From The Church on the Hill, A History of The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of North Royalton, Ohio 1829-1979, by Dorothy Cerny Spelman (1979), Page 81


The Fall of 1919 was somewhat of a milestone a series of such events since I left the small town of Hundred, West Virginia, the place of my birth, at age fifteen to enter Bethany College. Since Hundred did not then have a High School, and since Bethany did have a Preparatory School, I'm glad my parents did send me to Bethany rather than off to work in coal mines, as many village boys did.

The only church in Bethany in 1911 was the one which the Campbell family had started in 1829, and in which Alexander Campbell preached during most of his life. It is now, again, called the Bethany Meeting House and is one of four buildings at Bethany entered in the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

It was in that old church during my first year at Bethany that I joined the Christian Church, but since there was no baptistery there. rather than having winter baptisms in Buffalo Creek, we were sent in to the Wellsburg Church, the oldest of our churches still having regular services, being seven miles away on the Ohio River. In the six years I was at Bethany I managed to take all of my High School and College work, majoring in Pre-Med. studies, as I had at one time hoped to be a medical missionary. I also had nearly enough extra credits, mostly in religious subjects, to get a Master's degree.

During my last college year, I met my future wife who was then a freshman at Bethany. Miss Jennie Steindorf had ideas of her own as to whom she would marry and not even the glamour and rumblings of war made her agree to be anything more than just a good friend at that time. Much to the relief of our European allies, the U.S.A. finally entered the three-year old struggle and declared war on Germany, April 6, 1917. A number of our students hurried to Pittsburgh to enlist, but few were accepted, and three of these were inducted into Base Hospital #27 of the University of Pittsburgh, part of the Rainbow Division. Graduation was two months away, and though eager to be "on with it," we were also glad we were not called up before getting our degrees.

Alexander Campbell, when president of Bethany College, had started the custom of having the service of Ordination for the ministerial students early on the morning of graduation day at the old Bethany Church. Although the Bethany Memorial Church was not built until 1912 or 1913, this sunrise service at the Old Church is still a lovely part of each Commencement Day. With the war suddenly bringing much uncertainty into our lives, it occurred to me that if I were ordained, there might be times when I could be of greater service because of it, especially among fellow soldiers or those wounded brought into our Base Hospital. The professors ascertained that I did have enough extra work and credits to be ordained. So that June day, 1917, was for me, a double milestone: being ordained and getting my Bachelor of Science degree. I was twenty-one years old that March.

The stir of War was in the air, and going hack home to help my father on his small farm seemed anti-climactic, until I was called by Uncle Sam that August. With one month's basic training at Allentown, Pennsylvania, we finally boarded the "S. S. Lapland" at New York, to sail with darkened port holes, the submarine-infested waters by way of Halifax and Southampton to our Base at Angers in the South of France. We were kept so busy there with medical duties that I had little time to think of my extra ability to act as a Padre if the need arose. The wounded were soon pouring in from the battlefields, giving us little time for adequate sleep. But before the Armistice was signed, the ravages of influenza in that dreadful epidemic winter of 1918-19, caused greater havoc and fatalities than the guns of war. Large convoys of ships that docked there were mute evidence of the catastrophe. Soldiers coming to the war that fall of 1918 had to use the three-deck bunks in eight hour shifts and the dread disease spread through the ship like wildfire. One large troopship carrying between two and three thousand men, approaching our base, wired us that they would need nearly two hundred stretchers. In consternation, the base doctors wondered where they would put so many patients. Instead, it was that many dead bodies that came off on the stretchers.

Our Unit returned from France the following Spring and I was honorably discharged in New York City on April Fools' Day 1919, and went first to see Jennie at her home in Wheeling where she was teaching that spring. Then I hurried to Bethany to see if I could get a Master's degree by June. I had enough extra credits to do so, and they agreed, if I would write a thesis. But that Spring there was a student strike to protest the presence of the R.O.T.C. on Campus. As a result, no Commencement was held that year, and I never did get my Master's degree. I spent that summer working in the Pathology Lab at the Ohio Valley General Hospital in Wheeling, West Virginia.

