The first day in the 90-year life of Thomas M. "Jack" Key came on a Sunday, July 2, 1922 when "Brother Jack" Key was born to Morris Denton Key and Bertha Flanders Key.
"The most powerful influence of my life was my home, my mother and daddy," Key declares. His roots run deep into the communities around Adrian, Georgia. Among his ancestors he counts the Keys, Flanders, Sumners, Hightowers, Beasleys, Drakes and Smiths, all of whom have lived in the area for nearly two centuries.
"My mother had seven years of education. She taught school for a couple of years in a little school close to Poplar Springs Church," spoke Jack of his dear mother.
"Daddy had four years of education between plowings. He read a lot - history and Christian books - and could have gone to college. Many said he was the best man in Adrian," Key said of his father, who had never been any further away from home than Statesboro, that is until he went "over there" in World War I.
There was a strong emphasis on honesty in the Key family. "Don't lie for any reason" was the mantra of Morris Key and his brothers.
Morris Key operated Key's Café right smack dab on a corner in the middle of Adrian for nearly thirty years. Key, famous for his hamburgers, also served a plate lunch - a pork chop or a piece of fried chicken, served with two to three vegetables for a quarter or thirty-five cents.
"We sold ice cream, dipped ice cream (two dips for a nickel) and cold iced down drinks (we called them 'belly washers,)" remarked Key, who fondly recollected the day when Snickers bars were three for ten cents.
Jack Key's journey toward the ministry started out in a Boy Scout troop.
"We didn't have much leadership and we called it 'ABC,' Adrian Boy's Club," Jack Key recalled. Morris Key assumed the direction of and became the guiding force behind the group, which he took to grand old places like Mason's Bridge for camp outs.
The boy's club eventually became an evangelistic club. His brother, Billy Key, "Mutt" Moye, and some of the Gillis and Frazier boys would get up and testify about their faith. Although he never knew him, Jack's grandfather, Francis Key, was a licensed preacher. His Key and Flanders forefathers were known far and wide as being ministers of the Methodist faith. Jack, it seemed, was destined to preach and most importantly, teach the Gospel.
One of the most influential men in the young life of Jack Key was Prince Evans, a black man who worked for Tom Fountain. The Key family was not known as crusaders for equality among the races, but they possessed a deep and abiding love for many of the black families in Adrian. You can still see a tear in the corner of Jack's eye when he thinks of those grand old days, of Prince Evans, Levi Washington, Henry Jenkins, and the old black families like the Fords, whom he came to know and to love.
"That was a special place to us. Some of our first preaching was when we would go down there and especially on Christmas," reflected Jack of the days when he and the boys were 12 and 13 years old and preaching sermons. Professor "Fess" Stephens called the trio of Jack, Billy and "Mutt," 'The Three Young Divines."
First licensed to preach at the age of seventeen in mid summer 1939, Jack vividly remembers the day that the District Conference was held in the auditorium of Adrian school. When he was nominated and accepted into the ministry, Brother Jim "Shouting Jim" Smith, shouted down the halls. Morris Key acknowledged his son's honor with silent pride. Bertha Flanders Key, as the Flanders are known to do, let out a wild and loud "whoopee!"
One day Jack and "Mutt" Moye went down to a Baptist church in Covena. After sweeping out the goat pills in the unlit building, the teenagers held a revival.
"We baptized them in the Ohoopee River, which was close by. We didn't know we were something of a sensation. We thought they were coming to hear the Gospel and not to hear us," Key remembered.
In his younger days, Jack would go down into the woods to study. He didn't take his Barclay's Commentaries with him. Instead he turned inward as he looked outward and upward for guidance and inspiration in formulating his messages.
Then came World War II. Both Jack and Billy felt guilty about not serving in the Armed Forces. Key believed "Uncle Jack" Avery sheltered them from military duty. There were times when people around town and even in Dublin yelled "draft dodger!" Jack went on to college at Young Harris for two years and then more years at Asbury College. Billy, too, went on to college.
"I tried to go into the Navy as a chaplain, "Mutt" Moye did," Key expounded. But the man in charge of the board told Jack that he didn't want him wasting his time, that he was still in the seminary and he wasn't qualified for the service.
In the end, maybe God was just saving both Jack and Billy for greater things to come.
"I was playing first base in a college softball game when I let a warm-up throw get by me. It rolled to the fence, right to her feet. As I picked up the ball, I looked into the bluest eyes I'd ever seen," reminisced Jack of the day he first met the dearest sweetheart of his life. A year and a half later on December 12, 1947, Jack, the President of his senior class, and Ruthanne Shockley, the beautiful blue-eyed orphan from Greentown, Indiana, were married. This year they will celebrate their 65th anniversary.
"She has listened to the same sermons over and over, taught Sunday School, sung in the choir, held offices in the United Methodist Women, prepared countless meals for covered dish suppers, been a volunteer for all kinds of community service, been a wife, homemaker, seamstress, and a piano player," wrote Key of the greatest friend and supporter in his success as Methodist minister.
Jack Key's first regular assignment to a church came in 1947, when he was assigned to Piney Mount Church in Washington County. First ordained a deacon and on probation for two years, Jack was prohibited from serving communion or performing baptisms.
"I broke the rules a time or two, but I believe Christ would have wanted it that way," Key chuckled.
