By Paul Black
CARBONDALE – The Rev. Earl W. Dickey’s passing on Jan. 3 was a milestone in the history of Illinois Methodism.
Rev. Dickey, at age 101, was the last surviving clergy member of the former Methodist Protestant denomination, which, with the Methodist Episcopal Church, North and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, united in 1939 to form The Methodist Church.
Born Sept. 8, 1915, Dickey was born in the Montgomery County community of Farmersville, the oldest of 12 children.
At 9 years of age, Earl had his conversion experience at Bethel Methodist Protestant Church near Canton. His father had entered the ministry when Earl was in fourth grade and felt the call to ministry while in grade school. About 1930, Homer Dickey was appointed to the Montrose Circuit and later to Wayne City as a member of the Methodist Protestant Conference. This was during the Great Depression and the times were extremely challenging, especially for large families.
Although Earl wanted to continue his education after high school in 1934, his father insisted that he enter the Civilian Conservation Corps. Under this New Deal program, CCC boys were paid $5 per month and their parents received $25 a month from the government. Earl added to his $5 by pressing other boys’ shirts and trousers for 5 and 10 cents each. He also loaned money to those who squandered their salaries on Saturday night trips to the nearest town or by gambling in the barracks. His loan business which carried interest charges on paydays provided enough income to make trips home from Makanda to Falmouth, where his parents had moved.
His sister, Lora, introduced Earl to his future wife, Juanita Anne Earnest.
Although unable to continue his education, he “redeemed the time” by self-study and preparation. He made friends with the chaplain and he used an old typewriter and typing book he found in camp to teach himself touch typing,
During the time in the CCC, he helped shape the law at the Giant City Lodge, developed forestry skills in Wisconsin and learned to fight forest fires on Isle Royale, Lake Superior. Unbeknown to him, he was being an example to the other boys. Years later, some people came to his home in Murphysboro to tell him their pastor, Earl’s former chaplain, had told them about Earl from his pulpit in Flint, Mich. A former CCC acquaintance brought his wife and two children to see Ear. He wanted Earl to know that he had been converted and wasn’t living the way he did in the CCC’s.
In September 1936, at the age of 21 – the age to which his father had said all boys should give their income to their parents – he left the CCC’s and enrolled in Adrian College in Adrian, Mich. He worked multiple jobs, received scholarships and borrowed the rest to complete his education at Adrian and later at Westminster, Maryland, now known as Wesley Theological Seminary based in Washington, D.C.
On Aug. 16, 1938, he was taken into the Illinois Methodist Protestant Conference. His class, which included his brother, Kenneth, was the last one taken in before the 1939 union of the Methodist Protestant Church, and the Methodist Episcopal Churches, North and South. On Dec. 26, 1941, Earl and Juanita Dickey were married at her parents’ home, 8 miles northeast of Newton. Earl finished his seminary work in January 1944 and Juanita worked all but the last nine months teaching.
His first appointment was at Enfield and his CCC experience made him an early supporter of camping. The Enfield church youth numbered between 20 and 30 and attended Beulah Youth Institute. In the late 1950’s, Dickey became involved in junior high camps particularly the one being held at Giant City State Park. When the former Southern Illinois Conference decided to build a church camp at a site along Little Grassy Lake, Dickey was one of the pioneers, helping to construct and paint buildings, build roads and a beach. He also directed camps of various age groups.
With pastorates at Enfield, Shipman-Plainview, Murphysboro Centenary, Jerseyville, Carterville, East St. Louis First, Benton First and Mt. Carmel Evangelical, Dickey retired in 1979 after nearly 40 years of ministry.
In retirement, Dickey never forgot the helping hand he was given at Giant City State Park. In 1999, the Dickeys returned to the area and both he and his wife became volunteers at the park’s Visitor Center. Already well into their 80’s but full of kindness, they greeted all strangers, gave directions, explained what needed to be explained and served.
Juanita Dickey died in 2012 at the age of 94, but Earl continued to drive himself to the Giant City Visitor Center each week to do what lifetime volunteers do. And on Sept. 8, 2015, Earl Dickey celebrated his 100th birthday at the one place on Earth that defines his century of public service – Giant City State Park.
(Information about Rev. Dickey’s life was adapted from a booklet celebrating the 50th anniversary of ministry, published in 1989 and available through the IGRC Conference Archives).