Dave Rogers lay near death in the intensive care unit of the Jasper, Indiana, Memorial Hospital on the night of 26 July 1990—a victim of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) complicated by pneumonia. His thinking was clear, but ALS had robbed him of the control of most of his muscles. A respirator aided his breathing.
But tonight was different than any of the other nights Dave had lain in the hospital—tonight Dave was going to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood. Fred Smith, president of the Huntingburg Branch, had been authorized by the stake president to ordain Dave an elder in the event of an emergency, such as the one they faced tonight. Dave’s wife, Geraldine, stood nearby as President Smith and Dave’s home teacher, Greg Miller, laid their hands on Dave’s head and ordained him to the office of elder in the Melchizedek Priesthood.
Dave recovered from this severe bout with pneumonia, and members of the elders quorum were able to hold one priesthood meeting in his hospital room with him before his death from ALS on 21 February 1991.
The events leading up to Dave Rogers’s ordination reflect many of the strengths of the Huntingburg Branch. In 1981, before Dave contracted ALS, he and his wife had joined the Church in Huntingburg. When a young family member suffered a stroke and needed total care, the Rogers family stopped attending church and did not resume attendance after they moved out of the branch in 1984. But when ALS required Dave to be hospitalized in Jasper, he was again back within the boundaries of the Huntingburg Branch. “As his home teacher, I took the opportunity to teach him the missionary lessons again,” Brother Miller says. “I also talked with his wife to calm her fears about death.”
As a result of his visits with Brother Miller, the missionaries, and other branch members, Dave’s testimony was renewed. Slowly, Dave and his wife gained courage and peace. By July 1990, Dave had been able to sound out a few syllables—with great difficulty—by blowing into his respirator; he expressed to Brother Miller his desire to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood.
“You can make a dramatic difference living in a small branch,” says Brother Miller, a Californian who chose Jasper over Hawaii or California as the place he wanted to set up his medical practice. “A righteous Latter-day Saint family can have a great effect on a community simply by living there. Members of the Church need to know that branches have a value all their own; they can be strong in spirit even though they may be small in numbers.”
Only about twenty active families make up the Huntingburg Branch, but they make a dramatic difference in each other’s lives and in the community.
“We have talented people, but we don’t have a lot of people,” says Diane Smith, homemaking counselor in the Relief Society. “As a result, we have to depend on the Lord. Maybe that’s what makes us so strong.”
“We’re just like a big family,” says Owen Layton, Sunday School president. “If someone needs something, it’s not long until everyone knows about it and it gets done. Everybody watches out for everybody else.”
“The work load is tremendous, but the blessings are well worth it,” says Jim LeClere, second counselor in the branch presidency.
“Words cannot say how much I love our branch,” says Jan Griepenstroh, Primary secretary. “The first time I walked in with the missionaries and I saw the love the people had, I said: ‘Hey, this is where I want to belong. This is going to be my home forever.’”
“Everybody’s been so good to me to help me get to the temple and to church,” says 88-year-old Icely Mock, who lives in a nursing home. “Sometimes I feel like I’m just too much trouble, but I’d miss everyone so much if they didn’t take care of me. I wish I could do more.”
In 1980, when the Huntingburg Branch was formed from the English Indiana Branch, members of the new branch met in a single room over the florist shop on Huntingburg’s main street. “The room was beautiful,” remembers Kay Trusty, one of the fifteen original members, “but every time a truck went by, we had to stop the meeting. We didn’t even care. We were just so happy that we didn’t have to drive the thirty miles to English anymore.”
Now the branch meets in a rented church building, and members often laugh as they tell others that the ball atop their white spire is actually a painted bowling ball. Though the building is small, it is adequate for the branch’s needs. Most of the original members are still living in the branch: Lester Trusty, the former president of the English Branch, and his wife, Kay; Wilma Cronin, who had attended the Tell City Branch with her husband, Lawrence (now deceased); Juanita Spencer, who had been baptized in Wyoming in 1952; and Curtis and Karen Acuff, who in 1980 were newlywed factory workers with dreams of college educations.
