“Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
By the time Rev. Jerry House reached the pulpit of Christ United Methodist Church in South College Station to share his thoughts, there had been one tremendous amount of music already played in God’s house. Before the Celebration of Life service held Mon., Jan 20, 2014 in one of the largest churches in the Texas Annual Conference of the UMC, Eddie Roy Braswell’s favorite music was playing, the kind you could dance to, as the photo tribute played across two massive video walls. You smiled to see the photos from seven decades of his life, and you smiled even more to see them across walls that he helped to build, sitting in pews that he helped fill, and offered prayers of thanks to God for having had the honor and privilege of knowing one of his angels here on Earth.
Christ United’s pianist, Condy Carter, played rousing hymns as the pews of the massive sanctuary filled close to capacity with people from all across the Brazos Valley. She kept playing as the rafters of the largest church choir in Bryan-College Station filed in silently, music books in arms, as they gathered for what most couldn’t believe would be their first time without Eddie to greet them on their way.
Scanning the pews, you saw some men wearing formal suits and red bandanas. Others filed into one section, men and boys, wearing Boy Scout uniforms from Troop 802, chartered by Christ United. Others just entered quietly, having taken a peppermint from baskets near the sign-in books outside in the narthex. There was silent disbelief that Eddie wasn’t there to hand the peppermints off to them, as only he could, with a smile and a hug and a sincere welcome to God’s house each week.
The Voices Four quartet offered a stirring a cappella rendition of “A Hill Called Mount Calvary.” At its conclusion, one said, “It’s not the same without the harmonica.” True enough. As Eddie’s family entered, their faces were primarily shining, rather than forlorn, because they knew, like so many others did, that Eddie was at last reunited with his wife Carolyn Ruth, who’d died on Apr. 10, 2012, and his son Sterling Ray, whom he’d lost Sept. 24, 2012. And they knew that they could not grieve too long, because they believed in God and heaven, a place where cancer is gone forever.
As Mike Wright explained in his eulogy, it was also in the Braswell home where Eddie and Carolyn welcomed Mike and six members of a young group that would be the beginnings of the same sanctuary choir that now filled the entire massive balcony in the front of the church. Christ United began as a start-up for a “growing College Station,” in 1995, as an offshoot of A&M United Methodist Church with “borrowed members,” who are asked to commit at least one year to get the church started.
Many of the borrowed members are expected to return to their home churches once no longer needed. But Carolyn and Eddie were such an integral part of the new mission church, there was no way they were going to be anywhere else on Sunday mornings. And for nearly 20 years of in their church lives together, you’d be greeted by Eddie, as the Head Usher and see his beautiful Carolyn up in the sanctuary choir, sharing her glorious soprano voice.
The Voices Four shared “My Lord & I” as a call to worship; and after the opening welcome by Rev. House, the beautiful hymn, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” snapped you into a mood of worship. As you listened or tried to sing along, you could feel the same resonance of the earliest days of the Methodist church, with the slim, well-worn pages of the old Cokesbury hymnal being used.
Rev. Tommy Myrick shared Eddie’s obituary with the worshipers and then donned a red bandana over his pastoral robe, explaining that those men who were wearing them were part of Eddie’s “cooking team” for his annual church fish fry each September. Smiles went up as the bandana was affixed to his robe.
The Voices Four shared that Eddie loved to play harmonica with them, and they loved it when he did, and that Eddie always asked, “Are you going to do ‘Farther Along’?” when they called him to play. It was his favorite, they said, so they did it for him on Monday afternoon. It became a new favorite of many in that room. After a prayer, a lovely rendition of “Amazing Grace” was shared by Tayler Slocum, and then it was time for Mike Wright to reprise his role in sharing reflections, just as he’d done for Carolyn almost two years ago.
