NEW ORLEANS—Retired Louisiana pastor T.C. French and former pastor and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee received awards as distinguished alumni at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s annual Alumni Luncheon on June 20 during the SBC annual meeting in New Orleans.
Both men credited the Texas school with providing them a biblically based education driven by an evangelistic zeal that prepared them for the different paths their lives took.
“Few things have meant more to me,” Huckabee said in receiving the award, recalling his impoverished condition when he arrived in Fort Worth at age 20, the youngest student on campus. “We were not just financially broke, but broken from having gone through what we didn’t think two kids should experience,” Huckabee said, referring to his wife’s battle with cancer in their first year of marriage.
Wearing a pair of shoes from which the soles had separated and occasionally sporting a $12 blue polyester suit that would fray when it rubbed against anything, Huckabee said their seminary house was set against the railroad tracks and called “the Winnebago” by friends—a nickname he said was insulting to the RV manufacturer.
“But what wonderful days,” he remarked, recalling President Robert Naylor’s quotation of long passages of Scripture and his challenge to “not just prepare intellectually,” but “to be on fire” for the gospel. Friends who went to “lesser seminaries” ridiculed Southwestern as “a three-year camp meeting,” he added.
“I considered it a badge of great honor, for it was a hotbed of evangelism and missions. I remember hearing that the sun never sits on a Southwesterner because somewhere in the world someone is presenting the gospel,” he remembered, pausing to add, “I was so insignificant and small to be a part of something so big.”
Huckabee pastored for 12 years, first at Immanuel Baptist Church in Pine Bluff and later at Beech Street Baptist Church in Texarkana, before his election as Lt. Governor of Arkansas, followed by 11 years as governor, and a popular presidential run in 2008. Often asked why he thought he was “tough enough” to be president, Huckabee recalled telling a South Carolina voter, “’Partner, have you ever been to a Baptist business meeting?” prompting sympathetic laughter from the seminary audience.
Despite his success as host of a top-rated weekend television show, daily radio host, commentator for FOX News and author of nine books, Huckabee said, “This award means a lot to me personally because Southwestern means a lot to me personally. I was a nobody when I was on campus,” he reminded.
Struggling at times to contain his emotion, Huckabee said, “Many were the times when I would go to chapel, then afterward I’d go to the prayer room in the basement and my heart would be so filled with what I had heard in the chapel. I’d go to that prayer room and just say, ‘God, if there’s a place for me, use me,’” he added.
“That prayer is answered every time we ask God to use us,” he insisted. “He chooses to use us in very different ways,” he added, praising the bivocational pastor who might question his own worth. “I know just how he feels, but God has a place for every single one of us. It may not be in the spotlight or limelight,” he said, adding that “being on the front page of the newspaper or lead story on the 6 o’clock news ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
Huckabee expressed gratitude for sharing the honor with French, a 1957 graduate who retired after pastoring Jefferson Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, La., for 50 years. The Mary French Priscilla Scholarship provides tuition and other expenses for the wife of a student preparing for ministry—an honor to his late wife Mary who died in 2008.
French was involved in the Conservative Resurgence and was instrumental as a trustee in reforming the Baptist Sunday School Board, where the administration had tolerated heresy in educational materials and mismanagement. He served in various other areas of state and national leadership in the denomination, most recently chairing the seminary’s alumni association.
He recalled sitting in Truett Auditorium at a time when a 35mm projector was considered a cutting-edge visual aid. When he received a B on a test in his Old Testament class, French appealed the grade to his professor because he had scored a 97 percent.
“I asked, ‘What did it take to make an A?’ and he said, ‘A 98!’ I said, ‘I guess I’m not A material,’ and he said, ‘I guess not.’” By that point, French said he decided it made more sense to build churches instead of going into academia.
“Southwestern gave me a set of tools with which to work, an evangelistic fervor and a set of principles by which to live.”