Cecil Willis: A Friend to Preacher

By O. C. Birdwell

Before Cecil Willis was thirty years of age, he became editor of a widely distributed and highly respected religious journal called Truth Magazine. He knew what it meant to him to have the support of men like Luther Blackmon, Roy Cogdill, and a host of other older preachers. The encouragement and help they gave him, he tried to pass on to others, and especially to young preachers.

If my information is correct, in 1966, Cecil was given “The Friend of Youth” award by Florida College. His interest in and work with young people, especially young preachers, was not unnoticed. His primary interest in FC was the opportunity the school gave young men to study Bible and related subjects and to develop their skills as proclaimers of the gospel.

As editor of Truth Magazine, Cecil constantly encouraged young preachers to submit articles for publication in the paper. In the November 7, 1974, issue he announced a host of young staff writers. He gave them opportunity to teach multitudes and to be known by brethren throughout the world. Jerry McDaniel, Cecil’s good friend of Kansas City, reported that he and Cecil counted over one hundred men Cecil had influenced to begin preaching. I could take pages to discuss the many recommendations to churches on behalf of gospel preachers, hours of phone calls, thousands of letters, and much travel to assist preachers with doctrinal controversies or with local church problems. He loved the truth and loved preachers who taught the truth. He was instrumental in teaching many preachers the truth on institutionalism and encouraging them to stand. He was, indeed, a friend to preachers.

From 1959 I had a close personal friendship with Cecil that did more for my work as a gospel preacher than any other one thing. He contacted me and said the elders at Brown Street in Akron wanted me to speak on “The Mission of the Church” during their ten day meeting with different speakers. I was preaching on a lecture program with Frank Puckett, George Lemasters, and several other outstanding gospel preachers of that time. If I were out of place with such preachers, and I probably was, Cecil did not let me know it, but instead he commended my sermon and expressed sincere and warm appreciation for my efforts in discussing my subject. I later worked with churches in Kansas City, Missouri and Barberton, Ohio prima-rily because of his recommendation. Cecil was a friend to this preacher.

A Personal Letter From Cecil

The following letter is a very personal one, and I would never make it public except to let people see a side of Cecil that many did not know. Even Ann, one of Cecil’s daughters, ex-pressed to me a desire to have a copy of the letter because she felt there was a part of her father that she did not know. The letter was written when our son Gary, at nineteen years of age, was killed in a work accident.

June 5, 1972

Dear O. C. and Frances and Family,

Every since I received word early yesterday morning about the death of Gary, you have been constantly upon my mind and many times mentioned in my prayers. Sympathy, as I understand it, is entering into the feeling of another. I certainly have, so far as I am able, shared the bur-den of your grief in these recent hours. I think the fact that I have two boys so near the age of Gary has made me feel like I could better understand the burden of your grief.

I am sorry that I could not say more to you yesterday by way of expression of my feelings, but my feelings and emotions were such that I could hardly say anything at all. Perhaps had I borne your sorrow with you since Thursday night I would then have been better able to express myself.

Like George Lemasters said, I felt honored that you thought you would like for me to have some part in Gary’s service. O.C., I knew that I could not say what I really felt in my heart on that occasion, so I thought it best that I read Scripture and lead a prayer. My heart ached until I could not have said more, at the time. Through the years of our work together, particularly through our nearly daily contact in Akron, I came to love you two and your family. The thing that hurts me most about funerals is to witness the grief of people whom I love. I think I know enough about what the Bible teaches that I can stifle pretty well my grief at the passing of nearly anyone, but I have never learned to control the emotion I feel when I see people whom I love so crushed.

Both of you, as well as your entire family, certainly earned by highest esteem by the noble way that you bore your heavy sorrow. I sat and marveled at your composure. I know that I could not have done one-tenth as well. Perhaps by then, you had exhausted the means to express your grief further. I admire both of you so, as you sat there and were able to enter into the singing of those touching and meaningful songs. I was amazed as you so resolutely could sing, “Be not dismayed what ere betide, God will take care of you,” even as we proceeded out of the church building with Gary’s body being borne immediately in front of you. I am certain that your composed and faithful demeanor are bound to have had a salutary effect upon everyone present. During such a time, one’s faith is being severely tested, and you really showed you could apply, in a most difficult time, the Faith which you have preached.

I called home immediately after services last night to report the tragedy to Ioma and my children. Steve was not at home, but I know he will be terribly distraught when he learns of the accident. Ioma certainly joins with me in sending her sincerest consolations. I am sorry that I could not continue with you to the cemetery. I so much wanted to do so, and would like to have been able to spend some time with you afterward. However, I imagine by that time you were about worn out with people, and needed to be alone. We only got back eight minutes before time for services.

An incident like this is one that you really never get over. There is no point in kidding ourselves about that. There will be a certain blight over your life for the remainder of your days. Probably the experience will so affect your heart that you will be able to reach out to people in a way that you never quite could do so before. I believe that a lot of brethren have severely misapplied Romans 8:28 and try to make what-ever occurs as “good” whereas Paul specifically was talking about suffering for Christ being for our good. Such an accident is one of the misfortunes of life. I know you had such high hopes for Gary and the usage he would make of his life. No doubt in my mind, he would have followed in your steps and preached the gospel, which intention itself is a noble tribute to both of you. So many preachers have murmured and complained about their suffering as preachers until preaching is the last thing their sons would want to do.

