A well-liked old pastor friend had a way with words. He had a particular expression he used when certain Baptist leaders died. “A mighty oak has fallen,” he would say, usually prompting a chorus of “amens.”
The description could certainly fit a couple of friends: Theo Sommerkamp, retired editor of the Ohio Baptist Messenger, who died April 19, and R.G. “Gene” Puckett, retired editor of the North Carolina Biblical Recorder, who died May 12. Theo was 84 and Gene was 80.
These men were my friends, encouragers and supporters. Both championed the notion of a free press and the importance of a well-informed constituency.
Theo worked for many years as assistant editor of Baptist Press, the news service of the Southern Baptist Convention. Later he served at European Baptist Press Services and at the SBC Annuity Board (now Guidestone Financial Resources).
He became the Ohio editor in 1976 and served until he retired in 1994. He referred to himself as a “missionary journalist.” He was widely known as a railfan, a railroad enthusiast. When travel took him to Nashville for meetings, Theo would stay in a hotel that sat next to a rail line, and in the room closest to passing trains. That was perfect for a railfan, if not for someone seeking an uninterrupted night’s sleep.
Gene was a founding editor of Associated Baptist Press and chairman of its board. He served pastorates in Kentucky and Ohio, serving as editor of the paper for Southern Baptists in that state and as director of student work.
Later, he served as associate editor of Kentucky’s Western Recorder before being named editor of the Maryland Baptist. He was executive director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State from 1979-82, and then was named editor in North Carolina, where he served 16 years until his retirement in 1998.
An endowment fund established in 2006 with a $125,000 gift bears his name. Earnings support the ABP news student internship program.
These two colleagues affected Baptist life more than most in many ways. Each nurtured younger colleagues and gave them good counsel in fulfilling their own vocations and service.
Both were fearless, though in distinctive ways. Both were familiar with the greatness in Baptist life, and both had seen Baptists up close at less than their best.
Theo practiced his craft in areas in which Baptists needed to be drawn together because they were in minorities. Certainly that was so in Europe and in Ohio. He tempered his editorial admonitions with this reality in mind. Nevertheless, he spoke his mind and implored readers to exercise their faith and their influence wisely.
Gene was known as a fiery editorialist and was one of the strongest Baptist voices during long years of battle for control of the Southern Baptist Convention. He counseled younger journalists to be true to their calling of truth-telling, even though some would be critical of their stridency.
I loved both of these guys, who were willing friends even though I was nearly a generation younger and from a small pond of Baptists – Illinois – when I first met them.
When each retired, I signed them up for complimentary copies of the newspaper I was editing at the time. Both stayed interested in the troubles among Missouri Baptists and the effect of the discord on Word&Way. Both stayed in touch with me and from time to time voiced their moral support. They and their spouses were donors to Word&Way after we lost financial support from the Missouri Baptist Convention.
I value memories of time spent with them and of their support of free Baptists and a free press, even in Missouri. Both of these are might oaks that have fallen but have landed in a better place.
Theo lost his bride of 60 years a couple of years ago but is survived by two sons, a daughter and four grandchildren. Gene’s wife of 57 years, Robbie, two daughters and four grandchildren survive him. Our sympathies go out to both families.