My Dad, Terry Chapman, died on May 13, 2022. He was a remarkable man in a dozen quiet, unassuming ways. I know many people eulogize loved ones. For me, it felt a little different because it’s my job. My vocation is, in part, to walk people to the threshold of whatever’s next. On June 21st I did that for my Father. Read the scripture referenced here.
If you’d like to see the bulletin for the day including a list of many of Terry’s favorite things–in his own words–click here.
I’m the Reverend Dr. Jonathan Chapman, for those of you whom I haven’t met. But for today, my title is far simpler and far more meaningful. I’m Terry Chapman’s son. When I was in seminary, I had a professor who said you should never start a sermon with a joke. That it cheapens the preaching moment. That’s it’s pandering and diminishes the pastoral office. Well, lucky for you, he’s not here. Dad was a lover of dumb jokes. My favorite thing was to get him so tickled he’d turn red and start silent laughing. If you know you know. So here’s what I’ve got: A priest, a rabbi, a Southern Baptist preacher, George Martin, and a dog, all walk into an emergency room. Each one has a different symptom: one a sore throat, another—a fever. Another a cough, another—the chills. They decide to go into an exam room together—get it over quicker, you know? The doctor finally walks in after hours of waiting, takes one look around and says, “What is this? Some kind of sick joke?”
That’s it. That’s what I’ve got. It’s all down hill from here.
Will you pray with me? Holy God, speak through me. Speak in spite of me. And open our ears and hearts to your word and work in the world. Amen.
I’ve been thinking a lot about honeybees the last few months. You may not have known it, but among the extensive list of hobbies Dad had throughout his lifetime, beekeeping was one. He’d don the full outfit—the coveralls and gloves and funny looking hat with drop-down screen protection circling round. He’d fill his smoker with pine straw and light it aflame, pumping the mini-bellows to circulate the air around the small, contained fire he’d created so that he could go smoke the bees and calm them down. Then he’d take each frame out of the hive and inspect how they were doing. He’d built the exterior of the hive, but the bees were the ones who’d made it their home.
Twice in the last decade, the bees came back. I’m not sure they’re the same bees, of course. But each time Dad would dither about whether or not get rid of them. This last time, while he was sick, I’d tell him, “Dad, we have to do something about the honeybees. But he’d just brush me off. “They’re not bothering me,” he’d say as he made his way back to the chair in the den.
I’ve been thinking about honeybees for another reason. You see, honeybees symbolize hard work, resilience and devotion. They’re determined and hardy and what they produce lingers for the benefit of countless generations to come.
It seems fitting, then, that Dad had an affinity for them because the truth is they shared all those traits.
Toward the end of the gospel of John, we encounter Jesus talking with Peter. The world had tried to kill Jesus, and thought they’d succeeded, only to have that glee thwarted three days later by an event that would change the world. According to John, after the crucifixion of Jesus, he appeared to Mary then to the disciples (without Thomas—who later got an encounter of his own). Then some of the disciples returned home. Back to Galilee and the life they’d known before. They jumped back in their boats to do the thing they grew up doing—fish. And one morning, while they were fishing—for fish, not people—a man calls out to them. “Caught anything?” This is the Jon Chapman translation. “Nah,” they reply. “Try the other side,” the man on the shore shouts back. I can only imagine the eye rolls. Who did this guy think he was? But they give it a go, and sure enough they end up with more fish than they know what to do with.
Peter is the first to recognize the man on the beach as Jesus—and jumps into the lake and runs to him—not even taking the time to put his clothes back on. After they finish eating together and counting their haul (153 fish, John tells us!), Jesus asks Peter a critical question: Do you love me? Each time, Peter says, “yes.” And each time Jesus tells Peter, “feed my sheep.” Scholars and theologians will preach about how this is Peter’s redemption, how each of the three times Peter answers counters a denial Peter uttered the night before Jesus died. But it’s not just that.
It’s a command. It’s not a suggestion or a “it’d be nice if you…” we hear from Jesus. Jesus tells Peter, and us, “if you love me, feed my sheep.” And then sums it up with two words: follow me. So you could say that to follow Jesus faithfully is to tend his flock.
