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June-July 2016


Hidden Heroes


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"I Think I'm About Ready to Go On"

By Greg Ketteman

Our mother, Helen Johnson Ketteman Smith, was 90 years old when she went to Heaven last year. She was frail, her back was crooked, and her voice was faded, but she was still the best mother any children could ask for.


Why Daddy Caught Mother

Little boys are known for saying, “My daddy can beat up your daddy,” but we didn’t go around saying, “My mother is prettier than your mother.” Too bad! Daddy may not have been able to beat up all of my friend’s daddies, but it would have been true that my mother was prettier than their mothers. I didn’t fully understand how beautiful my mother was until I was an adult.

I don’t know if the phrase in Proverbs 31, “Her children will rise up and call her blessed” means that they will speak about her appearance; I know the passage is speaking about Christian character, poise, integrity, and diligence. These things were true of my mother. But in the spirit of that passage, I want to acknowledge that my mother was a beautiful woman.

With that said, I’m not sure how Daddy snagged Mother . . . part of it was that Mother absolutely loved down-to-earth, everyday wit and humor, and she had a deep love of God’s Word. This beautiful, graceful South Carolina coed grew up in the warmth of her parent’s cultivation, and she willingly internalized their deep reverence for the Bible and Christian virtue. By the time she met Paul Ketteman, she had grown to love witty sayings and homespun humor. Daddy came from a long line of everyday wit and humor, and he wanted to preach the Word. I think this is how the country boy snagged a woman who was obviously a major-league beauty.


Mother’s Parenting Skills

Carol, Joy, and I still talk about Mother’s somewhat unconventional and subtle ways of training her children. When we were little, Mother put us into bed at night then went to the piano to play hymns, often singing as she played: “When They Ring Those Golden Bells,” “Lead Me Gently Home,” “Jesus Is Ascended,” and many others. These were our lullabies. We knew the tunes to hundreds of hymns by the time we were six years old. Mother taught us to sing, and we memorized Christian songs and hymns, often singing them together in the house, in the car, or at church. She taught us to memorize Scripture.


When we were sick or anxious, nothing worked like Mother’s touch. One caress of her fingers across our eyes or cheeks would work magic, instantly relieving whatever hurt we were experiencing. She had a very gentle, delicate touch, but it was powerful.
Mother had a deep understanding of Proverbs 22:6 that played out every day as she raised children then dealt with them later as adults. “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” The passage literally speaks about “training up a child according to his bent” and Mother was really an expert on our “bent.” You couldn’t fool her. Yes, she was quiet and unassuming—seeming to be blissfully unaware of the character of other people.

After all, you have to be unaware if you treat everyone with the gentle kindness and respect that Mother demonstrated. But believe me, she could size you up in a heartbeat. She knew what you were about. That’s what made her gentle kindness so amazing. She overlooked what she sensed and reached out with genuine interest and love.

I want to first publicly apologize to my sisters Carol and Joy. All of us know the truth. I was Mother’s favorite. Ask Carol and Joy. They will tell you it’s true. But I believe that this phenomenon was born out of her recognition that little boys, who would later become men, were born with the need to be admired. Mother knew her girls’ greatest need was her authentic love that would later develop into a close mentoring relationship. She delivered this to them in an unparalleled fashion.

Now, my most ardent, lifelong admirer is gone. But what a gift she gave me: a belief that God had gifted me to be equal to any task. From earliest childhood, I believed her when she told me I could do anything I set my mind to, and when she bragged on me for my accomplishments. I believe Carol and Joy caught on to this before I did, although they’ve allowed me to believe it was simply favoritism. The day before Mother died, I thanked her for expressing pride in me and for instilling in me a great desire to make her proud. I miss her powerful encouragement.


Mother’s Courage and Character

Mother was a brave woman. She was absolutely loyal to Daddy and followed him to pastorates that must have seemed far from home. When we moved in 1962 from Columbus, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee, for Daddy to become public relations director at Free Will Baptist Bible College, Mother lived in the big city for the first time in her life. Not only was she far from family, she often held sole responsibility for three young children for weeks at a time while Daddy traveled.

