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A TRIBUTE TO DR. HENRY M. McGOWAN

by Dr. Robert L. Hymers, Jr.

The following message was given at the Sullivan Funeral Home in Vernon, Texas on Tuesday afternoon, May 1, 2007 before a large gathering of the family and friends of Dr. Henry Monroe McGowan. He was born on March 25, 1917 in Cleburne, Texas and died in the hospital on April 23, 2007 in Wichita Falls, Texas. I had a sermon prepared for the occasion, but the night before I threw it away and wrote this one. I wrote it after midnight the evening before the funeral. In the rush of preparing it so late at night, I left out a few important details, which I have included in this printed version. It is my prayer that this message, with the added material, will be a blessing to all who read it. And I hope that those who receive it from me will xerox it and make sure that all of Dr. McGowan’s friends get a copy.

Many of you probably called him Henry. But I never did. At first, when I was a boy, I called him Mr. McGowan. Later, after he graduated from dental school at USC, I called him Dr. McGowan. Finally I just called him Mack, like his Army buddies did in World War II. His wife Joyce also called him Mack. I often heard her calling, “Mack!” when she was having an insulin reaction, due to a very severe case of diabetes. I have seen her go into one of those reactions many times. She would begin to perspire, and suddenly fall to the floor. Mack was always there to give her orange juice to stabilize her blood sugar. He was so emotionally connected to his wife that he could tell when she was having one of those reactions, even while they were sleeping. He could somehow tell, even in his sleep, when an attack was coming on, and he would awaken abruptly to treat her with insulin or give her a small glass of orange juice. She was literally sleeping in the same bed with a doctor, a man who knew a great deal about medicine from his training in dental school at the University of Southern California (USC). I am certain that Joyce would never have lived to be seventy-eight years old if she had not had the constant medical attention her husband gave her. When I told that story after the funeral, Joyce’s sister, Netta Lynn Graf, said, “That’s right, Robert! That’s exactly right! He took good care of Joyce!” Tears streamed down Netta’s face when she said that to me.

Mack loved his wife very deeply. So great was his attachment to her that just three months ago he awoke in the middle of the night, called a friend, and said, “Where is Joyce? I woke and she isn’t here with me. Did they take her to the hospital?” The person he called said gently to him, “Henry, remember what year it is – 2007. Remember where Joyce is.” “Oh yes,” he replied. “You’re right, she’s in Heaven.” Just a few weeks ago someone who was staying in his apartment, a young man named Jamie, heard Mack talking in his room late at night. He listened at the door and heard him say, “Joyce, are you all right?” To paraphrase what the Bible says, his love for his wife was stronger than death.

Mack did many loving things for others. He took me, as a little boy, into his home and treated me like a son. He took Joyce’s mother, Mrs. Locke, into their home and they cared for her for several years. Later Mack and Joyce gave the same care to his mother, Mrs. Touchstone, in their home.

And, as I said, Mack and Joyce took me into their home as well, as a thirteen-year-old boy. I will never forget the love they showed me the longest day that I live!

There’s an old proverb my mother used to say, “What goes around comes around.” That certainly happened in Mack’s life. He had been kind to so many people across the years that, I believe, God sent a young woman named Lisa Henry and her son Jamie to care for Mack in the last days of his life, after he was stricken with devastating prostate cancer. 

The last conversation I had with Mack was a week and a half ago. He was so old and sick he didn’t have a lot to say. I said, “What are you doing, Mack?” He said, “Not a thing, Robert, not a thing. I’m just sitting here watching wrestling.” I said, “Don’t you know it’s a fake, that the whole thing is staged?” He said, “I know, but they put a lot of work into it. It’s just something to watch.” He didn’t have much strength to say any more, so I said, “You know, I saw an old 1933 Charlie Chan detective movie the other night.” “Oh,” Mack said, “I always liked those. Tell me about it.” So I spent about ten minutes or so telling him the whole story of that old black and white movie. He loved to hear me tell the entire story of those old movies each week, when I phoned him. That’s about the only thing my wife and I watch on TV any more, on Turner Classic Movies, or on an old video or CD.

One of Mack’s favorites was Frank Capra’s great film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey. George Bailey was ready to jump off a bridge and end it all, thinking his life hadn’t meant much. But at the last minute an angel came down and showed George Bailey what life would have been like for the people in his town if he had never lived. George Bailey came back and decided that life was worth living after all. And all the people in the town gathered around his Christmas tree to show George Bailey how he had influenced their lives.

