Update 6/19/2014: It is a reflection of how many people John Worth influenced that nearly 1500 people have read my tribute to John. Thanks for reading and honoring John in such a special way. Blessings!
Lisa and I are so sorry that we cannot be with our church family today to honor the life of John Worth during his memorial service. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Judy, the boys and the entire Worth family. I wanted to honor John the only way I knew how – to write about him. This is my tribute.
By the time we reached Montgomery, Alabama the line of cars had reached more than a dozen. Some who had joined our convoy to Panama City, Florida had no idea where our group originated but had pulled in line along the way and remained in formation as we headed south for spring break. In 1985 one could not travel without the aid of a CB (Citizens Band) radio and we would joke and tease one another during the ten-hour drive while also keeping our eyes peeled for state troopers ready to slow us down. In order to make really good time the group needed a bird dog in front scouting for speed traps and alerting everyone to slow down. We had to have a leader and that leader was always John Worth.
We had met at John’s house at three o’clock that morning and after everyone was in line and accounted for we waited for his signal to begin our trek. Along the way we depended on John to give directions as to where to stop for gas, where to eat, and how fast we should be driving. It seems appropriate that John would be the one to head out into that darkness on that sleepy pre-dawn morning and light the way for all the rest to follow. He never shied away from taking charge and just knowing he was in the lead somehow gave me assurance that I would not have any problems – just needed to follow his tail lights. The majority of those in that convoy that morning were members of Bellevue Baptist Church and knew John to be a leader not only on trips like these but as an admired deacon and servant of the church. John’s boldness was instrumental in moving Bellevue forward during good times and bad and his faithfulness to his friends, to his family, to his church and to the God he loved was unwavering. That boldness would sometimes be confused with brash bull-headedness that would, at times, anger people and rankle even the calmest of members and friends. But, in the end, everyone loved John and admired his courage. This post is dedicated to him.
A few years ago I had the pleasure of leading the Bellevue deacons through a Ropes course that I built and managed on the campus of the middle school where I worked for twenty years. My goal that day was simply to get the deacons and ministers to come together for an experience of support and encouragement. The men were challenged to put on harnesses and climb up to thirty feet while being belayed and supported by a rope held by the other deacons down below. I could tell that the men were a little hesitant at first (as was common) and after all the harnesses were securely fastened and instructions given, I asked for a volunteer to be the first climber. It took about two seconds for John Worth to step forward. That was John. He may have been scared to death that day, I really don’t remember – but I do remember he was determined to be first.
I don’t think John wanted to be first just to tell everyone later that he was first. Something in his DNA forced him to step out – to stand alone, if necessary – to lead. My hunch is John was as afraid that day as everyone else but was not going to let fear stop him. Fear seemed to be his motivator and I was amazed to watch as every single deacon and minister followed his lead and climbed to the top of every single obstacle that day.
In the thirty-five years I knew John Worth (twenty-eight of which I served with him as deacon) I never found anyone as faithful to the things he loved. If there was ever a problem – you can bet that John would barge into it head-long and full force without a flinch. Had John lived during an age in which problems were resolved with duels, he would have held the record for either most duels won or fastest duel accepted and lost. Once I remember him being challenged following a church basketball game by someone not entirely pleased with how aggressive he had played and John offered to settle the matter mano-a-mano and this after he had already played an entire game. We broke up the altercation and both went their separate ways. John just did not know what ‘back down’ meant. He drove through life fast and, at times, furious. I made the mistake once of getting on a double inner-tube with his oldest son, Johnny II, and allowing him to pull us across Rough River behind his speed boat. I was so scared by the time he had reached his top speed that my fingers gripped to the handles had practically melded themselves to the fabric hand holds. At one point I looked over at Johnny II and saw him flying through the air having lost his grip. I was too afraid to keep going and too afraid to let go. Finally and mercifully John slowed down and I pried my fingers loose and dropped safely into the water. John did life full speed ahead and people with him had to learn to hang on or fly off – he never offered a slow ride.