Mike’s stories of Eddie brought laughter, cheer, and hope because as well as many had known Eddie through the church for nearly two decades, there were always things you didn’t know. Wright’s reflections, remembrances, wit and gentle sharing of wonderful days, and Eddie’s gifts to Christ United, took away your tears and reminded you that you were in God’s house, Eddie’s second house, and everything was somehow going to be all right. Of course, Mike had led Christ United’s music ministry as the church was getting started, and between the pied piper talents of Braswell and Wright, there was no question why you were sitting in a room filled to practically capacity on a Monday afternoon in College Station. You were welcome there.
The primary thing that Eddie did by example was welcome you to God’s home and impart a genuine feeling of “our home is your home,” and most importantly “you are home here.” As the Head Usher, Eddie knew more of the people’s names than maybe some of the pastors. He had hugs for the adults and children alike, and pockets full of peppermints to greet the children who had joined their parents for “grown-up” worship in the sanctuary after Sunday School.
Family and youth were so important to Eddie; after their own four children had grown and moved away, the Braswells shared their talents together to support the church’s youth programs, and he helped get the Boy Scout Troop up and running. UM Army, another youth mission outreach program, benefited from Eddie’s time and talents. The youth group at Christ United spills to overflowing in worship each week. In fact, the “middle service” held on Sunday mornings during Sunday School hour is a contemporary worship service, “The River.” That grew from young people and younger adults wanting to express and share their choice of how they would like worship to happen. There was something for everyone there, and Eddie devoted such a major part of his life here to building the church, working together with others who were likeminded.
Rev. House, uncharacteristically, brought two things to the pulpit with him, a small box containing a fishing lure, and a knife, that Eddie had made for him in his final months of life. They’d made it together, Jerry said, during his visits to Eddie at his home in College Station. The Braswell artisan workshop was there at his home, and it was a place where so many from Christ United Methodist would find themselves gathered as Eddie and Carolyn opened their home so many times through the years.
Then, the congregation was asked by Rev. House to raise hands “if you had ever received a knife that Eddie Braswell had made?” A large number of people raised their hands. He next asked those “who had ever eaten fish at the church that was cooked by Eddie and his cook team?” Triple the number of hands went into the air. On his third query, Rev. House asked, “who among you has ever received a piece of candy from Eddie when coming to worship here?” That took care of the rest of the hands not already up in the air.
Simple acts of artistry, simple acts of kindness, and the ability for a gentle man to be a fisher of men was the life being celebrated. Eddie and Carolyn loved music, and Mike and the other ministers all had stories of the Braswells’ love of dancing together, of hearing great music on the radio, and sharing time with their family as their priority. That’s just what they did. Rev. House shared fond memories of fishing with Eddie and his great friend and USDA-ASCS colleague, Darrel A. Davis, on the lakes near College Station.
Rev. House lamented that he was not catching a thing, while Eddie and Darrel were in the next boat reeling them in, over and over. Eddie took pity on Jerry, and said, “Preacher, give me your fishing rod.” And deftly Eddie removed whatever lure was there and put one of his very own crafted lures onto the preacher’s line. “Over there. Cast your rod over that way,” Eddie said, and within minutes, Rev. House found himself catching fish after fish after fish. Eddie knew exactly what to do and how to do it when it came to fishing and to keeping people close, safe, and welcome in God’s house on Highway 6.
As Rev. House showed the congregation his Braswell creations of fishing lure and knife, he was pleased that he had something tangible by which to remember him on a continuing basis for the rest of his life. Everyone in that room had that as well, whether it was a story, a memory, a warm and welcoming feeling having entered God’s house, or perhaps you’d known him outside of church. He did after all, have a wonderful and rewarding career before he had retired after 40 years of federal government employment.
Hard work and distinguishing himself as a civil service employee was how we got him here. As early as 1970, Eddie Braswell had driven from west Texas to Bryan-College Station at least once a month, in his work as a District Director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (today known as the Farm Service Agency). District Directors are responsible for communicating the farm conservation programs and crop regulations to County Executive Directors, who then take that information to their individual counties and then to farmers in the field.
