In the Fall of 2004, I was taking a seminary course on Thomas Merton. It was being taught by Merton friend and scholar E. Glenn Hinson. Dr. Hinson knew of my near-obsession with all things Will Campbell, and he helped arrange a trip in which he and I would travel together to visit with Will Campbell at his home in Mt. Juliet, Tenn. In addition to simply getting to hang out with Will Campbell, I was going to set up a recorder and let Campbell and Hinson swap their stories about and memories of Thomas Merton. I would then write something up and submit it for a project grade for the course.
Less than two weeks before our trip, Will called me and said that he'd been thinking a lot about it, and his memories of and experiences with Merton were just too personal, and he'd prefer not to talk about them. After all, Merton himself wrote a little about their friendship in his journals, and I could read about everything in there. He really treasured his Merton memories and didn't want to talk much about them, so he canceled our meeting, and asked me to give his greetings to Glenn Hinson. He did, however, invite me down simply to visit with him any time, which I of course did -- once. We talked about everything, including his friendship with Waylon Jennings (one of my musical heroes). We didn't, however, talk much about Merton.
I never presumed to think of myself as a friend of Will's, but he was very gracious to me; we corresponded a few times over the years, and we'd talk on the phone from time to time -- a couple of times he even called me! One of the greatest thrills of my life was when he agreed to consider writing a preface for my second book, "Psychic Pancakes & Communion Pizza." With his permission, I sent him an advanced manuscript, but that ended up being about the time he was not able to do much at all anymore, and soon he was in the hospital. Even though he didn't write the preface, I can still tell people Will Campbell agreed to read my manuscript! Whether or not he actually read it, as far as I'm concerned, is moot.
During that period of time that Glenn Hinson and Will Campbell and I were planning our Thomas Merton summit, I had to have surgery to remove 12 inches of my colon (due to severe diverticulosis). Will told me over the phone that I had nothing to worry about -- he had the same problem and had the same surgery done many years before. He then added, however, that his heart actually stopped at some point during the surgery, and he had to be resuscitated back to life. "You mean I was actually dead there on the operating table?" Will asked the surgeon during a follow-up meeting. "Yep -- for about three minutes you were dead." To which Will replied, "Can I get you to sign an affidivat saying I was dead for three days ... I've got a few people I'd like to show that to." That was 100 percent pure Will Campbell.
When I was leaving Kentucky to pastor in Mississippi, Will told me about his recent experience with the University of Mississippi (I was coming to pastor University Baptist Church in Starkville, home of Ole Miss' archrival Mississippi State University). Ole Miss folks invited Will back down to Oxford (from where he was run off while serving as campus minister due to his insistence on living out racial equality -- this was before James Meredith successfully enrolled there). Ole Miss wanted to name him "Chaplain for Life." Will said he hemmed and hawed and reminded them that the last time he was in Oxford, he was followed up to the state line by men in cars who pointed their guns at him, and when he crossed over into Tennessee they threatened to kill him if he ever set foot back in Mississippi. Therefore, said Will, he figured he'd pass on that chaplain-for-life thing. "Oh, but Rev. Campbell," they replied, "we've been reading all your stuff over these last many years about forgiveness and reconciliation and all that -- and we figured you meant it." Will, recognizing that they had him on that one, grumbled and complained and cursed, then came down and "accepted their little piece of paper."
There's a lot about my conversations with Will that are really special to me, and I prefer just not to talk about them. Since his passing, many have been and will continue to be writing about their memories of and experiences with Will Campbell -- and rightfully so. I look forward to reading them. But I now understand why Will chose to keep his Merton memories to himself.
Thank you, Will, for everything. Oh, and please give my greetings to Waylon ...
This first appeared at ABPnews.com.