At 10:55 a.m. on a beautiful day in 1977 I was walking across the lovely campus of Mercer University, that part of the campus that is now saddled with the rather cumbersome and unnecessary designation “the Historic Quad,” to take the mid-term examination in my theology class when the professor whose course that was ambled up beside me and said, “Mike, may I ask you a question?” I of course said “Yes, sir” and he asked it: “Do you always have trouble staying awake in your 11:00 classes?”
The answer that ran through my mind was, “Only in my 11:00 classes in which the professor comes in, sits down behind his desk, and proceeds to speak in soft and melodious tones for fifty straight minutes” but I thought better of it and just said, “Yes, sir” to which he responded, “Well, you sure have trouble staying awake in mine.”
The conversation left me in something less than an ideal state to take the exam.
ButI didn't do too badly. At the beginning of the next semester I was eating lunch with some friends in the university cafeteria when that same professor came up, book in hand as was his custom, sat down and proceeded to read. After a few moments he lowered his book, looked me in the eye, and said, “Mike, you’re an enigma to me.” “Why is that?” I asked. A slight smile played at his lips as he answered, “You’re the only person ever to sleep through my class and still make an A.” I smiled back and said, “I read the books.” “You certainly did,” he said and returned to his book. The man loved and respected books; you never saw him without one.
That professor was Dr. Francis Robert Otto, esteemed Professor of Christianity and one of the kindest, gentlest, and most genuine people I have ever had the privilege of knowing.
Born in Connecticut and educated at the University of Minnesota, Bethel Theological Seminary, and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. Otto cut a striking figure around the campus. He looked like Abraham Lincoln would have looked had Honest Abe had lighter colored hair; his face communicated softness and wisdom. A tad eccentric, he was known for such things as running in hiking boots and forgetting whether he had been present at yesterday’s faculty meeting.
If you knew him and didn’t like him you didn’t really know him.
The only course that I had with Dr. Otto was the one through which I (allegedly) slept. Debra, though, took three courses with him including a summer independent reading course in which they read C. S. Lewis together; it was one of the highlights of her college career.
Dr. Otto had a way with words that empowered him to make his point in ways that I never forgot. For example, at one Thursday night Baptist Student Union meeting he spoke to us about the intricacies of the male-female relationship—in a word, sex. I can still see him standing there, oozing dignity and stillness, as he said, “Sometimes on these warm spring days I’ll be standing at my office window and I’ll see the coeds walking across the campus and one will catch my eye and I’ll think, ‘Yeah, that would be nice’—but then I remember—I’m not a dog and she’s not in heat.”
I think he went on to make a very reasoned statement about how human beings are supposed to be more than animals when it comes to our relationships and how when we are joined to one another it is a joining of spirit and mind and person as well as a joining of bodies—but that picture he painted never left me.
His words got him in pretty bad trouble at least one time when, in his then role as Dean of the Chapel, he used “the mother of all swear words,” as the narrator voice of adult Ralphie describes it in A Christmas Story, in response to which, as a Baptist Press story describes, Mercer President Rufus Harris had to wash his mouth out with Lifebuoy, so to speak.
One day in the aforementioned theology class through which I allegedly slept I was awake enough to hear Dr. Otto tell, in all its glory, including the context in which he used “the mother of all swear words,” that story and I affirm that, again, he made his point in an unforgettable way. At least I finally came to understand that, when Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount that if I call someone a fool—or use a more modern equivalent— it is not the use of the word per se but rather the motivation behind the use of the word—am I motivated by mischief and fun or by hate and anger—that puts me in danger of judgment.
Elisha wanted a double portion of Elijah’s spirit; for my part, I would be satisfied with a half portion of Dr. Otto’s gentle, loving, and trusting Christian spirit. Debra and I and so many others were honored to learn from and to be influenced by him.
Dr. Francis Robert Otto died on Tuesday, February 16, just three days shy of his 90th birthday. If there is, as I suspect, a special place in heaven for kind, gentle, transparent, and constantly inquisitive people, Dr. Otto is sitting there today, no doubt reading a book, which was always heaven for him.