Robert Rex Meyers was born in 1923 and raised by loving and devout parents on a three hundred acre farm in the eastern hills of Oklahoma near Henrietta. From an early age, he would rise early in the morning and plow the land, sowing seeds in the rich, moist earth in much the same way he would later plant ideas in the fertile minds of eager students. He studied the Bible and was baptized by a traveling black evangelist named R.N. Hogan in a small, fundamentalist Church of Christ, but it was his full-bodied immersion in the deep waters of natural revelation, the whisper of God in the rustling of wind-kissed leaves and the fragrant incense of meadow grass, that would eventually set his heart aflame.
He fell in love with God and His Word and vowed to become a gospel preacher and stalwart defender of the faith. At the appropriate time, he trekked the “old paths” to the temple of Churches of Christ orthodoxy itself, Freed-Hardeman College in Henderson, Tennessee, burning with religious zeal. Blessed with a first-rate mind, he became well-trained in the lethal arts of “book, chapter and verse” and learned to wield the Bible like a sledgehammer, beating many a debate opponent into scriptural submission. His star was rising, and his mentor N. B. Hardeman, president and founder of the school, recognized his potential and took great care to take him under his nurturing wing and show him “The Way of the Lord.”
But when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Bob felt the tug of a different calling. With Hardeman begging him to stay, Bob went off to war, not as a combatant (he was a conscientious objector, as were most Churches of Christ young men at the time), but as an Army reporter. He bore witness to the effects of many battles, typing as fast as he could short dispatches and sending news of the dead and wounded back home to anxious, waiting loved ones who scanned their big city dailies and small town weeklies for word, any word, from “over there.”
For the first time in his life, Bob ventured beyond the comfortable confines of his religious ghetto and was surrounded by people of many faiths, and no faith at all, sincere just like him, whose views of God and ultimate matters were different than his own. He watched Christians of all stripes, Presbyterians, Baptists, Nazarenes and Methodists, worship together with nary a thought as to the “issues” which separated them back home, the particulars of their various tribes rendered trivial and quite useless amid the bombs and broken bodies. He rubbed shoulders with atheists and Jews and learned that they were, contrary to widespread reports, fully human, with hearts. He began to read widely (always the death knell of cocksure religion), including English authors C.S. Lewis and Leslie Weatherhead, whose book Quest For a Kingdom he called the most life-changing book he ever read. His air-tight fundamentalist shell began to crack and crumble, eventually melting away in the white-hot crucible of war.
“I read everything of the kind I could get my hands on,” he once recalled. “And I observed people. I watched from jeeps, trains, and marching columns as peasants worked the turnip fields in Belgium under gray skies; I watched old women grabble in GI slop cans for fragments of food; I watched desperate boys and girls try to live life quickly before a bomb or a bullet ended it. And I knew that none of them had ever heard of my Church of Christ, southern style, USA. They might as well have been on Mars.”
How could such people, following the light they had been given as best they could, be somehow “lost?” Why did some Catholic and Baptist soldiers he met seem to embody the ideals of Christ as well as or even better than those from his own tradition? In his heart, answers formed, conclusions that shook him to his core, and the fear of all that followed from them was so terrifying that at times all he could do was lay awake at night in his bunk and cry.
After three years in the Army, he returned to his childhood farm, to his parents who, fittingly, were swinging on the front porch at the end of a long day’s work as he walked up the path to their house. His homecoming was grand, but wordless; silent statues, three in one, a tangle of arms, legs and heads, frozen in thankful embrace. There, in the wide open spaces of eastern Oklahoma, was room for a man to decompress and heal.
He wrote of that time of mental and physical rehabilitation, “I cleared groves of persimmon trees in the pasture glorying in a young man’s strength and in the heft of the arching axe, working all alone all day in the hot sun, among the stolid whiteface cattle who had never heard a grenade.” For a time the farm was his Eden, and he worked hand in hand with God.
He knew with all that he had seen and experienced, he could never be a defender of Churches of Christ orthodoxy again. When he finally did return to college at Abilene Christian College, it was not to study Bible, but to bathe his wounds in the healing balm of bards and poets.
He completed a bachelors in English Literature and met and married a beautiful woman named Billie. They moved to Norman to attend the University of Oklahoma for a masters for Bob, followed by a stint as an editor for a small Oklahoma newspaper. But it had always been a dream of Bob’s to teach at a Christian College, and when Harding College president George S. Benson came calling, they headed off to the foothills of the Ozarks and Searcy, Arkansas, wagering all they had on a dream which, in retrospect, was destined to fail.
There Bob quickly established himself as one of the most popular professors on campus. He was articulate, athletic and strikingly handsome. The story circulated that he had once modeled in his Army uniform for a Kodak ad in The Saturday Evening Post, and many an admiring young coed would surreptitiously pull that particular issue from the library’s periodical room to see if it was true (it was).
Bob and Billie and their young children were the kind of foundational faculty family upon which Benson hoped to build his dream of a national-class Christian college. He was high on his young gun prof, and he offered to send Bob to Washington University in St. Louis for his PhD along with the promise of a choice lot on Harding Drive, fit for a stylish faculty home, upon his return.
The St. Louis years were heady times. Bob joyfully immersed himself in his chosen discipline, medieval literature, and became well-versed in the scholarly techniques of historical and textual criticism and imbued with a deep and abiding sense of epistemic humility. He preached for a “liberal” Church of Christ composed of many professionals, intellectuals and captains of industry who eagerly engaged Bob’s fresh sermons and were open to new ways of seeking out God. They warned him that Harding would not be as congenial to his open, scholarly style, but Benson had been kind and supportive, and Bob felt a strong obligation to return.