In five years, Jack Key served four circuit churches with 600 total members. The revivals then were both spiritual and social. People from all over Washington County, including Baptists, would come and fill the churches.
The Keys transferred to Hillcrest Church in Macon, when it was built. In his five years there, the membership grew from 150 members to 500. Jack Key left Macon for the first time to serve in Nashville, Georgia and then to Cordele, Georgia until his assignment at Porterfield Methodist in Albany, once the largest church in the South Georgia Conference.
Jack Key became a highly sought after minister, going to Vineville Methodist in Macon and Wynnton Methodist in Columbus, before coming to First Methodist in Dublin and closer to home. Jack Key officially retired from the annual conference twenty-five years ago, but his ministry has never waned.
If you ask, he will tell you that at the top of his highlights of his career is the trip that he and Ruthanne took to China in 1988. The Keys were there teaching English to the Chinese and sharing the Gospel when the incident at Tiananmen Square forced them to leave. There were trips to Mongolia and South America as well. He will also tell you that he is proud of obtaining a Doctor of Divinity Degree, though he has never sought out a higher office in the church hierarchy. In fact, he avoided it, leaving such duties to his brother Billy instead.
Jack quickly realized that it is also the little things that make his ministry rewarding. Key points to his experiences with Alcoholics Anonymous while he was in Albany.
"In Albany, I was thrown in with them, but I liked their openness," declared Key, whose experiences with these men helped him in his own ministry and taught him that we should all be kind and compassionate toward people who have problems instead of vilifying them.
"Brother Jack" will readily concede that he is no one special, but he is grateful that he has been given certain precious gifts, the gifts of caring and wisdom. At somewhere around 1300 funerals and up (only the late Rev. Claude Vines (2000+) has more,) Jack Key has officiated at more funerals than any other minister in our area.
"I have seen some very awful things, suicides and early cancer," acknowledged Key, who doesn't seek out preaching at funerals.
"I see myself as belonging to something bigger than the church and that is to just be a friend," commented Key on his role as minister. Key confesses that he was not always clerical, but always tries to be caring.
After completing a long term at Evergreen United Methodist Church last month, Key agrees that he is now retired, if only officially and as of right now. As one of the longest serving ministers in the history of the South Georgia Conference at 73 years and counting, Key isn't slowing down yet. He is filling in at Dudley Methodist and looks forward to teaching Sunday School to the Progressive Class at 1st Methodist, Dublin.
"If folks want me, I can be fulfilled by teaching and speaking to groups," Key says.
It is a difficult choice, but when asked what is favorite Bible verse is, he points to the 92nd Psalm which says in part, "The righteous will flourish like palm trees and they will bear fruit in their old age and remain fresh and green."
He can't tell you a favorite hymn. There are too many. The old ones, the Charles Wesley songs, are among his favorites. There are nights when he closes his eyes and harks back to the days of his youth when he would spend the night with his grandmother, Elizabeth Sumner Key, who would sing songs about how beautiful Heaven must be "In the Sweet By and By." He also thinks of the classic, eternal words of John Newton's "Amazing Grace."
"In this part of the country, people do pray for you all over and you are amazed that some things do happen as a result of those prayers," says Key who is continually amazed by God's grace and the power of prayer.
As for miracles Key asserts, "You don't park your brains when you become a Christian, but there are things we can't explain and some are unbelievable." Jack Key has seen his share of miraculous things, but he doesn't depend on them, but neither will he deny that miracles do happen.
To Jack Key, there are basic principles we all should adhere to.
He says, "Keep up your daily devotions and witness to your faith by using words and without using words. Use words and be kind. Look for those opportunities and take little or no credit for it."
"The miracle is that God became a man and the word became flesh - the human Jesus, the Jesus of the four Gospels. I don't know how you could have a higher aim than to be a human Jesus," Brother Jack proclaimed of what has become the most paramount and appealing goal in his and our lives.
In his sermon, "Words To Live By," "Brother Jack" speaks of four simple words; attitude, gratitude, fortitude and rectitude. If you haven't heard it, ask him about them. If you have, consider them.
"It is an incredible blessing for Mrs. Ruthanne and 'Brother Jack' to get old together, most people don't get old together," says Key of his wife. He doesn't forget his gratitude for his three children, 13 grandchildren and ten great grandchildren.
"It has been a great journey and it has been a wonderful life," Key gratefully acknowledged.
Now a nonagenarian, Jack Key keeps on going. Driven by his enduring faith and aided by his devoted wife, exercise and moderate eating habits - he will occasionally order a sausage biscuit at McDonalds,- Jack believes it is a mistake not to have things to do.
One of Jack's fellow McDonald's Breakfast Club members expressed it best, "Jack Key is everybody's preacher." Key is a regular speaker at community events and at churches of all denominations.
"Mamma was a dyed in the wool Methodist, but all Daddy wanted for us was to be a good Christian," Jack will let you know.
In his book "Down This Road, A Long Ways Together," Jack Key recounts many of the important events, people and places in his long journey which began on that Sunday, nine decades ago.
When Jack Key's name is inscribed in the "Lamb's Book of Life," it will be noted that it was the faith of his fathers and his love of both friend and foe, which led him on to preach love with kindly words and that he lived a virtuous life.
It is His amazing grace that has brought Jack Key safe thus far, and His grace that will take him home. Today at ninety and with more than 10,000 sermons behind him, Jack Key has no less days to sing God's praise than in that hour when he first believed.