My father died on April 8 at age 84. His obituary gives facts about his life, but the truth of a person’s legacy lies in his character. The following post is the text of the eulogy I gave at his memorial service on April 16.
Our father was the fourth of six children, the last of his siblings to depart this earth. He attributed his “thrifty” (some might say “cheapskate”) behavior to being, as he called it, “a child of the Depression.” His father owned a small meatpacking company — so while the Hamners had to scrimp on things like clothes, they always ate well.
Because tuberculosis had weakened my grandfather’s lungs, they moved to the edge of town, where he could breathe fresh country air. Bob’s father liked horses, and he bought a pony the kids named Polecat (on account of his ornery personality), plus three more horses they called Peter Pan, Ping Pong and Popeye. Dad’s older brother, Jack, was a champion rider, and Dad went along to horse shows as Jack’s “groom.” But not everyone in the family enjoyed the horses. The eldest sister, Elizabeth, saw them as examples of her father’s chauvinistic preference for spending money on silly things like livestock rather than on higher education for his female offspring. She nicknamed them Vassar, Wellesley and Smith. Their mother would grow angry when the horses got out of their pasture and munched on her rosebushes. Our father used to laugh about how she went out in frustration after the horses ruined several of her rose plants one day, and she pulled up the rest of them as though they were weeds, just so the horses couldn’t eat them, too. I think having a strong-willed mother probably prepared Bob for fifty-three years of marriage to Donna!
Our father’s career as a Southern Baptist minister began in a tiny church on the Mexican border, in the town of Eagle Pass, Texas. He spent nine years there and made close friends, both Americans and Mexicans. These years undoubtedly shaped his attitude of tolerance for different types of people and viewpoints, as well as his theology.But what about Donna, the love of Bob’s life? Well, the two of them were set up in 1958 by a mutual friend. Actually, Bob (who was 31 years old) initially refused to go out with Donna because, when he asked how old this potential date was, his friend confessed she was not quite 20. After he said “no thanks,” their friend had to get crafty: she waited a couple of weeks, then simply told Bob she had someone she thought he’d like to meet. He asked how old this girl was, and the friend replied, “She’s old enough.” Bob, who was still living on the Mexican border, took Donna out the next time he came to San Antonio. For him, it was love at first sight. By their second date, when they celebrated Donna’s birthday and Bob learned she was only 20, he realized his friend had tricked him. But it was too late — he was already smitten! Donna, however, needed a bit more time. Thanks to Dad’s persistence and Mom’s eventually realizing he was the right man for her, they were married in June 1959 and moved soon thereafter to San Antonio.
They came to Roanoke in the fall of 1961, when my mother was pregnant with me. Carole was born two and a half years later. Bob served as the senior pastor at Grandin Court Baptist Church for thirty-one years. We’re privileged to have quite a few members of Grandin Court here today. While there, Dad led strong membership growth, oversaw the construction of a beautiful new sanctuary, and journeyed with countless individuals and families along the paths of their lives.
For my sister and me, it wasn’t always easy growing up as preacher’s kids. Some things were good: like being able to sneak in the back door of the church kitchen and take goodies or punch without having to wait in line, or getting to bring home the extra grape juice after we cleaned up from Communion (yes, in the Baptist church they use grape juice). But at the same time, Carole and I had to be at church a lot. Mom and Dad tried to make it easier by taking us out for hamburgers at the Roanoker or cheesecake at the New Yorker on Sunday nights, after we had spent all morning and most of the evening at church. And Mom made sure we got to skip Sunday evening services the night “The Wizard of Oz” came on TV. Preacher’s kids have lots of people in the congregation watching to make sure we don’t mess up, but these folks are also our biggest fans. So in all, we wouldn’t have traded places with anyone.
My folks started attending St. John’s after Bob retired in 1992. Given his ecumenical leanings and the warmth of this community, it came as no surprise when he decided to seek ordination as an Episcopal priest. One of his gifts was the ability to grow and change over time. Indeed, he participated in many social and political changes throughout his ministry. He could tell stories about Texas churches that tried to keep blacks out of their services during the late fifties. He became good friends with Dr. Noel Taylor, and they preached in each other’s pulpits during the early ’70s. Whether the subject was civil rights, gay ordination, or another ecumenical issue, our father always emerged in favor of tolerance — of acceptance for every human being as a child of God.
I know most Southern women tend to regard their daddies as saints, and my sister and I are no different. But the father and husband our family knew was the same person you knew as your pastor and your friend. No matter with whom he was interacting, he treated everyone the same — he looked on everyone through the eyes of Jesus.
Many of you know that Bob died of a heart attack as he was on his way to Easter services. He was wearing his dark shirt and priestly collar — dressed and ready to meet his Lord.
Today we’re here to mourn Bob’s passing, but also to celebrate his life. Because he loved his life, every day of it. Our father never took a day for granted. He never took a person for granted.
And so we thank you, God, for the life of Bob Hamner, and for the gift he was to all of us. And now we give him back to You. Amen.
Robert Murrell Hamner
25 July 1927 – 8 April 2012
Anne Hamner Rosales
16 September 2012