It was the word I heard him say more than any other single word in over four decades of deep friendship. He said it the same way every time, but, inexplicably, it fit every possible situation.
I told him a sadness; he said, “Well …,” and I felt comforted.
I told him a gladness; he said, “Well …,” and I felt lifted.
I told him a brag; he said, “Well …,” and I felt proud.
I told him Baptist gossip, and he said, “Well …,” and I felt unashamed.
I told him about a friend’s folly, and he said, “Well …,” and I felt bonded.
I told him a soul secret, and he said, “Well …,” and I felt OK.
Words have meanings, but even more, as Frank Stagg taught me, they have usages. Hardy Clemons multiplied tenfold the use of the word, “Well.” When he said, “Well …” he never flinched. Everything in his body language, said, “It’s fine, you are safe here, go on.”
I first heard of Hardy when I was a graduate student trying to land a Ph.D. dissertation topic in the mid ’60s. I knew my preferred subject. In fact, I was passionate about it. I desperately wanted to write a paper on “The Theology of Harry Emerson Fosdick.”
Fosdick, so pilloried by fundamentalists and accused of destroying faith, had expanded and deepened my grip on faith while I was a seminary student. So I wrote Fosdick my thanks. He promptly wrote back, a handwritten letter that looked exactly like the script on the cover of his book Dear Mr. Brown. Kay framed that letter for me. I pompously hung it on my study wall. One of my few theological treasures, I lost it in a fire at Carson-Newman College in 1975.
When I began to search to see if my proposed dissertation topic had been claimed, I discovered that such a paper recently had been completed at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Hardy Clemmons had written it. So, the first time I heard his name, I disliked him! Years later Hardy and I would talk “Fosdick” into the night.
In 1976, our family moved to Louisville, Ky., where I was on the faculty at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. We, like hundreds of others, became close friend with Grady and Eleanor Nutt. I have often said that some university should have given Grady an honorary doctorate in “Introductions.” It gave Grady an emotional high to share his friends with other friends.
Hardy was a well-lighted airstrip. His life was welcoming, inviting.
One day, prefacing his remarks with that distinctive East Texas cackle and glaring through me with those big, bright eyes, like he was reading my very soul, Grady said, “I’ve got a friend in Lubbock who you have got to get to know. Y’all will just love each other. His name is Hardy Clemons.”
“I know that name,” I said.
The first time I met Hardy was at Grady’s memorial service in Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville. Grady wanted to get us together during his life, but he brought us together in his death. Sadly, Grady never saw Hardy’s and my four-decade friendship develop. I am so sorry he didn’t. But I can see him grinning now.
A few years later, Hardy invited Kay and me to come for a weekend to Second Baptist Church in Lubbock where he was pastor. Kay was to teach, and I was to preach. On Saturday night, Hardy and Ardelle, John and Ann Claypool, and Kay and I went dancing at the downtown Lubbock Club. Kay jested with Hardy, “This is the first time we’ve gone dancing during a revival!.” Fun! Hardy and Ardelle breathed fun!
And what Baptist pastor in his right mind at that time would have been audacious enough to ask John “Golden Mouth” Claypool to join him as an associate pastor? Where does a fellow get that kind of chutzpah? Hardy was good in the pulpit, but Claypool was a superstar. Why would you want to endure the comparison? The ego is frail enough without comparison, but Claypool?
Hardy blessed Second Baptist Church when he brought Claypool to the church staff. But compassionate Hardy also blessed John Claypool. John had gone through a divorce, and at that time in Baptist life, a divorced Baptist pastor found acceptance hard to come by. Hardy, as he did for so many others during his ministry, provided Claypool hospitality, a welcome and a place to regroup and begin again.
“He always moved toward you,” my wife said of Hardy. He invited you in. Hardy was a well-lighted airstrip. His life was welcoming, inviting. “Land here,” he said. “Rest here,” he said. “Dock here,” he said. “Unload here,” he said. And they landed by the scores. And green sprouts of new life sprang up for so many, especially for so many pastors.
Probably one among many, I recommended Hardy to the pulpit search committee of the great First Baptist Church in Greenville, S.C. The church had gone through a time of trouble and hurt. No pastor I knew could bring a healing, pastoral touch like Hardy.
The church called him, and his move to South Carolina meant that our time together increased and our friendship deepened. I will never forget how proud I was the night he was introduced at a CBF General Assembly as the moderator elect. He had come out of that small liberal wing of Baptists in Texas to be recognized “East of the River” for what he was, a giant of a human being, a pastor’s pastor, a humble Baptist leader.
Hardy owned broad ecumenical wings, but he also was a deeply rooted denominationalist.
Hardy owned broad ecumenical wings, but he also was a deeply rooted denominationalist. His loves reached deep into CBF life. Baptist News Global, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the Baptist Center for Ethics, the seminaries, and every other CBF sibling I can think of represented a genuine affection for Hardy. And he brought his money to the table, both for his local church and his denomination. Grace had created enormous generosity in his life.
When Hardy retired from First Baptist Church of Greenville, he urged them to call me as interim. They did. I spent a year as their preaching minister, often staying in the home of the Clemons.
No one, absolutely no one, ever encouraged me as a preacher like Hardy Clemons. I walked out of that pulpit every Sunday morning waiting for him to tell me how much like John Chrysostom I was. Effusive in his praise, it was so genuine that I was inclined to believe it! It was so Hardy. He did it with so many. Hardy Clemons! No one could encourage like Hardy.
Then he and Ardelle moved to San Antonio, where Hardy became executive minister at Trinity Baptist Church. It was his pastoral touch, his uncanny wisdom and his transparent compassion that helped that great church find legs through some turbulent times.
And blessed Ardelle died. “Hardy n Ardelle” had been one word for many of us. Ardelle, unique as her name, was, in turn, funny, sassy, loving, spry, affable, salty, straightforward, devout, Baptist, tiny. But in every way she was great big and her own person. And ever since serving as Hardy’s BSU director at Texas Tech and falling in love with him, she was devoted to him. She shaped him. She anchored him. And when she died, he went down. He was amputated. He loved her dearly. Truth is, he needed her.
And then came new life in the face of Lily Rogers. Hardy was at our house in Macon, Ga., attending lectures at Mercer University. Cannan Hyde, who lives in Black Mountain, N.C., was also with us. Hardy had to attend a trustees meeting at Furman after the Mercer lectures, so Cannan gave him a ride to Greenville, S.C., on her way to Black Mountain.
Cannan got home and called back. “He is such a wonderful guy. I have an idea. Let’s try to get him and magical Lily Rogers together.” We went to work. Some five or six women ganged up on Lily and began manipulating her. I began massaging Hardy. They began emailing, then phoning, he in San Antonio, she in Richmond.
Because Lily had a meeting in Texas, she and Hardy finally met in the Dallas airport. I was nosey. I knew Hardy would be like a high school sophomore awkwardly stumbling over himself at that encounter.
“Hardy, what did you do when you met her the first time at the baggage claim?”
“I had no idea what to do,” he told me in utter honesty and with authentic naivete. “I did not know whether to simply say hello, bow, shake her hand or hug her neck.”
Lily, as Lily always does, handled it beautifully. She got him off the hook. She hugged his neck. Green sprouts again! Standing at the baggage claim at the Dallas airport, they launched several years of devoted companionship.
The Hardy Clemons I knew was beautiful, an absolutely beautiful human being. When I talked with him during those last months and days when he was going down fast, even before the virus struck him, I would say, “Hardy, you know that you are loved by thousands of people, don’t you?”
And he said, “Well … .”