I have now passed 30 Father’s Days since Dad died just after Christmas in 1983. Today, like millions of others remembering their fathers, I’ve been thinking about and remembering with gratitude, Cecil Leroy Rankin.
Certain other annual events also make me think of Dad. Many of them involve horses. The Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes always bring him to mind. A couple of summers ago, Joni and I vacationed in Ruidoso, NM, the home of the Quarter Horse Futurity. Dad especially loved Quarter Horses. He could often cite bloodlines. One of the vacation trips we made more than once took us to Ruidoso to watch the Futurity – billed as “the richest horse race in the world.” (No, he didn’t bet.) Dad and I spent many a day working with horses as I was growing up. Anything “horse” or “cowboy” always make me think of him.
Mom and Dad rarely (and I mean rarely) went to movies. But he loved John Wayne. The summer after my college freshman year, I was back home with my folks. Kanopolis, KS, where they lived at the time, is a tiny burg a few miles away from Ellsworth. This was back in the day when quite a few small towns still had drive-in movie theaters. And the Kanopolis drive-in was showing John Wayne and “The Cowboys.” I convinced Mom and Dad to go. It was a hoot to watch Dad break out laughing. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll remember the castor oil scene. The one that really doubled him over involved how one of the young lads (working the cattle drive) overcame his stuttering problem. Wil Anderson (the name of Wayne’s character) badgered the boy so much that he eventually let loose a stream of cuss words at his boss, with perfect fluency. Dad thought it was hilarious.
Dad had no formal education beyond high school and I never got the sense that he was a very serious student in his schoolboy days. One time – I think I was about 14 – we were back in Dad’s home town, Ashland, KS and had stopped on Main Street to go to the drugstore, which still had a soda fountain. As we climbed out of the car, a man who just happened to walk by then stopped in his tracks, stared at Dad and, exclaimed, “Well, Skunk Rankin, how are you?!” You can imagine that my teenage self could not wait to ask Dad the story behind that nickname. The first chance I got, I asked. He somewhat reluctantly told me the story. One day on his way to school (he and his brothers actually rode their horses to school from out in the country), he had found a dead skunk. The notion struck him to take that rancid carcass and place in the school’s boiler – you know, radiator heat. The stench filled the building and they had to turn out school. I had never heard that story and Dad was none too happy to tell it.
Little education by no means meant lack of intelligence. He had a quick mind and an angular wit. Admittedly, Dad wasn’t known for his humor. He could be intense, easily angered. But he also saw the funny in life and you had to pay attention to catch it from him. Often, his wit revealed a prophetic sense.
What stands out most, however, in all the memories, is Dad’s deep love for Jesus Christ. As we all do, Dad had some obvious flaws. But he loved Jesus, who had radically altered the course of his life. From a fifth a whiskey a day drinking habit and a rough-and-tumble work and social life (he loved ropings, rodeos and rodeo dances) God took a wild and wandering young man and turned him into a disciple and a country preacher. In those high school yearbook visions of the future, no one in Dad’s class would have picked him for this role. My father experienced an old fashioned conversion at the altar of a little Methodist church outside Bartlesville, OK. And then God called him into the ordained ministry. Dad resisted for years, thinking he was not qualified, educationally or personally. He had too much bad history, he thought. But God persisted and finally, my father answered. I grew up a Methodist preacher’s kid.
And in all of life’s meanderings came something of a “full circle” experience for me. I struggled with and eventually responded to my own call to preach. After Joni and I spent some time in Italy, we came back to the States and I was appointed to the Florence-Aulne-Youngtown (United Methodist) charge in Kansas. We moved in Labor Day weekend, 1984 and started getting acquainted with our folk. One of the members of the Youngtown church who lived close to Florence – Benard Stromberg – asked me if I was related to Cecil Rankin. Surprised, I said, “Why yes, he was my father.” Dad had been dead less than a year at this point. It turns out that, back around 1950, he had preached his very first sermon in the very church I was now serving as pastor. At that time, he and the family (this all happened before I was born) were living on a ranch a few miles from Florence, near Cedar Point. Dad spoke on a Sunday night and sang a solo. Benard had a record-making machine and had produced a homemade 78 rpm recording of my father singing, “It is No Secret.” He gave me that recording. Fortunately, he still had a player that could play 78s and I could hear my father’s voice:
“It is no secret what God can do. What he’s done for others he’ll do you for you. With arms wide open, he’ll pardon you. It is no secret what God can do.”
So true. It’s good to remember. Thanks, Dad.