If she was ever afraid, I never knew it. If she was ever bitter, I never knew it. She handled most everything with the same poise and dignity that was her public persona. Who she was at home was exactly who she was in public. And I’m so thankful that God, in His providence, used this time to build a Christian foundation that would serve as my anchor for the rest of my life.



Mother’s courage and poise played out in all of her roles at church, as a pastor’s wife, with Daddy at countless churches and association meetings, with her family, and in her work at the College. I know Mother had class preparations and grading to do for the business classes she taught at Welch College, but I never saw it interfere with home life. She saw to it that we had wonderful, home-cooked meals every day, often when Daddy had invited someone to the house rather unexpectedly.

For years, I thought Daddy was the people person and Mother more reserved. Daddy lived large, gregariously engaging people and obviously being energized by them. In these last years I’ve learned that while Mother was more reserved, she was no less a people person. Just like Daddy, she drew strength from relationships with many people.


Last Years

I may have learned the most from Mother in her last years. She accepted the providence of God in her second godly husband, Rolla Smith, and continued as a helpmeet for him for almost 25 years. In my daily afternoon phone conversations with Mother, she listened while I shared about my activities, my children, my frustrations, and my aspirations, big and small. One afternoon Mother called me. This was unusual because I normally made the call. We talked for ten or 15 minutes about this and that, nothing special. Then she asked if I might be coming over to the house later. “I hadn’t planned on it, Momma. Do you need something?”

“Well, I was wondering if you could help me with something.”

“Yes. What is it?”

“Well, I’m stuck.”

“Stuck! What do you mean ‘stuck’?”

“Well I’m stuck between the bed and the night stand.”

“Oh. Wait. What are you saying?”

“Well, I fell while I was changing the sheets, and Rolla just can’t get me up.”

When I arrived, sure enough, Mother was wedged just as she described. I don’t know how long she’d been there. Getting her up was tricky. After I was certain that she wasn’t seriously hurt, we had a good laugh. When I recalled this event to her later, it prompted her trademark grin. It illustrated the lengths to which she would go to let me live my life, not to burden or to demand my time.

Each time I visited with her at River Planation, Belmont Village, or Christian Care Center, she started the conversation with “Hey, Greg” or “Hey, Darling.” My daily, early morning visits to Belmont Village consisted of Scripture reading, administration of a few medications, and sometimes a very slow breakfast. (Mother chewed her food down to the last molecule, probably her secret to keeping a healthy weight; you eat that slowly and there’s only 24 hours in the day…well, you see what I mean.) I’m so thankful God gave Carol, Joy, and me the indescribable privilege of caring for our Mother during her last years on earth. It has yielded some of the sweetest memories in my life and I’m sure Carol and Joy will say the same.

As I read the Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, Ecclesiastes, Matthew, or Romans to her at Christian Care Center she would often comment saying, “That’s rich” or “Read that again, Greg.” She loved the Scriptures and took great comfort from them. Even at this time in her life she was teaching me: teaching me to slow down and enjoy our relationship, inviting me to talk to her, listening and understanding.
On the first sunny, warm Sunday afternoon this past spring, Mother and I went onto the porch after her lunch to enjoy the sunshine. After we sat and chatted for some time she said, “I think I’m about ready to go on.”

“You mean back to the room, Momma?”

“No. Heaven.”

The comment took me totally by surprise. I hesitated for a minute, trying to make sure I didn’t cheapen Mother’s statement with a silly response. Finally I said, “Well, no one is rushing you, but we are all so glad we know where you’re going.”

I kept a brave face for Mother that afternoon, but I cried when I left her that evening. Mother never spoke idly about Heaven, and I knew this subtle hint was meant to prepare me for what she knew was coming soon.

Carol, Joy, and I were so thankful God arranged for us to be with her as she went to Heaven. He allowed her to leave with the same gentle poise and grace that characterized her life.

One of Mother’s favorite passages was in Romans chapter 8. I can still hear her quoting this passage to us:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (verses 35-39)

Helen Louise Johnson Ketteman Smith (November 29, 1924-April 21, 2015)


About the Writer: Greg Ketteman is provost at Welch College, where his father served many years as director of public relations:




©2016 ONE Magazine, National Association of Free Will Baptists