My primary impression of Gary was that he was such a happy and cheerful boy. Whenever I saw him at Florida College, he always was smiling so, and appeared to have such a wholesome outlook on life. The large attendance of people, and particularly preachers, at the funeral service to me speaks volumes as to what brethren think of you and your life of service to God. This morning when I woke up, the first thing I thought is that I wish it were just a bad dream, and I know that such a thought must be what hits your mind every morning.

I wish so badly there were some how some way I could lift a part of your burden and bear it for you, but as we both know, there is no real way that such can be done. I can only weep with you as you weep. Beyond this we seem to be unable to go. There are apt to be days when the burden may tempt you to become bitter and cynical, but resist that temptation as much as possible.

The admirable way that you conducted yourself during the funeral service makes me even hesitate to mention that admonition. Perhaps I am only thinking as I might think, in similar circumstances.

Frankly, I nearly am glad that you were unable to get me to ask me to preach the funeral service, if that were your intention. Even that fact that you even once entertained such a thought makes me humble to know that you hold me in that esteem. George did such a beautiful job that I think it would have been unfortunate if you had gotten me and asked me to preach the funeral. I just could not have had the composure to deal with the personal matters that George so masterfully covered in his lovely speech. I would have had to have steeled myself to the occasion and merely preached a gospel sermon. My feelings would have been so wrapped up in yours that I could not have spoken as intimately as did George.

While the whole incident was crushing to me, both of you stood ten feet tall in my sight as you so nobly bore your grief. I am sure that in years to come, when I get where I can talk about the occasion, I will have occasion to use you as an ex-ample of what faith can do for persons. I shall continue to mention all of you very frequently in my prayers. I wish there were somehow some means wherebyI could vicariously bear some of your burden, but his I cannot do. However, be assured that I shall be mourning with you even as you mourn. Neither will I soon forget.

For months to come, I will so frequently pray for you, even as I know that hundreds of your brethren will be doing. Gary probably was too young to have begun to think of life as those of us who have reached maturity think of it. People often advise me to slow down, and tell me that my life could end so suddenly. The prospect of a shortened life does not dismay me or deter me in the least. I have no desire to live to be an old man. I would like to “check out” going full blast. To me, to do so would be no tragedy at all, but would be the answer of my specific prayers. I regret that what Gary could have accomplished with his life, some-one else will have to do. However, I doubt not that his passing will affect you and Johnny in such a way that you might yourselves redouble your efforts so as to accomplish what Gary might have accomplished had he lived.

Certainly this mutual loss will draw you and Frances, as well as your entire family, closer together. You now have something more in common. The passing of one so young is bound to have a beneficial effect upon everyone who seriously contemplates the incident. I grieve also for your other little ones who are so deeply hurt. I wish there were some way I could lift the weight of sorrow from young hearts. But all of you have inspired those of us who have witnessed the admirable way in which you stood up through an unbelievably trying experience. Even this occurrence has done us all good. I shall seek to imitate this honorable aspect of your faith. You have set a high goal before us who observed you struggling under a heavy load, and I shall not soon forget this wonderful example of faith.

Please pardon this reference to mundane matters, but I know that the accident and funeral services have subjected you to unexpected sizable expenses. Perhaps you had some kind of insurance that will enable you to meet the expense. But if for any reason, you are short of cash right now and need some money to meet these unexpected bills, I would count it an honor to be able to help you financially at this time. I think you know that most of us preachers do not have any backlog of cash, and neither do I. However, I would be most honored to secure for you a few hundred dollars which could be repaid whenever you wish to do so, if you need money at this time. I carry all my insurance on myself, so such an event in my family would severely press me. I would most gladly help you, to whatever degree is needed, in order to meet your bills and to pay them in full promptly. Please do not be bashful or embarrassed to take me up on this proposal. If I did not sincerely mean it, I would not propose it. Whatever you need, to the limit of my capability is at your immediate command.

If in the immediate days to come, there is any way that I can serve you, even if it is only by a brief visit with you to talk, please let me know, and I would be wonderfully happy to come on a moment’s notice, no matter if you do not think the get-together to be that important. Any thing that I can do to lighten your load right now to me is tremendously important, and I would be honored to serve you in any way!

Meanwhile, my tears shall mingle with yours until this short life shall end. I send my most fervent brotherly love and sympathetic concern to both of you and to your other dear ones. Perhaps I can only weep with you, but weep with you, I shall! I send to you my tenderest emotions and highest admiration. Please use me in any way that I can render any service to you and yours.

Brotherly, Cecil

This letter is one of the many reasons that I have said, “Cecil was a friend to preachers.” It is also one of the many reasons I had a deep and abiding love for him. I thank God that I knew him.

Guardian of Truth XLI: 15 p. 10-12
August 7, 1997