By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer
He was living the life of a happily retired preacher, expecting nothing but next week's fishing trip.
So when the Austin Seminary Association started contacting him, Ralph Person was more than a little surprised.
'They had to be dusting off the history books to find out about me,' said Person, a former pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Temple.
But contrary to what Person thought, the Association wasn't writing an anthology.
The group wanted to inform him that he was the 2008 winner of the seminary's Distinguished Service Award.
'It's a big honor to be recognized in this way,' he said. 'In the way it's worded, it symbolizes everything that I worked for in my career.'
The script at the bottom of his award thanked Person for his 'service to the church.'
'Notice that it doesn't say Presbyterian,' Person said. 'It says, 'to the church,' the whole church. That's speaking to the kind of ecumenical work I was about.' The word, 'ecumenical,' the retired preacher said, refers to Christianity as a whole unfiltered by its denominations.
To explain the philosophy behind ecumenicity, he described an event that took place at the University of Texas in the 1960s. Geared with a degree from the Austin Theological Seminary, Person was serving UT as Chaplain to Presbyterian Students and president of the Student Pastors Association.
'There were Lutherans, Baptists and Episcopalians. We were on a joint council, working together to present the cause of ecumenicity,' Person said. 'It was in the height of the civil rights movement.'
Area businesses were refusing to serve blacks, Person said.
'So the students planned to boycott the movie theaters and the restaurants until that changed,' Person said.
The group decided to launch the demonstration with a big rally, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was invited.
'(King) accepted. I wrote the letter asking him to come,' Person said. 'There were loudspeakers everywhere. People lined the street for as far as you could see. Hundreds of people were waiting to see him.'
Listening to the famed man's voice was an amazing experience Person said he'll never forget.
'I got to shake his hand. I was mesmerized,' Person said. 'He had such power over people when he spoke. The crowd was clapping and stomping feet. You could feel, see the energy.'
The students' demonstration and rally were successes. Person said that within 10 weeks, black students were able to go see movies and eat dinner at restaurants with their white friends.
As incredible of an experience that must have been, it wasn't the only time Person aimed high.
While on a mission trip to India, Person said he witnessed 2,000 people seek out the Bible.
'They were wanting Bible studies and small group talk,' Person said. 'It was amazing.'
In Brazil, Person directed a camp sponsored by the World Camp of Churches. His mission team included 30 U.S. and Brazilian students.
'We built two apartments for two families of teachers in the slums of Rio de Janeiro,' Person said.
Besides mission work, Person also taught church history at Austin Theological Seminary and at Columbia University in Georgia.
'I really enjoyed teaching,' he said. 'I still hear from students occasionally.'
Local religious leaders who know Person say it's an honor he very much deserves.
'He's a beloved former pastor of our congregation,' said the Rev. Dr. Margaret Boles of First Presbyterian Church.
Person was pastor before the Rev. Boles. He led the church for 20 years.
'He's known as a scholar, a church historian,' the Rev. Boles said. 'And he's remembered for his excellence in teaching.'
Dr. Thomas Allen from Grace Presbyterian Church agrees.
'He's been a colleague of impeccable character, a scholar's scholar, a great preacher and compassionate pastor,' Allen said of his colleague.
But to Allen and the Rev. Boles, Person is a man to admire for another reason altogether.
While earning his doctorate degree from Switzerland University, Person had the privilege to study with Karl Barth (1886-1968), whom Pope Pius XII described as the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas. Barth rejected 19th-century Protestantism and embarked on a theological path called neo-orthodoxy.
'Plainly put,' the Rev. Boles said, 'That was a big deal.'