Over the years I came to understand something special about John. He really loved people. On several occasion he and I were partnered to visit someone from our church and I was always amazed at his ability to not only talk to people but have genuine interest in their lives. It is no wonder he was so successful selling – he really liked the people he sold to – and that is a rare find these days. One could not walk into Bellevue without being greeted by John and he turned the basic task of ushering into an art no one will ever be able to duplicate. He simply loved meeting people. John often described himself as a “smart ass” and his teasing was legendary. One had to learn to laugh at the ribbing he would give you or he could make it brutal. It was just one of the ways he connected with people he liked and he liked a lot of people. But with John it was more than just liking people. Through the years John was for me and my family someone we could rely on for help if needed. On the day my brother died in 1987, one of the first people to meet me at my mom and dad’s house and attempt to comfort our grief was John. When it was left up to me to gather my brother’s belongings in Frankfort, Ky., (where he had lived) it was John who offered his van for Lisa and I to use on that horrible day. I will never forget his kindness.
When I connect the dots over the course of my life, I realize that John played a major role in creating an important path in my journey. In 1978 one of my best friends was hired to be the youth minister at Bellevue Baptist Church. John Worth was the driving force in having Mike Spencer hired as a full-time youth minister – something extremely rare in those days. Typically churches hired ministers to fill a combination of roles such as youth and music. Bellevue was still a relatively small church at the time and yet John knew the need for youth ministry crucial. It has been my belief that the strong youth ministry Mike established was the main reason Bellevue stayed together during what would be a tumultuous few years in the early 1980s. I credit John Worth for that vision. It was during Mike’s first summer on the job that he invited me over to Bellevue one afternoon for a youth volleyball game. One of the high school girls playing that day caught my eye. She was small in stature but cute and had a huge personality. Five years later, Lisa Cunningham became my wife and even though we now travel with her job much of the year, Bellevue has remained the orbit in which our lives have revolved and a place we will always call home. I credit John for being a key instrument God used to carry out His eternal plan.
I loved hearing stories John could tell about his times with Vernon Cunningham, Lisa’s dad and one his best friends. The two of them had many wonderful experiences riding motorcycles on various journeys, camping in tents along the way and just being together as friends. John would lean into his stories, literally moving forward in his chair and starting usually with a “I’ll tell you what…” and then proceed to launch into a hilarious yarn about past adventures. One of my favorite stories was his describing a high school basketball game during his years at Owensboro High School. The best I can remember Owensboro was playing Calhoun High School (now McLean County High School) and toward the end of a very close game John was fouled and sent to the free throw line. Owensboro trailed by one point with only a second or two left and as he stepped up to take the free throws – a time out was called. I don’t remember the details of what happened next but there was an extended delay. The Owensboro High coach then, Lawrence McGinnis, told John to stay at the line until play was finally resumed and here is where John paused and leaned in. “Thirty-five minutes later I was still standing at the line waiting to shoot”. By the time he was handed the basketball he was so nervous he missed everything.
In recent years I noticed John grow mellow and gain a healthy perspective about his life and the family and friends he loved so much. John asked me to teach his Sunday School class sometime around 2004 and I remained his teacher for the next several years. I could always count on John being in attendance and offering a comment or a perspective on whatever topic was being discussed. One particular study during my tenure as his teacher was on heaven and I never remember John being more amped up about a biblical subject. Hardly a week went by that John did not talk about and get noticeably excited over God’s promised after-life. He just could not wait to get there.
John Worth barged into my life and hundreds if not thousands of other lives as well. He led into the darkness and went courageously head first into every challenge. On June 14, 2014 John barged into heaven. He died riding his motorcycle – something he loved. He died with friends near him – the people he loved. It was shockingly unexpected and the years of missing him have only now begun. He leaves behind a wife (Judy) whom he adored and his boys and grandchildren who were – to put it succinctly – his life. He also leaves behind people who he could call his friends.
There will never be another person like John Worth. And now he is where he has wanted to be all along. Open those doors to heaven wide – John is coming through and nothing is going to stop him.