Presley to Preacher: Part 3

Mar 25, 2004 |Steve Watters

Discovering the wealth of the king.

PART 2: Presley to Preacher »

What is wealth? And what does it have to do with money?

During the hungry years — that building time during our twenties — money is a great lure. Mostly because we don’t have much, it presses on our minds and promises to solve our problems. While our minds are distracted by money, however, our hearts long for true wealth.

As I mentioned in Part 1, early success with his music motivated my dad to set a goal of making his first million before 25. That’s why he treated his band like a business — staying on top of the bookings and passing up gigs like “Battle of the Bands” that didn’t pay. Once he got in the groove, he started making around $700 a week, which wasn’t too bad for the early 1970s.

Sitting outside of Graceland, however, dad knew he was still far short of the crazy amount of money that can be made in rock n’ roll. Elvis had it all — lavish furniture, custom statuettes, cars, horses, motorcycles, golf carts, airplanes and a large stockpile of firearms among other things.

In the guard shack, however, dad got another perspective of what life looks like when you’re rich. Chatting with Elvis’ Uncle Vester, he found out that money was no guarantee for happiness. Despite all the nice things and good times his money could buy, it couldn’t fix the one thing that had once mattered most to Elvis — his marriage. His high-profile love affair with Priscilla was disintegrating into a painful divorce.

As much as dad looked up to Elvis’ success and riches, his trip to Memphis reminded him that even though he was far short of his goal of becoming a millionaire, he already had in his wife and young children a treasure that had slipped from Elvis’ grip.

Early in his rock n’ roll days, dad felt God directing him toward marriage. One Sunday he told his family, “We’re going to that church on the hill and I’m gonna meet the woman I’m supposed to marry.” The church on the hill was 15th Street Church of God, a place dad knew little about. His family played along and went for a visit. One of dad’s brothers spotted a girl with her skirt hiked up a little, revealing a shapely leg. “Is that the one?” he asked. “No,” my dad whispered back, “it’s the girl playing piano.”

The piano player, a brunette named Stephanie, noticed dad and found him attractive. She thought it would be nice to welcome the new family. So she introduced herself after the service and talked with dad for a few minutes. Her mom took the next step of inviting dad’s family over to their house. Later that night, dad asked mom out on a date. He said, “I’d like to take you to the restaurant at the New Bern Holiday Inn.” Then he added, “That’s where I want to take my wife on my honeymoon on the way to Nashville.”

Caught off guard, mom remembers thinking, “It’s none of my business where you plan to take your wife.” But things started moving quickly. Two weeks later dad proposed and three months later they pulled up to the New Bern Holiday Inn on the first night of their honeymoon trip to Nashville.

Like so many chapters of dad’s life, a song grew out of that whirlwind experience. Titled “Is it Too Soon?” it says:

All my life I’ve searched for the love that I need.
Someone like you to make my life complete.
My heart wants to say, “You’re what I’ve been looking for.”
But the words won’t come.
I’ve been hurt too much before.

And I wonder is it too soon to say, “I love you.”
Are you another dream that will never come true?
Is it too soon for you to feel like I do?
Or is it too soon to say, “I love you”?

“I love you” are words that are too often spoken
By careless lips that leave trusting hearts broken.
I’ve tried to rush love too many times in my past.
But I won’t do it this time; I need this love to last.

It was another song dad had written about mom, however, that haunted him after his time in Memphis. “After the Show” opens with a melancholy organ evoking the image of an empty concert hall. The lyrics articulate the emotion dad went through so many nights out on the road:

There’ll be a thousand more towns and a thousand more crowds.
A thousand more dance jobs and the band rocking ‘round.
And all the strange people calling my name,
But without you waiting for me, it will never be the same.
Girl, you know what will happen.
I’ll be lonely I know, after the show.

It was an emotion many musicians with families felt when they were out performing. But that emotion brought with it a financial dilemma. Dad knew leaving the road not only meant giving up his goal of becoming a millionaire, but it also carried with it the possibility of not being able to pay the bills. The very thing that kept dad from enjoying his family was the same thing he needed to support them.

