He was born in 1918. Frank and Morrow worked a North Carolina dairy
farm. Discipline. Dairy farming is about more than cows fencing,
feeding, calves, milking when its time, not when its
He first heard the words, not just the sound of them, when he was
fourteen. Mordecai Ham spoke them under a tent in Charlotte. The
teenager didnt decide then and wouldnt say now that
he knew he would one day stand before other searching souls and
speak the words himself. But he did know that what he had been made
capable of hearing from somewhere outside his own ability
would change his life forever. A new creature.
There would be no seminary degree, at least not in the traditional
sense. But he would be faithful to say the words for five decades.
He could still say them standing there on his stone steps in March
on top of the mountain. I was there. I know. Ruth was undaunted
by the local customs, fears, and expectations of a freshman college
student. She came from China, a medical missions family, full of
a loving heart for life and the living, with a beauty that was undeniable.
He loved her from the git-go, a devotion only surpassed by his desire
to say the words to any who would listen. Many would. She and they
would share his time. It would be an earthly conflict so infused
with limitations of time and space that she would have to learn
to survive with a power far beyond herself. She did. I chewed on
that nugget for some time while I contemplated the portrait at night,
staring into the dark and seeing the shape of the clay, the composition
We conversed over the phone, Ruth and I. I worked with the clay
shaping the nose and the mouth with lips separated just enough to
suggest some of the words had just been spoken. All the time, I
kept seeing her, not her face, but those things that arent
seen with the eye. The unseen things that make us who we are.
The portrait began to speak to me a strong, driven, sensitive,
intense, faithful, gifted, unique man, through whose eyes I would
always see her kindness, the devotion, never complaining, ever loving,
rarely visible, but always there.
I simply dont see any possibility for a time to work on
the sculpture until after the first of the year. Well simply
have to wait for a time when he is going to be at home. This will
definitely be a case of outwitting and not submitting. But it is
an idea whose time has come. We simply must find a way.
She would spring the idea on him when she thought it right to do
so. She knew him, his ways. But as it turned out, she never did
actually run it by him at all. I would simply bring the work to
the cabin at which time he would get it all; the idea, the bust,
and the intrusion. She knew him.
Up steep hills the heart races faster. To meet the challenge it
always will. He said he was just another man. But some had but him
on a pedestal and he lived on a mountain top. I never asked to
be put on a pedestal and she chose the mountain, not me. I reminded
myself, the potter molds the clay. Be malleable. Stay loose. Search
for the things unseen. It will take form.
God in His ordinary providence, maketh use of means, yet is
free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure.
Westminster Confession of Faith 1646
Robert Thornwill Coit came to Meridian, Mississippi, in the early
part of the 20th Century. The young minister had visions of the
Korean Mission field. But there on the Mississippi-Alabama border
he saw another vision Cecile Woods, granddaughter of a once
Chief Justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court.
The young married couple served Korea through the Southern Presbyterian
Mission Board, through which they met and became lifelong friends
with Dr. Nelson Bell and his wife Virginia.
Dr. Bell was a missionary surgeon in China and his second daughter,
Ruth, was near the same age as Cecile Coits fifth child, Millie.
The bond similar life experiences was not easily broken
despite time or space or geographical location. True friendship.
After Robert Coits death in the 1930s, Cecile moved
back to the States and lived in Richmond, Virginia. Later, after
Millie and the other children were grown, she moved to the small
mountain community of Montreat, just outside Black Mountain, North
Carolina. Montreat became a summer gathering place for Ceciles
children and grandchildren. The Bell family retired nearby.
Millie married Jack Cotton Oates. The young insurance agent met
his wife through his sister, a classmate of Millies at Agnes
Scott College for Women in Decator, Georgia. The Oates family, including
the youngest boy, Rob, spent many summers in Montreat with PaPa,
though the grandmother was known by everyone on the mountain, including
Ruth Bell, as Aunt Cecile. The seeds for the bust had been planted
even then. Years later, Rob Oates was called to a small Mississippi
town. I was there. He introduced me to his mother, Millie. She introduced
me to Ruth. Ordinary people. Extraordinary providence.