In this story from March 1953, the beloved cowboy star reveals how his wife, Dale Evans, patiently but persistently invited him to know God.
What’s wrong with a guy who isn’t scared when he nearly breaks his neck filming Western pictures, but gets the shakes when he has to make a simple speech? For years I asked myself this question.
I was shy from my boyhood days when we lived on the Ohio River in a three-room houseboat built by my father. Our family–Mother, Dad, and three sisters–later settled on a farm outside Portsmouth, Ohio. Dad worked in a shoe factory, while my sisters and I helped Mother run the farm.
We kids went to a one-room schoolhouse, which was just an even hundred yards from the Baptist Church. I know because we measured it and discovered it a perfect distance for a foot race.
Our shoes came off after the last snow and didn’t go on until fall. To toughen our feet in the spring, we ran barefoot races from school to church over a course of tough corn stubbles. My feet grew skin an eighth of an inch thick on the bottom.
By the time I was ten I could call a square dance and play the guitar. But to get up and talk before a class, or just a few people, would make me take off across the cornfields.
I earned a dollar a week by ploughing corn on neighborhood farms, later quit school and went to work in the shoe factory to help out the family finances. When the family went to visit my sister in California, I fell in love with the far West.
I drove a gravel truck in Lawndale, California for a while, then during the depression took any kind of job. I helped build a state highway from Newhall to Castaic, later joined the “Okies,” and picked peaches in the California fruit orchards described in “The Grapes of Wrath.”
During my spare time I practiced on my guitar, hoping that some day I could make a living as a musician and a singer. Three of us formed a musical trio called the Texas Outlaws, but it was rough going. Often the three of us lived in one room, where sleeping was done by unique arrangement of daybed, couch and chair. In our travels we often had to go out and shoot rabbits to live.
Then, as often happens to a guy who wanders into Hollywood, I had a lucky break, got a spot in a picture and my film career started. When my wife died during the birth of our third child, I was faced with a demanding career and the responsibilities of raising three fine children.
The story I want to tell begins several years later. Dale Evans, a film star in her own right, and I had been making pictures together for many years. With the unanimous approval of my children, we were married on December 31, 1948.
We hadn’t been married but a few days when she started one morning with “It’s a beautiful day to go to church!”
Now I wasn’t a stranger to churches. I just hadn’t time to get acquainted with very many because of other things I preferred doing. “Honey, I’ve gotta go see Joe Miller this morning,” I said quickly. “Why don’t you go ahead without me?”
This was the first excuse I could think of, but with more advance warning I could have done much better. Dale fixed a firm eye on me, and I knew her nimble mind was working overtime.
She let me get away with it the first time, but going to church soon became the most important thing there was to do on Sunday.
One night before going to bed I noticed a new book on my reading table. “Where did this come from?” I asked, picking up a copy of the Bible.
“Since you lost your old one, I bought it for you this morning,” Dale said brightly. She knew that I knew I never had a copy of the Bible, but what can you do with a woman whose mind is made up!
Grace before meals became a regular thing. Cheryl, Linda and Roy, Jr., (the three children of my first marriage) were quick to take a part. Dale introduced a type of Grace where everyone said a sentence prayer.
I would squirm in my chair a little, hoping they wouldn’t notice me. So it went around the table, then “Why don’t you say something, Daddy?” Linda piped up.
Dale, God bless her, is the smartest and most loving woman in the world. She didn’t press me; but she never lets go of an idea she thinks is right.
Later, when I tried to explain my feelings to Dale, she would say, “The Lord gave you many talents, Roy. Some you use well for yourself, but there are some you haven’t developed at all for Him.
"If you could learn to let God speak through you, honey, you could make a good speech every time–and not die doing it.”
I didn’t know what she meant at first. To some people, religion may come in one big emotional experience. I moved to it a step at a time: regular attendance at church, reading a few passages from the Bible, saying Grace.
A warm quality grew into our family life. It was a spiritual kind of love that makes you want to do something for others.
A group of people in Hollywood began to get together and talk about all these things, people like Tim Spencer, Red Harper, Colleen Townsend, Jane Russell, Mrs. Henrietta Meers, Connie Haines, Joyce Compton, Dale, myself and others.
We would meet at different homes, some of us bringing along extra chairs. There was prayer for the problems of others; several would speak, of religion out of their own experience.
I never had enough education to understand theology, but when a fellow like Tim Spencer [co-founder of the vocal group The Sons of the Pioneers] stands up before a group like this and tells frankly how his belief in Jesus Christ helped him change from a drunk to a hard-working citizen, then Christianity comes alive to me.
One day I discovered that I actually looked forward to saying the blessing at mealtime. It may sound corny, but I could hardly wait for my turn. I began to appreciate the wholesome things that happen in each area of life when you’re right with God. Not that I don’t have plenty far to go.
As I said before, Dale is a mighty smart woman. She helped bring something new into our family life, but not at the sacrifice of other things we enjoyed, like outdoor sports. We still like to ride, fish, hunt and camp out.
The biggest triumph came when I used Dale’s suggestion about speaking in public. The occasion was like many others. The music part I handled without any fear, but when it came time to say a few words, I felt the same old nervous symptoms.
Then I closed my eyes for just a moment and said silently, “Lord, I’ll just make a mess of things on my own. Help me to relax a little so that what I say to these people will really mean something.”
I started to talk and found myself saying things I’d never said before. And they came out as naturally as though I was just standing there and someone else was talking. From that time, I’ve never had more than the normal amount of nervousness.
Somehow it doesn’t make any difference now whether the group is simple farm folk or sophisticated New Yorkers, the things I try to say are the same.
At the Rodeo in Madison Square Garden last fall, I took the opportunity at every performance to reply to a letter I received from a boy who asked, “Is it sissy to go to Sunday School?”
Now there was a question I really enjoyed answering.
“It certainly is not,” I said. “Going to Sunday School and Church is one of the greatest privileges we have. I only wish I had been smart enough to know this earlier in my life.”
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