Through letters of introduction I was recommended for entrance to the Medical School of Western Reserve University at Cleveland, Ohio, that fall. Arriving there by train at the Wheeling and Lake Erie Depot, I carried my few belongings across Public Square, headed for the Medical School at East 9th and St. Clair Ave. I found lodgings that first night at Hotel Gillsy. That ten-story two hundred room hotel was later sold for apartments, but I was glad to find other accommodations the next night at Lakeside Hospital, East 12th and Lakeside, where I began serving as an Extern. Although I soon became a member of A.K.K. Medical Fraternity and could have lived at the A.K.K. house at 22nd and Superior, I was most often at Lakeside Hospital for some work, and at Huron Rd. Hospital where the Telephone Building now stands. There, I did night work being "on call" in the Emergency Department. Between the two places, I was provided essential room, board and laundry.

Still my resources were slim for a future undertaking I had in mind, and I remembered some preaching experience I had had in some country churches in the Bethany area. So, one afternoon that fall I decided to call on Mr. I. J. Cahill, one of our fine ministers serving as Executive Secretary for all the Ohio Christian Churches. His office was on the top floor of the Old Arcade. I guess he was wondering what brought a medical student from West Virginia to see him, and we were having a nice visit while he was sizing me up. Suddenly his phone rang, and it was Miss Rosa Haas of the North Royalton Church, pleading for someone to help them. Their historic old Disciple Church had been closed most of the year, being forced to close because of the influenza epidemic that reached its peak in January. They had not been able to recover their old impetus and badly needed a minister. Fate seemed to be playing right into my hands. I presented my credentials and asked Brother Cahill if he thought I could fill that position, at least until they could get a full-time resident pastor, for I could only go out there on Sundays. He agreed to try me and I went to North Royalton on an "interim" basis, but I stayed with them seven and a half years!

I did not then own a car, so that first Sunday I arose very early and dressed with care. Following directions, I took a street car to the end of the line on West 25th Street, about ten miles out. There a hill starts, and the continuing road was called State Road. I started walking the remaining five miles. It was pleasant countryside, and, thinking of what I would say in my sermon made the miles seem not so long. I finally arrived a little dust covered, at Route 52 and turned right. This was the center of North Royalton, and there on a knoll, outlined against the western sky, stood the church — a not-too-large, well-built, squarish building with squat bell tower, topped by a square pointed roof. I suppose those early architects thought a spire above it would call for a cross, and we were not a people in those days, addicted to displaying the cross. There seemed to be a large tract of ground on either side of the church, serving the purpose of a lovely cemetery. It could well be called "God's Acre," though it undoubtedly was more than an acre. On the east side of the Church stood a long shed for hitching and sheltering horses.

The whole peaceful scene before me, was, in way, setting the tone for a new and significant period in my life. In fact, as I approached, the church bell was ringing, and stepping inside, I found the ringer was a slim, middle-aged woman who had an air of righteous determination about her. It was Miss Rosa Haas whose telephone call had started this episode in my life. I was soon to learn that she was the power behind the scenes that kept the church alive and functioning even without the leadership of a minister. She lived across the road from the church, and down, nearer to Ridge Road, in the old family home with a self-sufficient garden — all that was left of their original farm. She kept house for two bachelor brothers, who, we learned had not spoken to each other in years, surely a cross she had to bear. Happily, the church was near enough that she could bestow on it the love and tender care that seemed to be missing in her personal home life. She dusted the pews, arranged the flowers, played the old-fashioned organ, and took me under her wing in a motherly way.

She had alerted the membership that, finally, a new minister was coming, and there was a sizable attendance at Sunday School and the worship service. I don't remember what subject I preached on, but it seemed to be well received. I know I enjoyed it and felt a special challenge as I met the interesting families that comprised that church. Through various ones, I learned a little of its distinguished history, its early beginnings in the Western Reserve of the Ohio Country — that "lovely land beyond the mountains." And I was especially impressed to learn that James A. Garfield had preached there, no doubt coming out from Eclectic Institute at Hiram. I remembered Jennie, my fiancé, telling me that her grandfather W. H. Trout, a brother and a sister, had come from their home in Ontario to be students at the Institute in 1855. While there, he knew and admired Miss Lucretia Rudolph (later Mrs. James Garfield). So that later in his life, when a daughter was born on his birthday, they said he should have the privilege of naming her, and he named her Lucretia Garfield Trout. I learned that early records of the Royalton Church had been lost, but little by little, I pieced together some of its early history from some of the older members.

