Ray and I were green recruits when we moved to Oxford, Mississippi, in 1977 for Ray to serve as a campus minister. We weren’t much older than the students we were there to serve. Ray finished up the course work for his Master’s in New Testament that summer, so we hadn’t even been in Oxford very long when the fall semester started.
One of the first students we met was Bob Keyes. That fall Bob became the first person Ray baptized in Oxford and the fourth person he had baptized ever. That fall was not only the beginning of Ray’s ministry to students at Ole Miss. It was the beginning of a forty-year friendship with Bob Keyes.
I am trying to capture words to describe our friend. He loved God deeply. He loved his friends deeply. For superficial talk, Bob loved to talk about sports, especially sports at his beloved Ole Miss. For important talk, he loved to talk about God and theology.
In our first days at Ole Miss, we learned those things about Bob. We also learned that Bob seemed a little different somehow from other people. He was different in many wonderful ways, most especially in his deep love for God and people. After he graduated, we learned a little more about his differentness — when we learned that he suffered from mental illness.
After a couple of heroic attempts at graduate schools in theology, Bob accepted his mental illness, became a great collector of theological books, and spent much time reading them. And he kept on being Ray’s friend — and mine, too, but mostly he was Ray’s. It was always welcome news when Ray got home from being out for this or that and heard the news, “Bob called.”
Ray would call back, and they would have a wonderful conversation. Bob drove up to see us when we lived in Illinois and again after we moved back home to Tennessee. When we drove to Mississippi in 2001 to do a small homeschool convention and to add the last two states, Louisiana and Florida, to our quest of taking our children to every one of the lower 48, we stopped by to see Bob.
We had supper at his mama’s house, and she served us their traditional family combination of Italian spaghetti and coleslaw — a first for us. When we got ready to leave her house, our car wouldn’t start. We ended up spending the night at Bob’s house, while he spent the night with his mother.
For the last several months, Bob lived in a group home in Petal, Mississippi. The dear woman who loves the people in her care there loved our friend Bob.
Last summer Ray used the fact that we had homeschool conventions one weekend in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the next weekend near Houston, Texas, as inspiration to plan a southern tour for us. Ray planned for us to visit friends in Oxford and to visit state capitols and historic sites. He also planned a visit to see Bob.
Bob picked us out a great Mexican restaurant for lunch. He took us by his church building where we met more people who loved him. And he took us to the public library — and its room of used books for sale. Here are Ray with our choices and Bob with his.
During recent calls, Bob had been telling Ray about struggles with his physical health. He was in the hospital during one of those calls. Still, we were not expecting the call that came to our office Monday morning. This call wasn’t from Bob. It was from his mama who is in her nineties and living in Florida with another son. She wanted to let us know that Bob had passed away that morning. Later that day she asked Ray if he would speak at his funeral.
After we heard the news on Monday, Ray wrote these words to one of our children who was expressing sympathy: He was a dear friend and we will miss him. Hard to think
that I won’t again hear, “Bob called.”
A man of too many friends comes to ruin,
But there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.