Aside from the fact that they met at the Laurens United Methodist Church, it seemed an unlikely friendship, but the bond between the Rev. Dr. Eben Taylor ‘48 and Jennifer Finley ‘11 became very close before he died of cancer on Oct. 23, 2008. Now Finley is working on a summer Community of Scholars project at Wofford that will tell Taylor’s story to a wider audience.
Eben Taylor was a longtime United Methodist minister who, like Finley, attended Wofford and lived in Laurens, S.C. He served as an infantryman in World War II’s Battle of the Bulge. When he came back, he married the love of his life, Martha, with whom he raised four sons. He led a distinguished and historically important career. Taylor was a pastor, civil rights advocate, and social justice pioneer before he passed away on October 23, 2008.
“Eben was so humble,” says Finley. “If he were here today he would blush and tell me to write about something more interesting, and he would be sincere when he said it. But I feel like his story needs to be told. I wanted to share his life and accomplishments as an example for people to follow. I know several people who are ministers who have told me that they want to model their ministries after Eben’s.”
Taylor served parishes across the South Carolina Methodist Conference for more than 40 years. He served two terms on the national General Commission on Religion and Race and was instrumental in the merger of South Carolina’s black and white United Methodist conferences in 1972. He founded and supported many social ministries during his career.
“I grew up in the First United Methodist Church in Laurens,” Finley says. “When Eben retired, he and his wife Martha moved back to Laurens in the mid 90s. In the last four or five years before he died, he’d be one of the people I would go and speak to after church. Around spring of my first year here at Wofford, my mom told me that Eben’s cancer had returned and that it didn’t look good. When I found out I went and visited him, and we kind of bonded and shared stories.
“He had been the pastor at my church before I got to know him, so a lot of the people there knew him in that way. From what I hear, he was a great pastor. Everyone really loved him. He had a way of bringing people to him in a hurry. It just seemed to be natural for him.
“It wasn’t until after he had passed away that I realized his important role in the civil rights movement and the unification of the Methodist church. I read his obituary and went to the memorial service. When I knew him, he wasn’t the type to brag about any of these things. I’m sort of meeting him all over again through this project.”
As she interviews more and more people, Finley is finding out that the friend she had made left a lasting impression on many souls, not just hers.
“In many of the interviews I have done, the people have spoken very consistently about how gentle he was,” says Finley. “That’s been my favorite part of my research because that’s the side of him that I really knew. One person told me that gentle was Eben’s favorite word. That made me smile. He was so loving and was always looking out for the underdog. His capacity to love people rubbed off on everyone he met.
“I visited Eben on July 4th last year. I think it’s the only time he and I ever talked about his war service. I was interested in looking at the pictures of his friends from the war and that sort of thing. You could tell he didn’t want to push it on me. He fought in a very important battle, but he really didn’t like to talk about the war. You could tell he was horrified by it and that he felt strongly about it. But as always, he said so in a gentle way.”
Taylor also had a sense of humor. When asked what her favorite Eben Taylor story is, Finley’s face lit up.
“Eben and his wife Martha were truly a team,” she says. “He loved his four sons very much. His oldest son Ebbie was born with Downs Syndrome, and he learned to speak at a later age. Martha had taken Ebbie out for a hamburger, and when they were done she asked him to get back in the car. Well, Ebbie didn’t want to get back in the car and so he stuck his lip out and said his very first word.
“Eben said he got home from work that day and Martha was dancing around the house singing the S word over and over. He thought she had lost her mind until she told him why. Eben said that word was sanitized for them forever because it had been Ebbie’s first word.”
They say that every time a person like Eben Taylor passes, a library of stories is buried with them. For her Community of Scholars project, Finley wanted to make sure that people got a brief tour of Eben’s library, with her as their guide.