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Duke K. McCall: In Memoriam

Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel? II Samuel 3:38



In the pantheon of Southern Baptist greats, Duke Kimbrough McCall’s place is secure. He was a once-in-a-generation figure; a man Solomonic in judgment and Mosaic in leadership. When he spoke, his words were full of wit and wisdom, power and grace. By birth and by nature, he was a Southern gentleman; a patrician, in every good sense of the word. Yet for me, Duke McCall was all of these things, but he was much more — he was a cherished friend.

McCall benefited from a kind providence that evidenced itself in a thousand signs of giftedness. As the psalmist would say, the lines fell on him in pleasant places (Ps 16:6). The sheer length and consequence his life brought McCall a certain aura, even mystique, which is rarely witnessed among men.

To know Duke McCall was to know a leader. The noted historian Rufus Fears argued there is a distinction to be made between a politician and a statesman: a politician has a political antenna; a statesman a moral compass. Few men possess either. Duke McCall possessed both.

For McCall, leadership came as natural as life itself. His rise through the denominational ranks was meteoric, almost assuredly mythological if it were not true. While still in his mid-30s, he had served as pastor of Louisville’s most prominent Baptist church, Broadway Baptist; been elected president of what would come to be known as New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary; served a stint as chief executive officer of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee; and had assumed the presidency of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where his administration would span four decades.

The capstone of McCall’s public ministry came as president of the Baptist World Alliance in the 1980s. It is no overstatement to say that Duke McCall managed to have his hand on the tiller of Baptist affairs for a half-century or more.

McCall proved to lead into the final season of his life. Even at his most advanced age, he continued to drive his own car, teach a Bible study through the book of Romans, coordinate social outings, maintain correspondence, and engage intellectually in political, cultural, denominational, and religious affairs. In fact, his home office looked like a veritable nerve center of Baptist life, with magazines, state papers, books, and letters all within arm’s reach.

My last visit with Duke McCall occurred in a Palm Beach, Fla., hospital just days before his passing. Though infirmed, he was never more himself. Intellectually engaging, walking the room, directing seating arrangements, self-diagnosing his ailment, inquiring about Midwestern and Southern Seminaries, incisively assessing the Southern Baptist Convention, and prognosticating about its future.

While in the hospital room with McCall, I had a thought I’ve had a hundred times — I wish I had known Duke McCall in his prime. In many ways, however, to know Duke McCall in his 10th decade was to know him in his prime — still assessing, counseling, encouraging. Still deliberating. Still leading.

Before Duke McCall went to his eternal home, he returned to his institutional and denominational home. He died enjoying a close relationship with Southern Seminary, as a man held in highest esteem by President Albert Mohler, Jr., and Southern Seminary’s faculty and administration. To be sure, theological distance made his relationship with Southern Seminary and the Southern Baptist Convention at times an uneasy one, but the relationship did not lack in mutual affection or appreciation.

Though he did not always agree with Southern Seminary’s current theological convictions, he was always proud of his alma mater. He admired the burgeoning enrollment, beautifully maintained campus, expansive denominational footprint, and the convictional leadership of Mohler.

During my last conversation with Duke McCall, he expressed his determination to attend my upcoming inauguration as president of Midwestern Seminary, and I expressed my desire to have him participate in some way in the inaugural events. McCall’s death ensures his absence, but, in a very real way, his life ensures his presence. His presence will indeed be felt. He will be there in the campus of a seminary he helped conceptualize and found. He will be there in the denominational superstructure he envisioned and shaped. He will be there in the lives and ministries of the countless individuals who studied at Southern Seminary during his presidency or since.

Duke McCall often joked about having missed many appropriate exit ramps to Heaven. Nothing could be further from the truth. In his 99th year, for Duke McCall death came late, but in a very real sense it came too soon. Most men quit living long before they die. McCall always seemed too busy living — and leading — to entertain dying.

On Tuesday, April 2, 2013, Duke K. McCall went to his eternal reward. Indeed, the Southern Baptist Convention lost a statesman. The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary lost a patriarch. I lost a friend.

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