Mack was like that for many of us. He touched our lives, and that made all the difference.

For instance, when I was thirteen years old, my parents divorced and remarried shortly afterward. There was no place for me in either home, so I was forced by circumstances to move in with my aunt and uncle, in Cudahy, California, next door to the home of Mack and Joyce McGowan.

As I said, the McGowans lived right next door. There was a lot of drunkenness and fighting in my uncle’s home.

It was totally different at the McGowans. Joyce and Mack, Carolyn and Michael, and Joyce’s mother, Mrs. Locke, and later Mack’s brother Homer and his wife Velma lived in the back house. Still later Mack’s mother, Mrs. Touchstone, lived with them as well.

Michael was my friend and Carolyn was like my little sister.  It was always wonderful to be with Carolyn and Michael. I went over to the McGowans every evening. When they were drinking and fighting at my uncle’s, I would climb over an old broken down fence between the two houses, and go over with Mike and Carolyn, and Joyce and Mack. Many times they fed me dinner and, nearly every night we would sit down in front of Mack’s old six-inch black and white TV set and watch some of those wonderful programs from the 1950s. Our favorites were “I Love Lucy,” “Walt Disney Presents,” “Milton Berle,” “The Honeymooners” with Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, “You Bet Your Life” with Groucho Marx, and especially the “Red Skelton Show,” that kind of stuff.

We would huddle around that tiny TV screen and laugh out loud together. I guess people don’t do that any more. But we did. We laughed until our sides ached. Then we would watch one of the old movies they used to show every night – the Laurel and Hardy films, Charlie Chan murder mysteries, and especially the original Sherlock Holmes movies, with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson. It was a lot of good, clean fun.

I also went with the McGowans on camping trips, to the beach, to Disneyland when it first opened, and many other places. Just about everywhere the McGowans went, they took me along.

Then one evening Michael said, “Robert, why don’t you come to church with us tonight?” I was thirteen years old, and I was ready for anything, so I said, “O.K.,” and I went with Carolyn and Michael and Joyce and Mack to the First Baptist Church of Huntington Park, California, where they were members. It was the very first time in my life that I had set foot inside a Baptist church. I remember that night very clearly 53 years later. We all sat in the balcony. The church was packed. They were having a series of evangelistic meetings. They had a guest speaker. I have no idea what the preacher said. All I remember is that he wore a light grey suit and had on a bright green tie that kept swinging back and forth while he preached with great vigor, standing beside the pulpit. While he preached I watched his bright green tie swinging back and forth. That’s all I remember. I can’t recall a single thing he said. Then the sermon ended and they sang a song.

Remember that I was a thirteen-year-old boy who had never been in a Baptist church before. When they sang that song at the end, Mike said, “I’m going forward.” Several others were going forward as well. When Mike walked toward the front of the church I got up and followed him.

They told us to come back the next Sunday night to get baptized. So Michael and I went back to be baptized. They took us into a side room and the pastor, Dr. Walter Pegg, explained how he would baptize us. They put white robes on us. We went up some stairs, down into the water, and Dr. Pegg baptized us.

I’ll have to admit that I didn’t have the slightest idea what I was doing, or why I was doing it. But that’s how I became a Baptist!

Then I went with the McGowans to church every Sunday for several years. Dr. McGowan was our Sunday School teacher one year.

I had no Christian background. I didn’t even know you were supposed to say grace before a meal. One night I was eating at the McGowans’ house. Joyce served the food at the kitchen table. I dove right into the food. Joyce said, “Robert, we need to pray first.” Joyce McGowan taught me a lot of things like that.

Mack was going to dental school. Joyce worked hard to put him through. They didn’t have much money. Mack wore the same old white shirt and tie every Sunday. But that shirt was clean and starched and ironed by Joyce. Even though they didn’t have a lot of money, there was a lot of love at the McGowans’ house. I will thank God for the rest of my life for the love they shared with me in those years.

When I was seventeen God called me to preach. It was a sudden and very clear call, in which God told me in my heart, that I was to be a preacher. I went forward and told the new pastor, Dr. Maples, that God had called me to preach. Everyone came down the aisle and shook hands with me and congratulated me.