When he finally did, everyone sensed a fundamental shift. He spoke more boldly and his words seemed to carry even more weight, as if they had been dipped in gold. Students were mesmerized–nobody had ever spoken to them like that. They were witnessing a rapidly changing world, including the dawn of the Civil Rights era, and were asking many questions. Rather than spoon-feeding them pat answers to complex conundrums, Bob introduced them to voices from the past whose wisdom might be tapped and applied to modern day dilemmas. He opened their eyes to new vistas and allowed them to marinade in the juices of ambiguity. He taught them the most fundamental and useful of skills–to think for themselves.
Such excellent mentoring would normally be celebrated on most college and university campuses. But a fundamentalist Christian school of that era was a different breed. Liberal arts were often viewed with suspicion, especially by those in departments of Bible and religion whose job it was to “guard the flock.” Those who dared to suggest that God might speak through more than just the Bible, and even worse, that not all of it was literally true, were monitored closely, with some even put on “watch lists.”
As if his classroom proclamations weren’t suspicious enough, in 1957 Bob served as chief wordsmith for a courageous group of student “radicals” who dared to take the Bible at its word, to believe that “God is no respecter of persons.” They had witnessed the abuse and violence shown toward the Little Rock Nine in their attempts to integrate Central High and wished to make a statement of support and show the administration and Board of Trustees that the Harding community was ready to integrate immediately. It was the largest and most important incident of student activism that has ever occurred on that campus, and had the student leaders been of the mind to leak it, reporters from around the world would have beaten a path to Searcy to cover it.
Perhaps it was a mixture of principle, naïveté and pride, but for whatever reasons, Bob Meyers never minced words. Some thought he was a bit of an intellectual dandy, and there may have been some truth to that. On occasion, he no doubt rubbed people of lesser learning and experience the wrong way; that he was never at a loss for words was both his greatest strength and greatest weakness. He told me once, and I believed him, that when you’ve experienced war that you tend not to care as much about what people think. You lose your fear of petty things and petty people, and in the process, find yourself.
In the Spring of 1960, after complaints from alumni and Bible Department members who were fearful of Bob’s “unsound ideas,” George Benson called him into his office, showed him a list of fifteen or so “causes” (among them were his love for and teaching of C.S. Lewis and his “Jonah problem”–his belief that humans alive in the belly of a whale might possibly be figurative and poetic rather than literal) and fired him. Bob told me that Benson took no pleasure in the task and seemed to regret having to do it.
At Harding, Bob Meyers was a wild stallion of an intellect penned up in a small-minded corral. When they opened the gate and shooed him away, they thought they were protecting Harding, but in fact, they were simply setting him free. “He acted wisely,” Bob once wrote, referring to Benson. More recently he told me, “It was the best thing that could have possibly happened to me.”
Bob and his family moved to Wichita, Kansas where he continued to teach English literature (first at Friends University and later at Wichita State) and preach in a Church of Christ. Eventually, after being hounded and harassed by self-appointed doctrinal watchdogs, he would leave for more peaceful and greener pastures as a minister in a Congregationalist Church.
Before he exited, he edited and complied a book of essays by disaffected members of the Churches of Christ entitled Voices of Concern: Critical Studies in Church of Christism. The contributors, most of them life-long members of that tribe, were weary of the sectarianism and legalism which had come to define that tradition. They were gentle, literate people who were hopeful for change. For their efforts, they were branded “heretics” and summarily dismissed by mainstream Churches of Christ.
Over 40 years later, I would come across an online edition of that book and read an essay written by a young man named Bill Floyd. He had been the student government president at Harding in 1957 and had led the movement to integrate the campus. It was that essay, and my keen interest in researching and writing about that incident, that would bring Bob Meyers and me together in the final days of his life.
I met him on a gloriously beautiful day in Bellingham, Washington, his retirement home, in September, 2011. Bob appeared frail and slightly stooped from a recent heart attack, but he seemed determined to walk up the small incline to where we had parked and greet us. He and Billie were gracious hosts, and as we sat on their patio watching the walkers, bikers and skaters pass by on the boardwalk in front of Bellingham Bay, they freely shared their stories with my wife and me as if we were family, and in a sense, we were. Coming from the same tradition and similar experiences, the conversation flowed like fine wine.
Bob Meyers wore many hats in life, but I think his favorite one might have been the Oklahoma Sooner ball cap that I gave him that day in appreciation for his time. His eyes, the color of faded denim, lit up with joy when he saw it, like a kid on Christmas morning at the sight of a longed-for toy. A Sooner to the core, he wore it proudly that day when we went out to lunch at a charming bistro by the bay. He teased me about my Alabama Crimson Tide cap and how he suspected I was using it to conceal a receding hairline (he was right). His own mane, once inky-black but now a seasoned silver, was still very full, and he wasn’t about to let me forget it.
As the meal ended, we playfully “fought” over who would have the honor of paying the check.
“I think I can take you,” I teased as I attempted to wrest the check from his hand (he had conspired with the waitress to hand it to him).
“Maybe so,” he smiled slyly. “But I have this!” He raised his right hand, brandishing his cane, as if he meant to use the business end of it to rap me upside the head.
That was Bob, always relishing the repartee, feisty to the end.
When we left, I told him that I felt we had been friends all my life.
“I feel the same way,” he replied, his eyelids brimmed with a thin sliver of tears. “I just wish we could have met sooner.”
Dr. Robert Meyers died on January 8th, 2012, but not before he had marked his trail through this life with a string of eloquent words and lofty ideals, breadcrumbs for an admiring band of family, friends and students who hungered for tokens of beauty and truth. In the closing days of his life, even as his body began to fail him and his pain and discomfort increased, he made room for me at the table of his heart, and for that, I am eternally grateful.