Frequently I ask people to name the leader who has personally influenced them the most. People typically respond describing leaders who are neither famous nor incredibly successful. In fact, they often talk about leaders who would not even be considered leaders by conventional definitions. Yet these leaders left an indelible mark. They bring to mind the Apostle Paul’s image of “treasure in jars of clay” (2 Corinthians 4:7). Common on the outside, but the content is priceless. My mother was one of them.
Nancy Jean Howe was born on January 27th, 1936 into a troubled home. Her father was a musician. Her mother gambled on horses at the race track. The marriage didn’t last, so Nancy was shuffled between sparring parents until her father died when she was twelve. Her mother then moved them to Hawaii where Nancy finished high school.
Nancy met Richard – a Navy cook stationed at Pearl Harbor – during a game of volleyball on Waikiki. They were married in June 1953, and she was pregnant by early 1954. When the baby was due, there were serious difficulties. After five days in labor, the doctors told Nancy that her baby would probably be stillborn. Years later, my mother told me, “In that hospital bed, I surrendered my life to Jesus, and I gave you to Him too.”
For the rest of her life, she made good on her promises.
Mother’s leadership took many forms. She was to me a walking encyclopedia. She knew Mickey Mantle’s batting average and how to tie a half hitch. At bedtime, she would sit with my sister and me to answer our endless questions like where the sun goes at night, why some kids get polio, how jets fly, and where baby kittens come from.
She was a master mechanic who could get my trouser leg out of a bicycle chain and could fix pretty much anything with duct tape or a hairpin. She was a nurse who removed loose teeth, stopped an earache in the middle of the night, and cured my measles before the first-grade picnic. Mother was a detective who could find the missing mate to each sock. She was a seamstress who sewed on knee patches and buttons, and made costumes for the school play.
Mother was a financier who stretched the family budget to include braces on my teeth. She was a psychologist that convinced her son to mow the neighbor’s lawn while they were on vacation, and nudged her Little Leaguer to play with stitches in his thumb rather than let his teammates down. She was an intercessor who lobbied God daily on my behalf, and more often during my prodigal period.
She was an entrepreneur who launched out with my dad to plant a local church in our local community. She was a chauffeur who piled youth group kids into the back of our Rambler to take them swimming, skating, and on beach retreats. She was an advisor who spent hundreds of hours around her kitchen table with those young people helping them navigate the confusing season of adolescence.
She was a catalyst who gave wings to my dreams – even the crazy ones. She was a mentor whose quiet, steady resolve God used to mold me and countless others.
She was an ambassador for reconciliation in the 1960s segregated South; she and my father were among the first in our town to create real community with people of color. She was a caretaker when she took in a 14-year old orphan and nurtured him into adulthood as her own. She was a global visionary who counted the cost when her loved ones decided to serve God in faraway places; she waved good-bye through tears of hope and pain as we left with her grandchildren as missionaries to Indonesia. She was an encourager in my pursuits to change the world; she was full of grace regardless the outcome.
God summoned her home in 2013. Her ashes were placed in the cemetery next to her husband’s grave. There is a headstone stating simply that she was born and she died. There is no statue built in her honor, no memorial erected to immortalize her. She never wrote a book. She never held a position of power. She was, however, treasure in a clay jar. And now she is with the great cloud of witnesses still cheering us on.
Mother was one of those leaders whose indelible impact stems from their unyielding faith in a better future. These men and women are of noble virtue – not because they are perfect – but because they are unwavering in their faith and integrity. These leaders give of themselves to see others rise to their highest potential. And they usually do so without expecting much in return. Rather, they just exhort those of us they bless to bless the next generation.
In summary, these leaders reflect Christ’s leadership. May Mother’s tribe increase in our time.