As a District Director, Eddie’s people skills and ability to show interest and concern flourished in the 10–12 counties that he worked. In just a few years, Braswell’s work was rewarded with a permanent position in the ASCS state offices, located in College Station, as the head of the Training and Information Division.
So it was 1978 when Eddie and his beloved wife Carolyn, moved their family of four children to College Station. The children, daughter Ginger and sons Van, Sterling and Gentry had enjoyed some part of their high school or college experiences or vacations from college out of town here. Eddie was a proud father and spoke so lovingly and proudly of his children. Their pictures were on his desk and his eyes lit up as he readily shared great things about all of them. To know Eddie, you always wanted to ask how his family was, because he loved to tell you and you loved to hear it. Eddie was a man of commitment to God, family, and country, but he did so without aggrandizement, just gently by example.
From the time that I met him, in visits to my mother’s office in 1974, when Eddie and all the District Directors would come in for their monthly meetings, and later when my mother was his secretary in Training and Information, until her retirement in 1985, it always impressed me to watch him move and flow among the people in the USDA-ASCS office.
Of course, whenever Eddie and his buddy Darrel Davis met at coffee breaks, the laughter was contagious, as one or the other had a fishing or hunting story to tell on the other one. Eddie had a candy jar on his desk, by the way, and in addition to peppermints, I also remember Jolly Rancher candies gifted to me on my way back to campus for classes after my lunch visits. He had Tootsie Rolls, too. But mostly I remember Eddie’s smiles.
Everyone was happy to see Eddie, ready to confer with him, and glad they knew him. You can’t say that about a lot of people, really, in a large office where the leadership is appointed by the state’s reigning political party after each major election. But Eddie had only friends, never any enemies, throughout his career in ASCS, in their first offices in the H.C. “Dulie” Bell building on campus and later their headquarters in suites of the Commerce National Bank building on Texas Avenue. In 11 years around him there, he never raised his voice, he never said an unkind word about anyone, and he had a quiet, strong faith that made it clear you were in the presence of a leader, of men and women, old and young.
And so another part of the church was filled with people who knew Eddie, not in his role as a fisher of men at Christ United, but instead as a successful businessman who exemplified living as a gentle soul among us. His attitude of faith never failed. Ironically, a little over a year after Carolyn had passed away, his great friend Darrel Davis passed away on Oct. 1, 2013. Eddie’s faith by example continued strong. He was in church on Sunday mornings without fail, making sure his congregation knew they were welcome.
Over the past five years, though, it wasn’t as easy and carefree for Eddie to be filling his role as one might think. His beloved wife Carolyn had been stricken with ALS and as time and health permitted, she attended church, sang with the choir, and later, attended using a walker, even when it was painful to sit. When she could no longer attend worship, Eddie would come to church for early worship ushering, then go home and make Carolyn breakfast during the Sunday School hour, and then return for his late service ushering duties, never missing a beat.
As Grady Chism, director of Music and Worship Ministries explained, when Carolyn passed away in 2012, Eddie would then spend the Sunday School hour to sit in the outdoor atrium of the church, sitting quietly in the columbarium, sharing a little time together.
I didn’t know he was sick with cancer when I went to see him at Christ United in late October, 2012. I didn’t go out there to worship; I was actually looking to visit with Eddie, after Sterling had passed away. Knowing if I went there between the two services, there was a good chance I’d find him, I did. We sat in the atrium area and I saw the yellow rose he’d placed for Carolyn, and now a red one there for Sterling, and we talked for a long time about good memories we shared, sharing tears, faith, and laughter.
Three decades ago, I’d met all this children, but once again, it was such a joy to hear how proud he was of all of his children, as they’d grown to adulthood. Without a word you could tell that he was reassured and at peace with Sterling being gone, because “Carolyn had him now.” He was fine here, as he had Ginger, Van, and Gentry and their children, of whom he was so very, very lovingly proud, of the rest of his family, and his church family.
