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Rev. Baxter Pond By John R. Kemp
Reverend Baxter M. Pond, born on Aug. 1918. in Bennettsville. S.C.. has had a life of change, a life of serenity, wisdom, sorrow, joy, adversity, pain and peace. He was the Covington Chamber of Commerce's man of the year for 1983, a great moment in his life. He also is the chaplain of the Southeast Louisiana Hospital in Mandeville, a place filled with the broken minds and hearts of people who are searching for another chance.
Approaching his office one night long after closing hours, I was greeted by the strains of Peter Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 1, echoing hauntingly down the long tunneled hallway. The sounds softened but grew louder as I approached. The small cassette tape recorder sitting on a metal file cabinet kept spinning its reels in somewhat of a contradiction to the Deep South ambiance of the small cluttered office.
Awards, diplomas, certificates hanging from the wall are visible testaments to his civic contributions and achievements. Books stacked high in a nearby bookcase reflect a searching intellect, and the messy desk — with pictures of grandchildren lined up in a row — well, that shows he's busy.
Pond has been a familiar sight around the Covington area for many years. Short, medium build with dark hair and eyes, he walks with a cane and a slight limp caused by a couple of strokes a few years back.
Why a man or woman enters the ministry is one of those eternal questions. Pond urges young people considering such a vocation to "be sure that God called them to it. Don't take it up as a profession. They'll be making a great mistake. It's not financially rewarding, the trials and tribulations are very hard. But I'd do it again."
Pond's own ministry began as a very young man back in his native South Carolina. "I've always loved music," he said, reflecting back over the long years. "I play fifteen different instruments. I went to play for a dance one night and the trumpet player invited me home to spend the night and have a home cooked dinner. But there was one catch. I had to go to church with his mother." And that's when it all began. "I made a discovery that night that I was called to Jesus. I heard the call that night I made the decision to become a Christian even though I was brought up in a Christian home."
He left the band and began preaching the next night at a tobacco plantation where his father was an overseer. He preached for the next five nights. "They came and 1 preached." Pond enrolled at Trevecca College in Nashville, Tenn., where he finished his high school work and took theology courses.
From there it was Columbia Bible College in Columbia. S.C., and then in the summer of 1937, Oxford University in England to study under a famed theologian. "After Oxford I was out of school for a year or two to get the money to go back to school. My sister has a wholesale candy company, so I sold candy to make money." Pond was back at Trevecca and earning $6 a night as a fiddler in the Grand Ole Opry.
"I got a hot letter from the president of Trevecca: 'Young man, you have a decision to make —either stay in school or go, but if you stay you have to give up the Grand Ole Opry.' I later got a job playing organ and musical background for poetry readings on radio. I got $I per minute for a 15 minute program each week. I had money then."
And then like every other young man his age, a pretty young lady caught his eye. It happened one summer while home visiting his family, "I was playing fiddle for a square dance in Cheraw, S.C. I saw this pretty girl come in with a boy and during intermission, I went looking for her but couldn't find her.
One year later, I had a blind date and she was the girl." After a year-long courtship between his hometown of Bennetsville and Cheraw, some fourteen miles away, came marriage.
Pond and his young wife came to Louisiana in 1940 to attend the New Orleans Baptist Institute, now called the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. In 1942 he was off to Covington to his first church, the First Baptist Church, where he would remain for 23 years and nine months.
In 1965 the long years came to an end when he accepted the chaplain's post at the state hospital in Mandeville. Now he's looking to May 1985 and retirement. Reflecting back over the many years, Pond said his most rewarding experience as the head of a congregation was the building of the Baptist Church in Covington.
But like many people, the 1960's weighed heavily upon him: "I was at my lowest ebb in the 60's because of the depleting and defeating drug scene, racism that came out strong and Vietnam."
The decision to take the hospital position came after much soul searching. "After being in one church for 23 years, I needed a change. Perhaps I was growing thin with some of my parishoners and they with me."
At first he turned down the job three times. "But I came and thought that this is what God intended me to do. I've never regretted it. in fact, I wish I would have been involved in mental health thirty years ago. In church when you preach you hope that you have helped someone and sometimes you do. But here you see the results."
"You see smiles in their faces where there were tears and they say I'm going home. That is a tremendous reward. That's rewarding. I've joined the medical health field all I could. I've made the a total commitment."
The ministry, souls, and salvation are the same, but the approach is different. "Here at
the hospital you don't give sermons on hell or judgement. They feel here is hell, here is judgement. We preach love and hope." Pond says there is a great need for him at the hospital. "I understand their problems."
Patients get empathy not sympathy. "When you show sympathy, you get involved and lose objectivity. They need someone to see where they're going. Many of the people who come here show anger. I say don't blame God for something you've done."
"I've met PhD's in music, ministers, priests, nuns and men successful in business. Mental illness knows no personage."
Drug patients that come to the hospital are the most frustrating, he says. "They're so euphoric in one way and so damning in another. But as you get the drugs out of their systems, you begin to see the person. Prior to that you tend to think of them as a thing."
Also, unlike being the pastor of a church, a chaplain doesn't have to attend "board meetings, circle meetings, financial meetings. All I have to do is preach and counsel, and that's what I love to do."
Perhaps one of his most notable counseling sessions was with Louisiana's colorful governor, Earl K. Long, during his governor's sanity trial in Covington at the height of the 1959-1960 gubernatorial campaign. "When I went up to his room, the smoke was three feet high. Earl was sitting up in bed.
He said in a raspy voice: 'You the preacher. I've seen psychiatrists, I've been through them all.' He bowed his head and I said, "Bless our governor, physically, materially, and all other ways. 1 was going to say mentally but left it out. He knew more scriptures than many preachers. We prayed! He told me things I could never tell."
Pond told the "Earl of Louisiana" that the state needed a Christian in the governor's mansion. "He sat there with gray head bowed, looked up and said, 'Yes, it would be good to have a governor sitting in the governor's chair all out for Christ. but it would be an awful price to pay.' "
They talked on the telephone a few times after that, and Pond was invited to the governor's mansion but never went. "I gave him a small Bible. When I heard that he had died, I wondered if he had the New Testament with him."
Reverend Pond has been able to overcome many of his own personal adversities in life. He was born with spastic paralysis and was in a wheelchair for thirteen years. He received his early education from his mother and sisters. In 1978 while giving a lecture at the hospital, he had a stroke on his left side.
A year later while giving another lecture in the same place, he had a second stroke but on the right side, followed by a heart attack. There was total paralysis of the right leg, loss of speech, and no use in the right hand or arm. "The doctors told my wife to take me back to St. Tammany to my friends. There was nothing they could do. Tears came down my checks. I heard them but they didn't know it. I got angry and made a vow: 'God, let me walk into the doctors' office in one year to let them know I'm still alive.'
That was the turning point. One year later, I walked in with a cane; two months later the doctor was crippled in a plane crash." Today Pond gets around the hospital ground quite well. Where he doesn't walk, he scoots about in his little electric cart.
Retirement in 1985 will not mean an end to it all. The remaining years will be spent counseling others, he says. Reverend Pond's life has been one of dedication and service ice.
CHAMBER OF COMMERCE MAGAZINE 1984 EDITION