It required commuting back for seminars and adjunctive teaching in the middle of the week. Harray and his wife Pat invited me to stay with them on those week nights I was at the school, so that I wouldn’t have to drive back and forth so often. They put my in their daughter Amy’s room, meaning that she had to sleep on a cot in Harry and Pat’s bedroom. I couldn’t believe they would do that for me. Yet Amy, bless her, seemed quite happy with the arrangement. They took me in as part of their family, regularly eating meals with them. And the gift of a place to be with their family was literally “no big deal” for them, just the natural thing to do.
After finishing doctoral seminars, Harry created the opportunity of every teaching job that I’ve ever had. It was through his initiative that I was hired in my first position at Logsdon School of Theology, Hardin-Simmons University, in 1984. He recommended me to Dr. H.K. Neely, the Logsdon Dean, who brought me on to start a Hebrew program. Then two years later, when there was an opening for an OT prof at Southwestern Seminary, he recommended me for the position, and doubtless lobbied in my favor. Though I hadn’t finished my doctorate, I was hired and remained there for ten years. Later, when Southwestern was in crisis, I was hired again by Logsdon to help with the launch of a new MDiv program. I don’t know if Harry had a direct role in that hire, because H.K. already knew me well and invited me to return. But it was Harry’s connection with H.K. that led to my most fulfilling teaching position, and where I’ve been for 25 years.
While I was teaching at SWBTS, Harry shifted from teacher/student mentoring to elder/junior-professor mentoring. He gave advice that I desperately needed. He was my consultant when issues arose that were challenging, and he was forever an encourager challenging to excellence. And I remember that he took me week-after-week to McDonald’s for a Big Mac — always his treat — for a time that was just friendship, away from work.
Another expression of his generosity was that when Teresa and I married during those Southwestern teaching days, Harry gave us his American Airlines Advantage Miles to pay for our honeymoon flight. And, as usual, he eschewed our lavish thanks, gesturing it off as “no big deal.”
Harry taught me much more than I am aware, certainly in the classroom, but even more by the day-in and day-out observation of his way of living. To be sure, there were some challenging things about Harry. As Pat mentioned in a tribute at his memorial service, Harry was a Type A personality with obsessive-compulsive behavior. He was a worrier and could be very stubborn. But he had the capacity, as Pat also mentioned, to turn those impulses into something positive — into self-disciplined, diligent work at whatever task was given him. Every time he gave his best, sacrificing whatever it took to serve others through his own preparation to teach and minister. And the effort was not a drudgery for him, but a joy: the joy of serving the Lord.
As I reflect today, the day of Harry’s graveside service, on lessons that he taught me, several come to mind.
- Do whatever is right no matter what.
- Hard work is the least you can give.
- Enjoy growing something, anything.
- Live simply.
- Never take one step going up or down the stairs when you can take 2 or 3 at a time.
- Generosity should come naturally and without fanfare.
- Study hard, dig deep, turn over every academic rock you find to see the treasure underneath.
- Take time for joy, especially with family and friends.
- Get up and to work early.
- Mentoring younger scholars is just part of the job for a professor.
- Take every opportunity for good-natured teasing and laughter.
Harry lived the last 13 years of his life in the most difficult way I can imagine. After retiring from teaching, he loved working on the family farm in East Texas. Because of an equipment accident, one day he was severely injured. It took years of rehab to heal what could be healed and to recover some movement. He was left with partial control of only one arm and hand. His other limbs were paralyzed, meaning that the rest of his life was lived either in bed or a wheelchair. But he came to terms with the unimaginable challenge, as he had with every challenge of life. He found his own way, with those severe limitations, to minister to folks at the Buckner facility where he lived and to others beyond. He wrote countless cards and letters, made phone calls, connected by video to his old Sunday School class, and found ways to give small gifts to others.
Once or twice a year my family and I visited Harry as we were traveling through East Texas. He was always joyful when we saw him. Always ready with a smile, a smirk, an encouragement — and never failing to ask about each person in our family. At the end of every visit he asked me to pray for us before we left. And that was the secret to it all: his life in Christ — the secret to the disciplined living at peace in hard times, the secret to finding joy even in the pain.
Thanks be to God for Harry Hunt: teacher, colleague, mentor, friend.
God’s grace to his family, and my thanks for sharing him with me.
* Picture from Jimerson-Lipsey Funeral Home, Carthage, TX, at https://www.jimerson-lipsey.com/obituary/harry-hunt-jr