A White Limo and a Ten Gallon Stetson
The largest and the most contested meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention was held in Dallas, Texas in 1985. Our people were in the midst of "the war" to return the SBC to its conservative, Bible believing roots and there was an intense battle between the moderates and the conservatives. This battle had been brewing for a few years and it was getting hotter and hotter all the time. At issue was our view of the Bible and how we would be teaching it in our seminaries which had become more and more liberal over the years. It was a battle for inerrancy over against those who had a more liberal view of scripture and therefore rejected that crucial doctrine. So, the Texas convention in 1985 shaped up to be the turning point one way or the other. I remember Dr. W.A. Criswell delivering the convention sermon, Whether We Live Or Die. It was a rousing sermon delivered as only he could do it. In that "turn-around" sermon, Dr. Criswell made the case for inerrancy and our future survival depending on whether we held to that crucial doctrine or not. Several of us were standing in a group at the rear of the convention hall when he preached that sermon and I remarked to the men in that little assembly: "Guys, thirty or forty years from now there will be people who will say, 'I was in the room and heard Dr. Criswell preach that sermon.'" "It is something to remember and if we win this battle, that sermon will be recognized as crucial to the victory." My statement has been proven true. Fifty one thousand people attended that convention. It was the largest one ever and no convention has ever been larger since. But, there is an underlying story to that event.
I had been involved with the organization of conservatives in Georgia and the SBC for about four years and I made sure that I didn't miss a single convention. Things were too crucial not to be involved and present. I had taken my wife and oldest daughter with me so they could experience such an environment. The hotel in which we had rooms was about ten miles from the convention center. It was very nice but a long ways from where we needed to be. The first morning there, which was Monday morning, we went down to get some breakfast and while there a huge man and his associate sat down at the table next to us. He was the tallest man I had ever seen. This Texan seemed to be about nine feet tall and then he wore a ten gallon white Stetson cowboy hat. All in all he was as tall as Goliath but a lot nicer. As it turned out, he lived in that hotel. He had a whole suite of rooms on one of the upper floors. His associate was a large, well groomed, articulate black man. I later found out that he not only his associate to do take care of the details of everyday living, but he was the driver of the Tall Texan's white Cadillac limousine. That car looked to be as long as the Texan looked tall. It must have been thirty feet long, or so it seemed. He kept it parked out in front of the hotel in a special spot. This man was very rich and had a lot of influence it seemed. Anyway, we struck up an immediate friendship and seemed to "click" in our personalities.
While eating breakfast and talking about a myriad of things, he asked me what we were doing for the rest of the day. I told him I was going to go to the Pastor's Conference but that would not take all of the day so we had thought that we might get a taxi and go out to see where the T.V. show, Dallas was filmed. He immediately said, "no you ain't gonna get no taxi." Then he turned to his associate and said, "take them out to see where Dallas is filmed." We couldn't believe it but sure enough, about three o'clock that afternoon, there we were all cropped up in that white limo headed for the Southfork Ranch to see where "Dallas" was filmed. It was a few miles to the ranch and when we got there, our driver pulled up into the parking lot of the souvenir shop which was adjacent to the ranch. I will never forget what happened. It was rumored that some of the actors were coming to the ranch on the very day we were there and so the huge crowd of people that was gathered there thought that we were some of those actors. The windows of the limo were darkened so people could not see who was is in the car so they ran alongside as we drove up. They were pressing the faces to the windows trying to see who was inside. I heard some women say, "J.R. is in this car." I know J.R. is in this car. A large crowd gathered around the limo when we parked. The driver got out with his chauffeur hat on and they asked him who was in the car thinking they were about to see some movie start. He whetted their appetite when he said: "Sorry, but I can't tell you that, mam." They just knew the main character of Dallas was about step out of that car. When he opened the door they were sticking their heads in before we could get out. It was truly a fascinating and fun event. Anyway, when they saw us get out of the car, they then thought I was a producer or some other big shot with the movie industry. Finally, they decided that we were none of those things and it became a big fun time with everyone laughing.
I must say, however, that I was disappointed in Southfork from what I saw. It is not out on the open plains like it appears in the programs. It is somewhat crowded in on the sides. The house has a long front lawn but it is not wide. One can readily see the magic of photography. The angles at which the scenes are shot are what generates the idea that the estate is on a wide open plain. Not so.
Well, Tuesday morning came and we were getting ready to catch the shuttle down to the civic center in Dallas for the beginning of the SBC meeting. We came downstairs and gathered in the foyer of the hotel waiting for a shuttle. All of a sudden, our long tall Texan and his associate appeared and asked where we were going. I told him that we were going to catch the shuttle down to the civic center for the convention and he said: "You ain't gonna ride no shuttle!" Then he told his driver and associate to take us downtown in that long white Cadillac limo. I couldn't believe it but we got in the car and here we went. Steppin' in high cotton all the way down town! When we got to the convention center, I was shocked at the number of people waiting to get in. There was a huge crowd at least one hundred feet deep anxiously awaiting for the doors to open. Our driver headed for the spot designated for limousines to take people and the crowd opened up as we approached. I remember that people stepped back and formed a lane for the limo all the while wondering who was coming in such an automobile. Our driver got out of the car, walked around to the passenger door and opened it for us. We stepped right out at the door and walked right in.
There is a little side story here. One of my good friends in Augusta was standing in the foyer with his wife and two of their friends. His name is Bob Riley and he was our Associational Missionary. Now, many of the preacher boys in Augusta often called me a pet name: Hollywood. They did this because we had a very good television ministry and a lot of people knew me. When we would have a meeting of the preachers or some other event, when I arrived they would say; "well, Hollywood is here so we can get started." It was a good natured joke and I was not offended at all. Well, when they saw the limousine drive up, Bob's wife said: "Now who in the world could that be?" Bob quickly replied: "It's probably Bill Harrell!" When our door was opened and I stepped out, Bob and his company just about fainted. We walked in and they were all laughing uncontrollably. When they related what was said, I was as amazed as they were. How often would such a thing happen? What are the chances of Bob and his wife and friends being there at just the right time. And, how often would we ride to the convention in a limo and have this event happen. We have laughed about it over the years many times and when we relate the story to others they can't believe it either.
Yes, the SBC in 1985 was special for a number of reasons but it was very special to me, my wife Carolyn and our daughter Georgia. We never thought we would meet that ten foot tall Texan and get chauffeured around in his white limo.
William F. Harrell