My Dad, Terry Chapman, heard that question—and he answered like Peter, “yes.” But he didn’t hear Jesus say to him, “Feed my sheep.” He heard Jesus say instead, “Shelter my lambs.” And 155 habitat for humanity houses later and countless projects at Christian City for kids—like where we’re standing right now— to the elderly to those with a variety of unmet needs, I think Jesus met him on May 13 and said, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
George Terry Chapman, or Big T to many of us, was born in late July 1945, just a day before the USS Indianapolis was torpedoed and sunk in the Philippine sea. He was born to Helen and Walter Chapman. She was a school teacher, and he a dairy farmer keeping just about everything but mostly cattle, hogs, and chickens. Every Saturday, the family would slaughter a hog and sell BBQ to practically the whole town. They’d married in June of 1936, and had five children. The first, Donald Steed Chapman, whom they called Sonny, was still born. Then came Jane and Kathryn, and a little later, Terry and Bill.
Growing up, Terry was a rather sickly child—often being mistaken for the youngest because of his size. He had memories of taking all sorts of concoctions to help him overcome whatever he was struggling with over the years. In fact, he received the first penicillin shot in the entire family.
He and Bill were constantly helping their Daddy out in the pasture or around the farm. They’re Grandmother ran a funeral home, and Dad had memories of sleeping in the guest room with a visitation going on just on the other side of the wall. Funerals were a family business, with Uncle Guy and the Jasper Chapmans keeping the tradition alive—so to speak— for decades after.
The kids would often find their way to their Grandma’s for lunch—she loved to cook for them. Dad remembered with great fondness her iced sweet tea mixed with grapefruit juice and a little sprinkle of nutmeg on the top.
As a child, despite often being sick, Dad was quick to get in the thick of it. He and Bill would play little league every summer. They played by the railroad near the underpass on the field which is still there. Dad doesn’t remember being very good except as a fielder, which I take a great comfort in because, NEITHER WAS I. In fact, in the part of the family history he continued after his mother passed, he wrote: “When you are very young and a very poor player, they put you in right field.” Guess which position I played.
He and Bill would play catch in front of the coffin house. And their Daddy would coach when he found the time.
Terry was quite the little farmer, caring for a calf he received through a Kiwanis Club program from childhood through being a young adult. He shared, “My calf was named “Sparkling Standard Leota Sue” her registered name, and we called her “Snap”. I kept her until Jo Ann and I got married when Daddy sold her for me to have money to go on our honeymoon trip. There’s a great deal of irony there somewhere,” he deadpanned.
Church was a big part of their lives growing up. Dad’s grandfather had been the preacher at Crawfordville Baptist Church for decades and their entire family was involved. His mother, Helen was a child prodigy on the piano and played for the church her entire life. Dad put it this way, “We went to church regularly, or should I say constantly?” They went to Sunday School and morning service then back on Sunday night to BTU—Baptist Training Union. Somehow they managed to miss Sunday night preaching most of the time. “We much preferred to stay at home and watch Walt Disney which always came on at seven on Sunday night,” he told me.
After they moved to the new brick house out on the highway, they started keeping chickens in earnest—about 3500 of them. They all collected eggs at least three times a day, every day. “Chickens don’t celebrate Christmas,” I remember Dad telling me. One memory Dad shared of that time was of their egg fights. “Bill and I would start throwing eggs at each other and sometimes waste a couple of dozen before we quit. Chickens loved it because they eat eggs whenever they can. Bored I guess.”
Terry met Jo Ann in school. They were in the same class from the earliest grades on, and were high school sweethearts. They graduated from Alexander Stephens Institute in 1963, with their younger siblings, Bill and Virginia, just a year behind.
After graduation, Terry moved to Atlanta to enroll at Georgia Tech. He wrote, “Daddy drove me up to the campus, moved my stuff in the room and left me standing on the corner of North Avenue and the Freeway – a very bewildered young man. His advice on the ride up to school was to keep my pants zipped up and to make sure I didn’t do anything that I wouldn’t want published in the local newspaper. “ Good advice even today, I suppose.
During that first year, he was a frequent visitor to the Varsity, just across the freeway from Tech’s campus. One day, a photographer shooting a coca-cola ad approached him to pose. And he did—a picture that hangs, blown up huge on the Varsity’s wall to this day of him it his rat cap, a marker all tech freshmen wore then.
By the spring of 1966, Dad had flunked out—his word, not mine. He was a big fish in a super tiny pond. More like fish tank. And moving to a top tier academic institution was a shock. Later that year, he was drafted.
Poor folks—white and black, he wrote, fought the Vietnam War. “It changed my life forever,” he continued. “I count permanently leaving home from the day I got on the bus in front of the Liberty Cafe across from the courthouse in Crawfordville. I was always a visitor after that.”