No doubt my early rising, long walk, and the excitement of a new venture, whetted my appetite, but I remember that chicken, corn and tomato dinner at the Haas home that first Sunday as a near-perfect meal. I don't remember how I got back that day. I was probably given a lift by a kind traveler along the road. Other Sunday mornings that first month, as I started the walk from the end of the car line, I was soon picked up by the milk truck which helped a great deal. At the end of the first month, with winter in the air, I decided I was able to buy a second-hand Model-T-Ford Coupe, which I used until 1922. Owning and driving my first car, usually referred to as "the machine" in those early days, was undoubtedly another milestone, but I took it in stride and soon mastered the techniques of winter driving.

I'm sure there was seldom a Sunday I went out there but what I was asked to dinner at some member's home. I soon felt quite at home in the Haas household but rich memories come flooding back of warm hospitality stimulating visits and wonderful meals with other families. Two such homes I was most often privileged to visit were the Wiltshire home and the Searles home. The Wiltshires lived a few miles out on Edgerton Road — a wonderful Christian Family with three children; the Searles home, also originally a farm, was most conveniently located at the northwest corner of State and Royalton Roads. Probably the oldest member of the church was "Aunt Sarah" Wilcox, surely the personification of the pioneer spirit of Western Reserve Discipledom. Before she died, she greatly honored me by giving me the Wilcox family Bible, a very large one, which, many years later, I presented to the Disciples of Christ Historical Society at Nashville. Other people so well remembered were the Bassetts, the Cerny family, the Geisses, the Heeges, Harold Hamblin and his mother and many others.

Somehow, that interim period of just helping the Royalton Church get back on its feet, began to lengthen into years, and with it came the inevitable duties a minister is asked to perform, such as funerals and weddings. Services like these drew me closer than ever to these dear people. Many of them became patients as time went on and perhaps my surgical ministrations to them were more successful than my spiritual ones. At least I felt very much that I was both warp and woof of the fabric of that church.

During summers of my Medical School years, I worked at the May Co. on the Square as a floor walker. No fanfare accompanied my graduation from Medical School in 1923 and it was followed by a very busy Intern year at Cleveland City Hospital (now Metropolitan General). Then immediately, I began my residency work, being fortunate enough to be accepted at the Cleveland Clinic. My two years there, assisting Dr. George Crile, Sr. was the frosting on the cake, as far as my medical education was concerned. He was a world-renowned goitre surgeon, and goitre was very prevalent then in Northern Ohio where glaciers had scrubbed the iodine out of the soil.

In the middle of my two years as a Fellow of the Cleveland Clinic, I was married to the girl who had waited for me six years. We started housekeeping on the second floor of a five-room duplex on Savannah Avenue in East Cleveland. And our first child Robert was born while we lived there. After graduation from Bethany College, Jennie taught Ceramic Design at Wheeling High School, and several times, while visiting cousins in Cleveland, she had gone with me out to Royalton where she formed some lasting friendships.

By the time Bobby had come along, I was in private practice. After one winter of trying to get ourselves, plus a baby and his paraphernalia, twenty miles through deep snows and arrive in Royalton before the church bell stopped ringing, we reluctantly decided the following summer, 1927, that the time was ripe to conclude our service there. The severance of regular duties was made easier by the fact that a Bethany friend who was already a minister wanted to enter Western Reserve Medical School, and needed a nearby pastorate. Rev. Horatio Pease was descended from one of Cleveland's first settlers, and he was better equipped to serve the church than I had been on my arrival. So that fall he stepped into my shoes in more ways than one, preaching at Royalton every Sunday while weekdays saw him as a medical student. He did become a doctor and went to Wadsworth, Ohio, to practice.

Throughout these intervening years in which God has given us five children and fourteen grandchildren, there have been a number of times in which I have been invited back to Royalton to fill the pulpit for a special service, and it has gladdened my heart to be there in that wonderful Christian fellowship. Changes have come in the structure of many of those Royalton families, even in the location and structure of the church building. But the old church bell still rings, as in Garfield's day, in times of vicissitude like fire, and in announcing new hopes and accomplishments. May it be a clarion voice of our people to carry on through the next one hundred and fifty years. They are the church and we salute them!

(Editors note: Dr. Renner contributed this story of his life to our book on August 15, 1978. He died April 12, 1979.)