Ultimately, dad decided that instead of building his music career by sacrificing his family, he would sacrifice his music career for his family. The tough part was that he didn’t really have much of an exit strategy. Leaving rock n’ roll was a big test of God’s enoughness.

One of the first ways Dad found to pay the bills involved picking up discarded cans and bottles. Over the next several years, he sold encyclopedias, woodstoves and animal feed. He also worked as a carpenter, disc jockey, and social services manager. When he became a full-time pastor, he still had to keep a job on the side to pay the bills.

He also stretched our dollars by moving us out to the country where we could have a big garden, fruit trees and animals. On many nights all the food on the table either came from our garden or my dad’s gun.

As a kid, I learned not to ask for things like Atari game systems because I knew we couldn’t afford them. But I also learned that it’s possible to experience wealth despite a small income. Our home was not about stuff; it was focused on creativity, reading, relationships and discovering purpose. We learned that for the things that really matter, God really is enough.

Dad taught us another lesson about wealth with both his words and actions. He often told us that marrying our mom was the best thing he ever did, but he also showed us. Mom and dad acted like teenagers in love throughout their lives, even as they renewed their vows while celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary — just a few months before he died.

Those vows they made to each other — to love, honor and cherish for better or worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health — proved to be their greatest wealth right up until they were parted by death. Their love and sacrifice for each other grew stronger as dad’s body grew weaker.

Once dad realized he wasn’t going to have a long life, he started making preparations to make sure mom was taken care of after his death. Unfortunately, having diabetes and pastoring a small church made it difficult to accumulate a lot of money for the future. Dad took out as much of a life insurance policy as he could, but knew he’d have to find a way to supplement it.

For at least the last decade of his life, he worked to make the most of the Christian music he had started writing and publishing on the side. He eventually catalogued over 700 songs that he wrote, performed or produced (much of it in partnership with my mom). I always assumed, however, it was simply a labor of love — something my parents did as a way to minister through music. I figured it didn’t pay much.

Other than the fact that mom and dad paid off their house and vehicles, I didn’t see much indication that extra money was coming in. A few years ago, however, dad started taking my brothers and I off to the side and telling us, “When I die, make sure to go through everything well, because I’ve been setting aside some things for your mom.” At the time, we didn’t really want to think about dad dying young and so we just filed those comments away.

The full details of dad’s little plan came out shortly after he died and we started going through some of his books and clothes. There in his suit coat pockets and between the pages of his books were envelopes — lots of them — with cash inside. It turned out dad was cashing the checks for his music royalties and putting the money aside for mom.

When mom brought out the large stack she had found, I was moved as much by what was written on them as I was by the money inside. Some messages were shorter than others, but most seemed to be variations on “I love you and we’ll be together again someday.”

He signed one envelope on July 29, 2002, the day my mom’s dad died. The note read, “Darling, you are such a good woman. When I see your dad, I’ll give him your love and we will be waiting for you and grandma. All my love forever, your Jim.” Another said, “I wanted you to be taken care of. I’m sorry I couldn’t leave more, but God will make up the difference. He is our inheritance. I love you Stephanie, your Jim.”

Mom suspects that dad never knew exactly how much money he left, or even remembered where he put it all. What moved her most was realizing that instead of buying all the things she knew he wanted, he tucked the money away for her — knowing he wouldn’t even be around when she got it. Several times, upon finding another envelope, she looked up to heaven and said, “God, please tell Jim thanks for me.”

At the end of dad’s funeral, we played two of his songs. He wrote one directly to mom. “I want your face to be the last face I see,” he sang, “before I see Jesus.” Everyone at the funeral knew that dad didn’t have a fraction of the stuff Elvis did when he died. But they knew dad got his wish. As he lay dying, he looked into mom’s eyes and knew he was seeing the only wealth that lasts forever.

Copyright 2002 Steve Watters. All rights reserved.  

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