After basic training at Ft. Benning, he was offered the chance to go to Officer Candidate School in the Corps of Engineers. He took it, and headed to Ft. Belvoir, VA. Later, he went to more training at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina. In January 1967, he graduated from OCS and was immediately assigned to an Army Engineer Construction Battalion in South Vietnam. He arrived overseas the first week of February 1967, after nearly 20 hours of flying over from San Francisco alone.
He came home a year later in 1968—a lived a lot of life in those twelve months. He swiftly proposed to Jo Ann, who’d been patiently—and after seven years of being officially together, I mean patiently—waiting. He was stationed down at Fort Benning. While his time in Vietnam had ended, his time in the service hadn’t. In April of that year, Dr. King was shot, and Dad often recalled the riots going on around the country in the weeks that followed, recounting that at one point, they’d called up his unit. “We were sitting on our duffles, getting ready to get on a bus” he told me once. “The first couple rounds were blanks, but then they were live.” He was relieved to never be deployed on that endeavor.
Mama and Daddy were married in June of that year. Nelanie had arrived just months earlier. And a few months later—on Bill’s birthday—their father would die. Terry and Jo Ann were living in Columbus at the time, and made the drive all the way to Washington, GA to be there as he died from pancreatic cancer. Dad wrote about that day:
I remember two things about it in particular. When they told us he was gone, I happened to be standing by the nurse’s station. The nurse on duty at the desk heard the conversation and without realizing I was standing there, took a pencil, drew a line through his name on her list of patients and crossed him off the face of the earth.
And I still remember Mama took all of us down to the Chapel in the hospital as soon as we knew he was gone. While we were there, she prayed and thanked God for Daddy’s life. Not all of us have that kind of faith, and in the midst of that hurt and pain to hear her faith and to hear her thanksgiving at that moment is something I will always remember. I was so hurt I could not have done it, but I learned something that day.
The truth is my Mama and Daddy had an entire life before I came along—waiting 17 years of marriage before deciding it was now or never. After Columbus, they moved to East Point, to a little house on Dorsey Ave near where Mama taught at Lakeshore High School, and easy enough for Dad to get to his jobs delivering papers and working for engineering firms as he re-enrolled at Georgia Tech. This time graduating and later getting his MBA from Georgia State.
They were a pair. Terry ambitious, entrepreneurial. Jo Ann, cautious, intentional. They share a relentless work ethic and could make each other laugh and laugh—Dad through his dumb jokes and Mama with her one-line zingers what would suddenly appear and bring the house down entirely unexpectedly.
In the mid-seventies, they started thinking about building their own home, and took great joy in driving all around Atlanta, looking at properties and getting ideas. Later, after Mama was gone and Dad had started flipping homes, he’d pick me up from the airport and take me by his current project, we’d eventually find our way home via the back roads and inevitably, he’d point out a place and say, “We picked the brick to look like those condos” or “Those are our shingles.” Come to think of it, TV must’ve been really boring back then.
Soon, they found a property over in Fairburn and built the house they’d long dreamt of—complete with indoor plumbing (unlike the house Daddy was born in), a screened in porch, and enough room for whatever family may be down the road. It was Terry’s first real foray into construction—the house I was raised in. And it’s stood the test of time. They lived there seven years or so before deciding that if kids were in the picture, it needed to be soon.
I asked my Dad once, while he was working on something in his wood shop and I was keeping him company, if he’d ever really wanted kids or if he did it mostly for Mama. He took a minute to think, then said, sanding the bowl he was finishing, “I could’ve gone either way, but my life is infinitely richer because you are in it.”
Terry was a civil engineer and land surveyor by trade—number one in number two, as he’d say. That’s a poop joke. We could be anywhere in Atlanta, and he suddenly point to a road or building or subdivision, and say, “I built that.” The man was prolific, and that’s no surprise when you consider he worked in the field for nearly 40 years.
He rose through the ranks at various employers, ending his career with a superb team at Conceptual Design Engineering—a firm he helped establish and was so proud of. He wasn’t just a good engineer, he was good boss. His colleague Lorraine remembers his compassion: “When my sister Leslie died very suddenly in 2000, I was the first person in the family that was notified. My mother was already at work and someone needed to let her know her daughter died. I was in no shape to do it so Terry got in his car and drove to my mother’s office and told her.”
He didn’t think twice, he just showed up and went because it was the right thing to do. That’s Terry Chapman.
