My new friend, Billy Furgerson, was born in Shawnee, Oklahoma, October 25, 1923. His dad worked for the Rock Island Railroad, but his father owned a farm in Calvin, Oklahoma and was desperate for help. So, Billy’s dad left the railroad to help him with the farm. Calvin was then a town of approximately 600 in population. He remembers the extremely difficult Depression years when money and jobs were so scarce. Billy says, “A man would work for $1.00 per day and be glad to get it.”
Billy’s wife, Ida Mae, has said that her father worked for $.50 per day during those years. Billy says, “It was just terrible.” And he remembers cutting a rick of wood, loading it in the wagon, then stacking it for the customer, all for $1.00. (A rick of wood is 8 feet long, 4 feet high and 16-18 inches deep.)
Many men went back to work when President Roosevelt instituted the Work Progress Administration and the Civil Conservation Corps. These were public work relief efforts that began rebuilding America’s infrastructure. Billy was enrolled at Wetunka Junior College and after classes each day he was able to work at the National Youth Administration, making between $8.00 and $10.00 per month.
I can’t help but believe that Billy’s generation was steeled by these tough times. These young men would enter the war effort, strong, determined and willing to do whatever it took to see that justice prevailed in the world. They had all struggled through those lean years and Billy says, “It took a war to bring us out of it.”
But Billy’s life began to be molded into the man that he is today, and that he has been all his life, when, as a young boy of 12 years old, he attended a revival at the Methodist church in Calvin. “When churches had revivals, it was the place to go to meet your friends,” Billy remembers. Most of the revivals in that day lasted for two weeks or longer.
Billy’s mother attended the Church of Christ and they only had Sunday morning preaching services. The Baptist and the Methodist churches had activities for youth on Sunday evenings. “We would go to whichever one had the most exciting program for young people,” he said. But that night at the Methodist revival service in 1935 was different for Billy.
It was a very hot evening and the men had moved the pews of the church out to the back lawn. Billy and his friends were sitting in a row toward the front. He had heard the message and his heart was stirred. During the invitation time one of the men, Harry Hardwick, came to Billy, put his big arm around him and said, “Billy, don’t you want to trust Jesus tonight?” With a thankful heart for that friend, Billy said, “I remember it as if it were last night, John. I knew I had done some things and I knew I was a sinner.” Mr. Hardwick went with Billy down front to the prayer bench and helped him pray.
From that night Billy Furgerson wanted to be a committed Christian. Even though in his early years the church did not do a very good job of discipling new Christians, he still knew God’s hand was on his life. He says, “Because there was no one to take me under their arm and teach me about how I needed to grow in the Christian life, I was just kinda on my own, and like so many others, was a ‘tongue in cheek Christian.’”
Billy graduated from Calvin High School in 1941. That fall, he and some of his friends enrolled in Wetunka Junior College, so they could play basketball. He spent a year there and did not return the following year because he expected to be drafted into the military. He worked for J.W. Hundley department store in Calvin until he was drafted in August of 1943.
Army Air Corps Basic Training was at Buckley Field in Aurora, Colorado. After Basic, he was stationed at Camp Patrick Henry in Virginia and would serve in administrative/clerical duties during his military time. The Broadway play, Oklahoma, had just begun and was very popular. Billy remembers that it rained all the time in Virginia and each morning the base would play O, What a Beautiful Morning over the speakers. Billy’s next stop would be in Italy for 17 months. The war was over in North Africa and the Germans were now occupying northern Italy.
When the war ended, Billy’s unit was stationed in Pisa, Italy. He and his friends made a couple of trips to Rome, where the Pope would come through at noon each day, blessing the crowds that assembled. Billy’s Catholic buddies would give them rosaries and get the group to stand in the front, so the Pope could bless them as he passed by and they could get pictures from behind them.
In the Fall of 1945, they were taken to Dachau, one of the German concentration camps. Some of the survivors of the camp were guides for them. They toured the death camp and witnessed the atrocities that took place there.
Billy remembers that in the basement he saw large wooden barrels, filled with human ashes from the Nazi ovens. Also, around some of the walls were small clay pots that were filled with ashes, with people’s names on them. This was a very sickening tour indeed.
Discharged from the Army in March 1946, Billy enrolled at Oklahoma University. They allowed him a half year of credit for his junior college, so he spent 3 ½ years there and graduated in 1949 with a Business Administration degree. He went to work for Gulf Oil Corp and would retire there after 34 years in Oklahoma City.
1949 was a very special year for Billy. Not only did he graduate and begin his career, but he married his sweetheart, Ida Mae that year also. They began their married life in Kansas, where he was in training and moved to Tulsa in 1951. They would be blessed with two wonderful daughters, Pam in 1951 and Paula in 1953. They joined Bethel Baptist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and under the leadership of their pastor, they dedicated their marriage to God and began to experience the Christian discipleship that Billy had needed from his days in Calvin.
They began to learn what the Bible says about life and how they should live. They were growing in their Christian faith. After 5 weeks of their discipleship training with their pastor, Ida Mae said that they needed to begin tithing their income. But Billy objected because they had debt they were paying down. She persisted, replying that “The Lord will make a way because it is right.” Billy kept putting her off, “I didn’t have faith like she had. But I saw she was serious and began looking in the Tulsa classified ads for job listings.”
He found a part time job stocking grocery shelves for 3 hours each night and all-day Saturday. “That ad was there for me,” Billy believes. “That’s how we started tithing. The Lord has blessed us. I’ve never made a large salary, but it’s amazing what God can do with a little bit.”
After retirement in 1983, Billy, along with other men and women from his church, helped the chaplain ministry at the Oklahoma City/County jail. Billy was involved with this ministry for 13 years. He says, “That was a wonderful experience. They would bring the guys down, about 10 at a time. They usually wanted to see the Chaplain for prayer. We dealt with them one on one and it was a wonderful opportunity to witness Christ to them. This meant so much to my own spiritual life. I needed that.”
Billy witnessed the extreme seedy side of life during those years. He said, “I’ve seen what a life of sin can do to a person. Men would pull up their shirts and show me where they had been stabbed in the stomach, show me bullet holes where they had been shot and needle marks from drugs and many were covered with tattoos.” These people were incarcerated in a 13-story jail that was constructed to house 1100 prisoners. The last time Billy was there, the population was 2200.
But many of these men came to realize the importance of the spiritual life, and Billy’s fondest memories were praying with inmates and hearing them pray to receive Jesus. One particular man was a deaf mute. He could not hear or speak. But they communicated via a writing tablet and he wrote out his prayer of repentance and faith that day.
I met Billy and his family one day in a Wendy’s restaurant. He had his WWII veteran cap on and I knew I had to meet him and see if I could tell his story. But, as you have seen from this post, the most important thing in Billy’s life isn’t his military career, but it is his relationship with God. Thank you, Billy Furgerson, for your service to our country and your service to the King of Kings.