One of the great Christian leaders of the last century graduated to heaven this past week after 88 years on earth.  Many of you may not have heard of Dr. Howard Hendricks, but he was a man who left an incredible legacy in leaders that he helped train during his years as a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS).

Dr. Hendricks was also a great champion for marriage and family. In fact, he planted the seeds that ultimately resulted in the ministry of FamilyLife. While speaking at the U.S. Congress on the Family in 1975, Dr. Hendricks made a statement that captured the attention of three leaders from Campus Crusade for Christ (now known as Cru) in attendance. He said, “In Dallas/Ft. Worth it takes three weeks of intensive training to become a garbage collector, but about all you have to do to get married is to stand before the justice of the peace and grunt and you are in–you’re married!” The Christian community, he said, needed to prepare couples for marriage.  Those three Campus Crusade leaders took this charge back to their leadership, and the next year FamilyLife was launched.

Dr. Hendricks, called “Prof” by his students, left his mark on more than 12,000 students during 60 years of teaching at DTS. I’ve never known anyone who has worked at one place for 60 years. But Prof wasn’t just anyone. He was always a cut above the herd.

The John Wooden of education

I was one of those who soaked up his classes during the year I spent at DTS in the 1970s.  He was the reason I went to DTS; I’ve always said that I “majored in Howard Hendricks.”  I took all five of his classes that year, and it nearly killed me.

Prof didn’t believe in tests, but he was thoroughly convinced that abundant homework somehow resulted in learning. I sat in his classes for hour after hour and was never bored … whether it was Bible Study Methods, Family Living, or How to Teach, Prof kept me on the edge of my seat. He was the John Wooden of education! (Wooden won 10 national championships at UCLA and is considered the greatest basketball coach of all time.)

Prof had the uncanny ability to step into a young man’s life at just the right time to give encouragement and express his belief that God would use him.  I certainly benefited from this encouragement and mentoring over the years. I remember the day we spent together talking about what parents need in terms of being biblically equipped to raise children.

He exhorted FamilyLife staff on a number of occasions, was a guest on FamilyLife Today®, and both he and his wife, Jeanne, were a huge encouragement to the 60 couples who speak at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways.

One of my favorite memories occurred when a friend, Bob Horner, and I took Prof “float tube fishing” on a high mountain lake near Laramie, Wyoming. Float tube fishing is really for die-hard fishermen … you put on waders and flippers, and then sit inside an inner tube and paddle out in the lake. Since Prof had never done this, we tethered his tube to ours as we paddled out to fish. He looked like a sinking duck, barely above the waterline. To his credit, he went along with it all, actually caught a couple of rainbow trout, and didn’t drown.

About a year later, he was speaking to the FamilyLife team about the experience, and he sarcastically said he only caught one fish. I interrupted him from the audience and said “Prof, that’s not true, you caught two!” To which Prof retorted, “Well there you have it: another great illustration ruined by an eyewitness!”

Pouring his life into others

I guess what has impacted me most is how he continued to run to the finish line and make a global impact for Christ in his final years. Despite losing his right eye to cancer, falling off a platform while speaking (at the age of 80) and breaking a couple of ribs, and battling other health issues, he didn’t coast to the finish.  He modeled what it looks like to continue to grow as a man and pour his life into others. He was a man of convictions who was on a mission to the very end.

Another of my favorite memories was of joining Prof and Jeanne for dinner with some friends the night before his retirement celebration a couple years ago.  I asked Prof, “What is the most courageous thing you’ve ever done?” He told the story of when he was a young man and was seriously dating a young lady who was not headed in the same direction he was.

He said that he was growing spiritually and had the conviction that God wanted him to go to seminary and study the Scriptures. These convictions were not shared by the young lady, so he went over to her house to break off the relationship.

That was not what she wanted to hear.  He said that he had to pry her fingers off his car so he could drive away. And then he had to tell his father, who highly valued education unless it came from a seminary, that he was going to go to Dallas Theological Seminary. In essence, his father told him he was wasting his life. Prof said his decision to end the relationship and attend seminary was life altering, but in the end proved to be the right choice.

Prof spoke tenderly of his father, a military man, and how he had prayed for more than 40 years for him to come to faith in Christ. His dad made a commitment to Christ just a few months before his death. Prof stressed the importance of continuing to pray for family members and friends who show no interest in the gospel.

Stories of Prof

At the retirement celebration luncheon the next day, a handful of Christian leaders spoke about the impact that Prof and Jeanne had made on their lives. It was a great reminder of what Prof used to say:  “The only thing that is eternal is the Word of God and people.”

Pastor David Jeffries told how, as a 16-year-old, he was influenced by Prof’s statement, “Men, nothing will create more doubt in your lives than trafficking in unlived truth.”

Michael Easley, pastor of Fellowship Bible Church in Franklin, Tennessee, said through tears how Prof had “given me permission” to try things and to be a leader. His favorite quote from Prof: “Sin will keep you from this Book and this Book will keep you from sin.”

Dr. David Jeremiah, a pastor, author, and radio host, told the story of how as a first-year seminary student he’d sat slumping in the back row of Prof’s classes.  Prof soon summoned him to his office and gave him a wake-up call, “David, if you continue to sit on the back row slumping, you are wasting my time and yours!” Jeremiah moved to the front row and has been sitting up straight ever since.

And Dr. Chuck Swindoll, chancellor of DTS, pastor, author, and radio host, sheepishly shared a story that he’d never told anyone. Chuck said that when he was in seminary back in the 1960’s, he babysat Prof’s kids one night. He admitted that he looked through the papers on Prof’s desk and found a bank statement. Two things struck him: He was amazed at how little Prof was paid to teach, and he couldn’t believe how much he gave away!

Chuck went on to speak about Prof’s impact in his life. He told how, at the lowest point in his life and ministry, Prof had put his arm around him and said, “Whatever it is, I will be here when you need me!”

After all these men spoke, Prof stood up and was momentarily overcome with emotion. I don’t think I’d ever seen him cry, but God’s goodness overwhelmed him and for a few moments the words wouldn’t come. Finally, Prof told how, as a young man when he was just starting seminary, a professor put his arm around him and said, “Howard, God has a great future for you.”

That’s an understatement. But it illustrated the power of believing in someone, of passing on truth and encouragement to the next generation.

What a man! What an impact! What a legacy!

Copyright 2013 by FamilyLife.  All rights reserved.