While his projects over the years were many, his and Jo Ann’s chief project was, well, me. The championed education—realizing everything a good education had offered them. And stood behind me, whatever came our way. It wasn’t until I entered my profession that I began to realize what a parental jackpot I’d hit. I never questioned whether I was wanted or loved, and it turns out, that isn’t as common as you’d hope. They did that for me.
Mama got sick in late 2007. We didn’t know it then, but that pesky cough was the starting stages of Non-hodgkins lymphoma. The official diagnosis didn’t come until February. She went through all the treatment, only to be told it’d worked. But a few short months later, it was clear it was back, this time in the lining between her skull and brain. We kept vigil, together for seven of the longest days and nights of my life that October. On halloween, I ran home for a shower, and on my ride back to the hospital he called me. “She’s gone.” he said.
We went to the funeral home, then to Waffle House—the first of many meals just the two of us. He’d seen her through to the end—been there all the way. And, as I ate my hash browns—scattered, chunked, & smothered that night, I realized it was my turn to do that for him.
Terry had long been the consummate volunteer for any number of organizations, but he found his people when he found Habitat for Humanity of South Fulton, and later, after Mama died, the Southern Crescent chapter of Habitat for Humanity. All told, he drove a nail in at least 155 habitat houses. Over those decades, the call of Jesus became clear. Shelter my sheep.
He was the father of the Gray Ghosts—here today as honorary pallbearers. A group of, no offense, old, retired guys who had time, he’d rally the troops with a weekly email and the Gray Ghosts would attend to whatever needs Habitat had for that week. They bonded over life experiences and war stories and common desire to be useful and to help folks. It was through habitat that he met some of his best friends whom he loved so—Cara, Cathy, Paul, Jeni, Lindsey and Kim to name a few of the many.
Later, he came to Christian City and somehow convinced them to trust him with all kinds of projects. His fingerprints are all over this place—in big ways and small. And his life was so much fuller because you let him do that. Thank you.
The president of Christian City, Keith, once said, “Terry Chapman retired, then went to work.” And you know? That’s the truth.
Christian City brought with it an entirely new wave of dear friends, George, LaVann, Lissa, Lisa, Carmen, and Brian and so many more.
Somewhere along the way, he and his dear friend, Cara, started Gingercraft—a business flipping houses in College Park near Woodward Academy. “I’ve had enough practice” he told her and many others as he explained his decision to get his general contracting license and go into business for real. For years, he managed it all—mornings at one site, lunch at Judy’s afternoons at another. This was all, of course, in addition to his favorite hobby of them all: woodworking.
He could spend hours in the little peach and green shop he had built in his backyard—turning bowls, making furniture, carving spoons or gargoyles or horse heads. Friends would bring over all kinds of projects for him to look at. “I can’t fix it,” I’m sure they thought to themselves. “But I bet Terry can.” And Terry usually could. I can’t tell you the number of times I’d call him to check in, and after asking him what he was up to, he’d say, “Oh, just down in the shop.” He’d end nearly every one of those calls the same: “Be a good boy.”
Woodworking wasn’t his only hobby, though. Not by a mile. He was a voracious reader, often spending his entire lunch break while he was working—and when he was retired—devouring books. He was content with solitude, and reading was a perfect accompaniment to that. He took a class on fly-rod making and was quite the chess player back in the day. But after woodworking, his favorite hobby had to be baking. There was a cake decorating phase while I was growing up. And of course, his famed gingerbread house decorating parties—many of you here have benefited from that experience. And there was his pie baking years where he perfected the perfect crust. Dad, a teetotaler in his own right, only ever bought had a single bottle of vodka in the house in those later years. Why? It makes the pie crust flakey, silly. His favorite cake, tho, of all the cakes he baked was the Hummingbird Cake. Southern Living’s most requested recipe, it’s basically banana nut bread on steroids topped with cream cheese icing and pecans. “I’d eat green grass if it had nuts on it,” I can hear him say even now. We’re gonna have hummingbird cake in just a little bit—complete with extra icing, just like he liked it.
These last six months haven’t been easy ones. Dad first started to notice something was wrong last August or so. By September he’d given up driving, deciding that his left eye just wasn’t reliable enough at the moment. But he didn’t let it stop him. He took uber or lyft wherever he wanted to go.
Sometime last October, his two cats died—first Ginny, then Nellie, last vestiges of Mama’s presence in the house, and then came the news in November that he need a little surgery to see what was going on.