As it turns out, Eddie was not as fine as we’d all hoped or thought. A year later, having learned of Darrel Davis’ passing, I learned through a friend of Eddie’s diagnosis with cancer and his treatment at MD Anderson. Instantly I thought, if anyone can beat cancer, it’s Eddie. It was a double-whammy to learn that two adults I’d known since childhood dealing with mortality. No matter how old we get, we still struggle with that concept.
But then I heard some good news, that Eddie’s original diagnosis had changed and that his treatment was showing every sign of progress and good days ahead for Eddie. The amazing turnaround would give him a chance to continue truly enjoying great time and memories with people to whom he was important. On Sun., Dec. 15, 2013, I was invited to attend Christ United for their “Keyboards at Christmas” music program. Entering through one door, we quickly found seats because you knew the sanctuary would fill up, as it always does, when there’s a fine arts music program there.
Then, I went out to the narthex in hopes of finding Eddie. There he was, standing a little less taller than usual, wearing a leather jacket for warmth and a winter cap to keep his head warm. I’d missed seeing him at first, because Eddie, armful of programs in hand for the music service, was surrounded by friends who were all so happy to see him, in his usual place. Someone asked me if I’d mind using their phone to take their pictures with Eddie and I did, and then asked them to do the same with me. I never for a minute thought that would be the last time I saw him.
Grabbing a moment to visit privately, he said, “I didn’t know I’d still be here. My doctor said that I was doing better than one of his patients who was about 30 years younger than me. I told my doctor that I had 1500 people at Christ United Methodist Church praying for me, and that might be the reason I was doing so well.” He smiled as he said that. He also said, “I was ready to join Carolyn and Sterling, really I was. I was okay with that, but God wasn’t ready for me yet. I guess I still have things to do here.” He did. For about another month, he needed to be a witness of faith to friends and family.
Both Mike Wright and Rev. House visited Eddie in that final time at his home. Homebound, Eddie received tender care from Terri Hunt and Compassionate Care Hospice, in addition to the presence of his family. Daughter Ginger had been “handling a lot of things for him,” Eddie said proudly, and one has to imagine the toll taken on the entire family, when you lose your mother, your brother and your father within the span of 21 months. Every member of Eddie’s family looked strong, comforted and at peace as they sat in the pews of “Eddie’s place,” his home away from home, on Monday afternoon.
As the choir offered the most stirring rendition of “When We All Get to Heaven,” you were comforted. As Rev. House read Eddie’s favorite scripture, Psalm 23, you were uplifted and reminded that things will be better soon. When the choir sang the most spectacular version of “Midnight Cry” that you’ve ever heard in your life, the audience respectfully didn’t burst into applause the way it can sometimes happen. Instead, they collectively allowed that song to stand in reverence, for Eddie’s sake. Then, all who were gathered attempted to sing along on “I’ll Fly Away,” through personal tears and sorrow, because when it all comes down to it, reality and faith converge in belief that this earthly life is not “all there is” to things.
It’s often been said that angels walk among us on this earth, and that’s faith talking. Many of us can pass the time, busy with life each day, not having realized that we’ve been in their presence, and that’s reality. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t or weren’t here. Faith helps us believe things of which we are not always sure, but hope and pray that they are. Reality is that Eddie Roy Braswell passed away on Jan. 17, 2014. Faith is that his work on Earth and the music and artistry that he shared, and his gifts as both a leader in his church and as a fisher of men will live on far beyond this generation.
After a week’s contemplation on the life of a man whose love of making and sharing his music, whose artistic creativity in shaping indistinguishable metal into exquisite knives, and whose ability to share his faith in God without ever having preached a sermon, you realize that he made it all look so easy. He was a fisher of men, and his gifts remain permanently in the hearts and minds of all the people fortunate enough to know him. Well done, thou good and faithful servant.