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Fast fingers meets a southern belle

by John Arlon Hawke

The first time she heard Herman “Fast Fingers” Hersey play the piano, Vernie thought it quite awful the way he added all those extra notes to the music. She had been taught to play exactly what was written and do it with dignity. “Fast Fingers” and his exuberant style jarred her musical sensibilities and irritated her as well. They negotiated. Herman and Vernie Hersey have now been married 53 years.

The unlikely pair began their journeys on opposite ends of the worship curve. An unreconstructed Chicago Yankee, Herman (79) preached his first sermon at age 13, attended historic Moody Church as a boy, and relished the no-holds-barred atmosphere at Pacific Garden Mission. Vernie (76) led the quiet, reserved life of a Southern lady in South Carolina...until she met Herman, that is.

That happened during a revival at a Methodist church with a Nazarene evangelist, a Disciples’ pianist, and a Free Will Baptist song leader. Vernie was the pianist, “Fast Fingers” the song leader. He was a hungry student at Bob Jones University looking to make an extra buck, while she expected a more sedate revival experience. They both got the surprise of their lives.

Pulling Together

 “We have always worked together,” says Vernie, “and that’s a miracle in itself.”

The Herseys began working together when Herman pastored Free Will Baptist churches 23 years in North Carolina, continued working together during his 25 years as the Board of Retirement’s general director, and even hit the road together on a two-year tour with the late tenor soloist Bill Gardner.

Herman made his mark as a musician, pastor and hard-charging denominational executive serving on numerous boards in quarterly meetings, state associations, and national agencies. He logged 12 years (1962-1974) on the Sunday School Board, five as chair during the agency’s relocation to new facilities.

Vernie’s flexibility opened unexpected doors as Herman’s ministry expanded. The pro-active pastor’s wife blossomed into a secretary, an accountant, and a gifted journalist, serving as editor of Happenings and the Free Will Baptist Steward. She wrote and published more than 100 articles, some of which were picked up and reprinted by large national magazines.

Starting Small

Herman Hersey is best known for his ground-breaking work with the Board of Retirement. Named general director in 1969, he kept an office in the parsonage bedroom at Garner Free Will Baptist Church (Garner, NC), before moving to Nashville in 1973.

 “L.R. Ennis challenged me to work with the North Carolina Board of Superannuation in 1964,” Herman says. “When I told him that I didn’t know anything about it, Brother Ennis responded, ‘You’re not too dumb to learn it.’”

The Herseys started out with two staffers to operate the Board of Retirement—Herman as general director and Vernie as everything else while Herman traveled from coast to coast hawking the denominational retirement plan. Always innovators, they established the Free Will Baptist Foundation in 1980 “because there was a need for it.”

Their musical gifts made them welcome in every church while their message chipped away at a sleepy denomination with the disturbing news that even preachers got too old to hold down full-time jobs. They became musical road warriors for the Board of Retirement and the Free Will Baptist Foundation.

Annuities Matter

Before retiring, the Herseys decided to live the last three years of their employment on the projected income from their Social Security and Free Will Baptist retirement accounts. That gave them a first-hand sense of what to expect.

When they retired in 1994, they both opted to take lifetime annuities that will give them monthly income for the rest of their lives. They live on their combined Social Security and retirement accounts.

 “We could not make it without our annuities from the Board of Retirement,” Vernie says.

Looking back on a 60-year ministry, Herman says, “I advise young pastors to start an account with the Board of Retirement with their first paycheck. You cannot start too soon. Consistency is more important than the amount, because it gives your money time to work for you.”

He glanced across the room at Vernie and smiled, continuing, “When we started out, it was harder to sell older ministers on the need for a retirement plan. Our younger men today are better informed and will be better prepared for retirement.”

Still Making a Difference

The Herseys relocated to Jackson, Tennessee, to be near their daughter. They share their high-ceilinged, brick home with a brassy 13-year-old cockatiel named Charlie who eats grits and gets top billing when company comes.

Even though he has several health issues, Herman has made 20 cross-country tours giving piano concerts in his unique, electrifying style.

 “Fast Fingers” often wonders what might have happened if he had accepted that long-ago music scholarship to study in Austria. “Hitler changed my mind about going to Austria,” he says. He contented himself with studies at the Chicago Institute of Music and the St. Louis Institute of Music.

Four years ago when their pastor resigned at Victory FWB Church, Herman agreed to fill in until a new pastor was called. He’s still filling in. Vernie does much of the visitation because Herman’s mobility is restricted. He may be the only Free Will Baptist pastor who preaches sitting down from a stool.

The amazing Herseys continue to give encore performances. He’s still a Chicago Yankee, and she’s his Southern Belle.



©2005 ONE Magazine, National Association of Free Will Baptists