What was going on, it turned out, was advanced squamous cell carcinoma of the head. Somehow it’d latched onto the trigeminal nerve, and found a super-highway for growth. Aggressive treatment was needed, and now. By January, I’d arranged with the gracious and generously flexible people of my congregation to move my sabbatical up ten months so I could be in Georgia through his treatment. He’d tell me again and again, “I’m just so sorry you’re having to use your sabbatical on me.” I’d smile and shake my head. “Dad, don’t think twice about it.”
We made two decisions early on. The first was that we were gonna go for all the treatment they’d offer us. However it turned out, we didn’t want to question whether or not there was something else we could’ve done. And the second was that we’d always be honest about what was happening. We weren’t going to keep things from each other.
He went into it with abandon, and thanks to the support of so many of you here, I am confident he knew how much he was loved and how many were cheering him on. From a Christmas tree fully decorated to Nelanie and Olivia coming to stay with him when I couldn’t to folks stopping by with flowers and a comforting word. When he’d finished the first course of treatment, it seemed like it’d worked—as much as we could hope for. That the cancer had stopped growing and shrunk a little and that we thought we’d bought more time. But it soon became clear something wasn’t right and after a particularly difficult weekend, I insisted his oncologist see him. Within an hour, he was in an MRI. And the next morning, while I was preparing for a funeral the oncologist called me. “It’s not good,” she told me. “We need to call in hospice.” I was already scheduled to fly home the next day in the anticipation of needing to set up home healthcare. But this wasn’t anything I’d anticipated.
“Can you wait to call him until I’m there?” I asked. She agreed. And for the first time through all of we’d been through, I kept something from him.
An hour later, I stood in front of the congregation gathered to memorialize their own patriarch, and read the words of Jesus speaks in John: “I will not leave you orphaned.” I wondered if that was true.
When I made it home, the doctor called, and we put her on speaker phone. And the whole time she spoke, his jaw trembled. We hung up the call, and he looked at me with his one big, blue eye that still worked wide open. “I’m not gonna make it,” he said. “It’s gonna get me.” And I nodded, not knowing entirely what to say other than the truth.
The next weeks moved a glacial pace and yet are a blur. Folks came by and there was laughter and tears and hugs and hope and lots of quiet…Well, except for the buzzing of those damn bees. Then, one morning, I came down early to give him his next round of meds, and found there wasn’t any need. I knelt beside him, holding his hand, and, like my grandmother decades before me, gave thanks to God for this man who loved me into being, who’s dedication to sheltering those who needed it most left this world a better place and who inspired so many. And then I wept—for my loss, and our loss.
Later that day, I found a letter he’d written me when he’d first been diagnosed. Three pages, typed. Single spaced. Turns out he wasn’t sure at all whether it’d work or not. I slowly opened the envelope, and unfolded the pages. “Dear Jon,” in his own hand, from his favorite mont blanc pen in blue ink, “The bad news is, I’m dead…” One last dumb joke.
There’s lots of instructions, and gushy bits. Passwords, and directions and stuff that, simply put, is mine to hold. But toward the end, he wrote something I do want to share with you. He wrote,
I love you, my son, since the moment you were born. (I cut the cord!) I am so proud of you and I think you are a perfect son. Know I loved you completely. Sure, I would have liked to have had more good years and more years with your Mom, but you get what you get. I have had a good and happy and long life full of blessings with few disappointments. I have loved and been loved deeply and our parents could not have imagined what we achieved—a legacy you will inherit. The people who know me best are the ones who love me best. I don’t think anyone could ask for more.
And so, it turns out, Dad was right one last time—that you can’t ask for much more than that, that the ones who know you best are the ones who love you best.
He was, indeed, a honeybee of sorts—dedicated, devoted, hardworking, and producing a gift that will sweeten generations to come. And even in the bitterness of his absence, that sweetness remains.
Dad was many things to many people. He was a son, a brother, a husband, an uncle, a great-uncle, and a father. He was a soldier, a land surveyor and a professional engineer. He was the volunteer of volunteers, a dumb joke teller, and an avid baker. He was a skilled woodworker and a quiet, generous supporter of humanitarian projects far and wide. He was a home builder, a Christian, a staunch supporter of LGBT rights, and in many ways, a self-made man. He sheltered God’s children, and inspired many to do the same. He could be crusty in his later years, but remained kind. He was loyal and eager and dedicated, and our lives are infinitely richer because he was in them.
But before all of that and after, above and below he is this: a beloved child of God, who has returned home. Thanks be to God. Amen.