Pastor Eugene Florence, 108, died Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012, in Fort Worth. He shepherded St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Decatur from 1963 to 1992, in the course of a 70-year career that also took him to Stephenville, Granbury and Fort Worth. Most of that time, he was also raising a family and holding down at least two full-time jobs, including a long tenure as a janitor at Texas Christian University.
Rev. Florence outlived five wives and three of his four children, but continued to drive until about three years ago, and to preach whenever he was invited.
Services were held Monday at Greater St. Stephen First Baptist Church in Fort Worth, with Dr. Michael Bell giving the eulogy. Tributes were offered by James C. Lester on behalf of the family, the Rev. C.D. Lockhard, pastor of St. John Baptist Church in Decatur, Dr. Thomas White, vice president for student affairs at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the Rev. Mark Chew, moderator of the Northeastern District.
Pallbearers were Jim Blackwell, Hervey Bolden, Darwin Jones, Clifford Martin, Elder Michael Ruth Sr. and Oscar Sutphen. Interment was in Cedar Hill Memorial Park under the direction of Williams Funeral Chapel.
Rev. Florence was born on leap year, Feb. 29, 1904, in Smith County, Texas. He attended school in Overton until the eighth grade, when he left to assist the family with farming and sharecropping. He completed his education at home. He accepted a call to the ministry at the age of 38 and was ordained in 1940.
He began taking classes at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1943 when he was 39 years old. The seminary offered only four credit hours per semester, and the classes were held at night, in the school’s basement, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It took him eight years to fulfill the requirements of the degree, and when he graduated, he received only a diploma.
Prior to 1951, the seminary did not make its master’s degree program available to blacks.
In December of 2004, just three months shy of his 101st birthday, Pastor Florence finally received his Master of Divinity degree from the seminary.
“We went back and were able to get verification of his records, so we really knew he had done the work,” Southwestern President Paige Patterson said in a story published at the time. “We were able to say, ‘Hey, look, he earned it, so let’s give it to him.’”
Patterson said he had never enjoyed awarding a degree more.
Two years later Rev. Florence spoke for chapel services at the seminary, and in 2008, he was honored with the seminary’s Distinguished Alumnus award.
At that ceremony, Patterson expressed his gratitude for Florence.
“I marvel at this wonderful man of God,” he said.
Rev. Florence’s gracious spirit showed In his acceptance speech.
“I don’t see color,” he said. “I just see God’s people. However many years I have left, I just want to be a blessing.”
St. John church secretary Sharon Dawson said Rev. Florence was a quiet, humble man who accepted honors the same way he had accepted hardship.
“That’s just the way he was,” Dawson said. “He was a person who was just gentle and humble, with a wonderful sense of humor that a lot of people didn’t really know about.”
He is survived by a daughter, Emma Jean Evans of Fort Worth; grandchildren Charlene Starling of Overton, Edward Lester of Kalamazoo, Mich., Rubie Taylor of Fort Worth, Earnest Florence of Orange, Patrick Brown of Aurora, Colo., James Lester of Arlington, Curtis Florence of Longview, Bobby Lester of Houston, Herman Florence of Tyler, and Junior Goodacre of Overton; numerous great- and great-great-grandchildren (six generations); and a host of relatives and friends.