William Worth Whittington went by many names. He was known as “Bill” to some and “Bunk” to others. I’ve heard him called “Dad” and “Uncle Bunk.” When his wife, Mary, was upset about something, it was “BILL!” Most importantly…to me anyway…he was “Grandpa.” I spent much of my childhood with him. We’d play boardgames and golf. He’d put records on the old player in the living room and introduce me to artists who would become major influences in my own music: Elvis Presley, Floyd Cramer, Frank Sinatra, and Johnny Mathis. He was very wise. I never heard him raise his voice and quarrel with anyone. Instead, he would just sit back and listen, take it all in. Then, if requested, would calmly offer his opinions or suggestions. If he didn’t have an answer for it, he would consult one of the many books in his library.
Of all the things that made him the man he was and the kind of man I desire to be, his faith in God was the foundation of his life. He started every day at about four o’clock in the morning with a cup of coffee, a scripture reading, a newspaper perusal, and a walk around the block. Within the first hours of his day, he took steps to grow in his physical well-being, his knowledge of the world around him, and his faith. He placed sharing his faith with his family in a place of highest priority. On his dresser, he kept a small green book entitled The Runner’s Bible. It was a collection of passages from the King James and English Revised Versions of the Bible, compiled by Nora Holm. I remember always seeing him read this book at short moments of rest during the day and right before bed in the evening. When I was with him, he would share the reading with me out loud. One Christmas, he gave a copy of this book to all of his grandchildren. On the first blank page inside, he had written:
“…and the truth shall set you free.”
Read a page or two every day.
Since he gave it to me, that book has never left my sight. It serves as a reminder of the man my grandfather was and it serves as a reminder of what was most important in his life: his faith.
I lost my grandfather on July 4th, 2017, while I was working as a piano bar entertainer on the Carnival Valor. I was devastated and wanted nothing more than to just go home. After talking with my father, we decided that not only was I going to stay on the ship for the duration of my contract, but that I would not cancel my show that evening. I will never forget that night. I recalled all of the records grandpa played when I was a child and played those songs the whole evening. I cried while I played Floyd Cramer’s Last Date and I laughed at the memory of Grandpa dancing while I played Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog. I played some of his favorite hymns, such as Power in the Blood and Mansion Over the Hilltop. It was a beautiful evening in which I was able to share, through music, my Grandfather with vacationers I had only met a few days prior.
Of all of the places my career has taken me, my favorite places have been long-term care facilities. The residents of these places know this is their last stop on the way home. Many are comfortable with this, but many are not. The nursing staff do members do an amazing job with comforting and improve the quality of life for the residents. I’ve watched many of these people, even in my own family, go through dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. They’re lost, they’re scared, and it’s a horrifying thing to watch. My own experience with this was watching my grandfather’s brother, Jay, go through Alzheimer’s while I was very young. “Uncle Jay” ran the White Owl Motor Company in Kinston for years and was a big part of the life of the Whittington family. I remember going over to Grandpa’s house once and Uncle Jay was there. I walked in to hug him and was greeted with, “what’s your name?” I laughed because I thought he was joking, but it soon became evident that he did not know who I was. I was confused. We watched him slowly forget everyone’s name, followed by words, the alphabet, counting basic numbers, and finally, basic motor skills. He painlessly succumbed to the disease, but it was his family that went through the agonizing torture of watching him slowly deteriorate.
Before entering these nursing homes, these people seem to be the driving personalities in our churches. They’re the ones who built them and raised us in them. At almost every church I have interviewed with for music positions, the questions always seem to revolve around growing in numbers and bringing younger people in. I understand this to be because of my own youth and the potential to draw others my age to the church. Many older members see the intent as to “replace” the older members with younger, newer members and believe they are losing their own voices.
I was born, baptized and raised a Roman Catholic, which was my mother’s faith. In high school, I joined the United Methodist Church (my father’s faith) and proceeded to serve as a musician for multiple local churches in this tradition for the better part of a decade. Having been raised Roman Catholic, the idea of “being saved” was someone foreign to me. We didn’t really do that. While I started going to the altar at the end of services every Sunday (mostly because the girls did), the summer of 2009 could be pinpointed as the time in my life where I became an intentional follower of Christ. While I had attended and worked for a few churches by this time, I became curious about the pastoral aspects of my position as a music director and church staff member. It no longer became just about the music to me, but more about interacting with my choirs and congregations as a family member. Since this point, I have made it a priority to build camaraderie within my ensembles and music programs through social time, cook-outs, bible studies, and just calling to check on members throughout the week.
“…and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
– John 8:32