Woolleys walk away from fame to find calling, blessings in ministry - Word&Way

Woolleys walk away from fame to find calling, blessings in ministry

By Vicki Brown, Word&Way News Writer

How many individuals would walk away from careers with the potential for wild acclaim and big bucks to take up ministry's relative obscurity and "church-mouse" economics?

Bob and Margaret Woolley did.

An avid baseball player, Woolley was approached twice by the St. Louis Browns to consider trying out for the team.

But as a senior at Ponca City (Okla.) High School in 1945, Woolley became friends with First Baptist's music leader, Tommy Laine, then a senior at Oklahoma Baptist University. Laine convinced Woolley to use his love for singing by joining the church choir.

As Woolley approached the end of his senior year, his parents and Laine convinced him to attend summer school at OBU. Then they suggested that at 18, he could join the U.S. Army.

Laine helped his young friend enroll at OBU, telling Woolley that he had to declare a major and suggested music. Laine secured a music scholarship for Woolley and found him a spot with a quartet. By the end of the summer, he decided to stay in school.

While relaxing with his dad in a coffee shop, John Matheson, pastor of Wallace Avenue Baptist Church in Shawnee, Okla., approached the younger Woolley about becoming the church's music minister.

In 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers invited Woolley to try out for a spot on the franchise's farm team in Ponca City.

"They told me to call back on Sunday for an answer," he said. Instead, Woolley said, "I hung up my uniform."

The desire to play professionally left and he heard God's call to ministry, he explained. Woolley, now celebrating his 60th year in ministry, still laughs that God's call came "two years after I got started."

As a senior, he was called to a church in Bristow, Okla., where he met Margaret, who had been pursuing a different career path — as a dancer. Margaret started taking dance lessons at 6 years old and had danced in several venues across Oklahoma.

A New York agent had been talking to her about relocating when she met Woolley. When the agent learned the two had become engaged, he sent her an urgent telegram – "don't do anything stupid" — and traveled to Bristow to try to convince her to give up marriage plans. The pair will celebrate their 56th anniversary in October.

Married six months, they were called to First Baptist Church, Okmulgee, Okla., where Margaret became church secretary. Three years later, they moved to Chickasha so that Woolley could take on music and education responsibilities at First Baptist Church. "I thought I would be there forever," he said. But in 1956, he became music minister at First Baptist Church, Duncan, Okla.

Woolley began his stint in Missouri when he was called to First Baptist Church, Raytown, in 1967. He served there for more than four years when the Missouri Baptist Convention called him as the state music director, a post he took in January 1972. Since retiring from the position in 1992, Woolley has served in interim capacities several places, including the last three years at Centertown Baptist Church.

Woolley's 60-year colorful career parallels the growth of music ministry in Southern Baptist life, and he has worked with several notable musicians, including Cliff Barrows and Kurt Kiser.

He counts George Beverly Shea among his good friends. Herschel Hobbs befriended him while Woolley was a college student and Hobbs was pastor of First Baptist Church, Oklahoma City. "Dr. Hobbs kind of took me under his wing," the musician said, and the pair remained friends until Hobbs died.

Woolley has led music at nine SBC senior adult national events and 26 senior adult state festivals in 14 states. "A lot of that is because I was in church music in the beginning," he said. "There were only seven music ministers in Oklahoma when I got started."

He noted that the then SBC Sunday School Board added a music department in 1940. "I was the young one and would do things the others turned down," he laughed.

Because of being on the ground floor of Southern Baptist work, Woolley got to participate in the first Home Mission (now North American Mission) Board crusades in Alaska.

He has led revivals in 15 states, sung solos in 31 states and made 17 mission trips, including trips to nine foreign countries.

Woolley is also well regarded for his compositions. He got started writing music at the prompting of Terry Kirkland at the Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources).

He has written nine musicals, including "Saints Alive," his most well known. Released by Lorenz Publishing in 1983, "Saints Alive," a musical that celebrates serving God in retirement, still outsells the other eight.

Other well-known works include "Forward Together," composed for the MBC in 1973, "Theanthro," a program for young people called into ministry, and "I Will Be Your Friend," written for a state missions offering emphasis.

He wrote the musical "Walking in Truth" to celebrate the convention's sesquicentennial. He created "membership cards" and asked people to purchase the music and learn it before the celebration. He hoped to entice 1,500 singers to participate. Many more responded.

Woolley started the Missouri Music Men and at one time led the Missouri Directors of Missions Chorus, which featured 57 of the state's DOM's and which sang in at least three national meetings.

He is a charter member of the SBC's Century Men and was a member of the Baptist Hymnal committee in 1975 and 1991.

"I've experienced so many wonderful things. I haven't deserved it," he said.

Margaret also has no regrets at giving up a promising career. "It's been a wonderful life when you feel like you've been in the middle of the circle where God wants you," she explained. "There are no words to describe the joy that is mine."

Margaret has impacted Missouri Baptists particularly through Sunday School and Vacation Bible School conferences across the state.

She served as secretary in nearly every church in which they ministered.

Although she never considered herself a musician, she assisted with or led children's choirs at several churches they served.

When Woolley accepted the MBC post, Margaret took a job as secretary in the state Woman's Missionary Union office. She later moved to the Sunday School Department, where she became the convention's first preschool consultant.

She made several trips to Belarus during the MBC's partnership with that country and wrote the VBS material churches there used.

Woolley continues to write. He is currently working on a children's Christmas musical titled "The Heavenly Host," which tells the age-old story through new songs, such as "Pack for the Journey," "A One-Star Hotel" and "Let's Buzz on Down to that Bethlehem Town."

While Woolley never played ball for a major-league franchise, he has sung the gospel in every city with a Major League team, except Pittsburg. "I still sing, but there are no 78-year-old baseball players," he declared.

"It's been a tremendous journey and it's still going on." (09-22-05)