I knew I had to go to college to be a Baptist preacher. Mack encouraged me to go. He said, over and over, when I thought it was impossible, “You can do it, Robert. You can do it. God will help you.” It was during that time that Mack became a special friend, a very special friend. The Bible says,

“There is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother”
      (Proverbs 18:24).

Another verse in Proverbs says,

“A friend loveth at all times” (Proverbs 17:17).

Mack became my special, life-long friend. He was like a father to me.

“A friend loveth at all times” (Proverbs 17:17).

“There is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother”
      (Proverbs 18:24).

But there is a little more to the story. Because Mack encouraged me, I finally did finish college, and then went on to three theological seminaries, earning two doctoral degrees and receiving an honorary doctorate as well.

Like George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Mack touched many lives. His influence passed on through me, and both of my parents became Christians in their old age. My mother became a very wonderful Christian, in a sudden conversion at the age of eighty. Mother sold her house and bought us the big house we now live in. Mother moved in with us and was with us in church several nights each week.

My wife, Ileana, is such a wonderful person. She took care of my mother in our home for nearly five years before Mother passed away. Our two boys were raised in a Christian home. One of them graduated from college with the highest honors last spring. He is now an accountant with a top accounting firm, and will be going on to graduate school in accounting this fall. Our other son is graduating from college later this month. He will be going to seminary to train for the ministry this fall.

None of those wonderful things would have happened in our family if it had not been for Dr. Henry M. McGowan. So I say, “Mack, you have lived a wonderful life. Thank you for what you meant to me. I look forward to seeing you again some day.”

Mack was the best man at our wedding. My wife, Ileana, loved him as much as I did. He was a very special person in our lives.

Thank you for listening to me for these past few minutes. But there is one more thing I must say, as a Baptist minister, in closing.

I did not become a Christian by being good. Not at all. I became a Christian by the grace of God, through the vicarious atonement of Jesus on the Cross. I did not get saved when I was baptized in Huntington Park. I was not yet saved when I was called into the ministry at seventeen. I was called to preach before I was saved. The seeds had been planted by the McGowans, but I did not get saved until I was in college. It was then, when I was struggling through the university, that I was finally saved.

The most beloved and most frequently quoted verse in the Bible is John 3:16. It says,

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

At 10:00 AM on September 28, 1961, the light came on in my soul, and I came to Jesus Christ. He pardoned my sin and imputed to me His righteousness, and I was saved.

If you have never truly been saved by coming to Jesus, may you do so soon. Then you will have eternal life and your sins will be pardoned. And, as Billy Graham used to say, at the close of his televised sermons, “Be sure to go to church on Sunday.”

There is one last story I want to give you. Mack told me how he went into the Army during World War II. They sent him for combat training to an arid region in Alabama, which the Army said was similar to North Africa, where they would be sent to fight. It was very rigorous training for several weeks. He told me it was the hardest thing he ever went through in his life. Finally, the time came for his company to be shipped out to North Africa. Remember, it was a world war! It didn’t just take place in Europe and the Pacific. Some of the most strategic battles took place in North Africa. Mack and the other boys were lined up. The sergeant stepped forward and looked them over. Then he said, pointing at four of those young soldiers, “You, you, you, and you will stay back to help train the next set of men.” One of the men he chose was Mack.

That night all the other soldiers left for North Africa. Only Mack and the three others stayed behind to train the next group of soldiers. The planes carrying Mack’s group landed in North Africa. The men deplaned. Moments later the Nazi German aircraft flew down and their machine guns killed every last one of those brave soldiers. Mack had been spared – by chance – or, as the Bible teaches – by the providence of God. If he had not been spared by God’s hand, none of us would be here at this service today. We must thank our Heavenly Father for sparing Henry M. McGowan so that he would be there when we needed him. Mack – yours was indeed a wonderful life!

God bless the memory of Joyce and Henry McGowan. God bless you, Michael and Tina, Carolyn and Deek. God bless each of the grandchildren, and each of the great-grandchildren. God bless Netta and Earl Graf, and their family. God bless Mack’s friends from the coffee shop – Buddy Balser, Gene Tyra, Travis Taylor, Joe Chat Sumner, Otis Smith, Tracy Taylor, Wilson Friberg, and Jim Pennington who are his pallbearers – and all others who are here today. And special thanks to Lisa Henry, who did so much for Mack, and helped him so greatly in the last few years. As Red Skelton used to say at the end of his TV programs, “And may God bless.” Amen!

(END OF SERMON)
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