Most current members can trace their membership to a friendship with one of the original branch members. Kay Trusty introduced Diane Smith, a co-worker at the Medco Nursing Home, to the Church. Diane accepted the gospel quickly but waited to be baptized while her husband, Fred, gained his testimony. They were both baptized in May 1985.
Michele Layton decided when she was a teenager that she wanted to be baptized even though her mother, Nancy, an early branch member, was not active in the Church, and her father, Owen, was not a member. Nancy became active, and both Michele and Owen were baptized.
Born into the Church, Lawrence Cronin taught his wife, Wilma, the gospel and encouraged his sister, Elsie, to move to Huntingburg from Kentucky. Elsie brought her friend Penny Lamb, a recent convert, with her. Lawrence and Wilma’s daughter, Rhonda, taught Rhonda’s husband, Jim, the gospel. And Jim shared the gospel with co-worker Jan Griepenstroh.
And so the growth continues. Even branch stalwarts like the Millers owe their Church membership to missionary work—Greg Miller taught and baptized his wife, Debbie, before they were married.
Baptisms are an exciting event for the entire branch. Since there is no baptismal font in the Huntingburg Branch building, members usually travel thirty-five miles to the Tell City Branch, which has a font. Or during the warm months, baptisms can be performed in a private pond in the woods. When one of the children was reluctant to be baptized in the pond for fear of water snakes, the baptism was moved to an indoor pool owned by an individual who is not a member of the Church. Since then, several baptisms have been held there. Curt Acuff, a musician, brings his electronic keyboard, and prior to the baptism members enjoy the beauty of Church hymns and a view of the lake through the glass windows surrounding the pool.
In the Huntingburg Branch, the gospel is the great equalizer. Age, income, education, and background fade in their importance as members draw together to help one another. “We have a mixture of people, from factory workers to a doctor,” says Jim LeClere, “but when we all get together working on a project, it doesn’t make any difference.”
When Fred Smith left for a week on a business trip, some of the men from the branch roofed half his house. Several months after finishing the roof on the Smith home, the same men were on their knees replacing a wall in Sister Cronin’s basement. Then on a rainy Saturday, members helped Gisela Leland, a newly divorced sister, move into another home. And the stories go on and on.
Members help each other with spiritual as well as physical needs. When Lawrence Cronin became terminally ill and began to lose his voice, leaders did not release him from his calling as counselor in the branch presidency. Patiently waiting for Brother Cronin to conduct a meeting often left the members filled with love for him, for the gospel, and for each other, and with tears in their eyes. “Lawrence had to give up so many things before he died,” says his widow, Wilma. “He was brokenhearted when he lost his voice because he loved to sing. I appreciated his being able to keep his position in the branch presidency because it helped him feel needed.”
Homebound members such as Juanita Spencer and Icely Mock receive Sunday visits from their home teachers, who bring them the sacrament, the ward newsletter, and a tape recording of sacrament meeting.
Bill and Debbie Powell’s experience is typical of the spiritual help available within the branch. When Debbie began having trouble with her long-awaited pregnancy, she expressed a desire to have a priesthood blessing, even though she is not a member of the Church. “Debbie’s my rock. She supports me in my Church work,” says Bill. “I knew a priesthood blessing would help us, and so did Debbie—and it did. There’s such strength here.”
Whether it is cleaning house for a mother of five who is bedridden with a high-risk pregnancy or encouraging others, babysitting or giving a priesthood blessing, installing a new furnace or teaching a child how to pray, the members of this branch take care of one another.
The children of the Huntingburg Branch are a reflection of the branch itself—few in number but strong in spirit. Most of the Primary children come from five families: the Smiths, Millers, Daunhauers, Lemonds, and Acuffs.
“We usually have ten or eleven children,” says Primary president Michele Layton Gameon, “but sometimes we have as many as seventeen. Planning a sharing time that appeals to children with such wide age differences is my biggest challenge.”
Michele’s counselor, Penny Lamb, has a special relationship with the children. A Primary worker since 1981, Penny has served previously as Primary president, nursery worker, and leader in the Scouting program. “I adopt every kid in the branch,” says Penny, who is affectionately known among the children as the “Purple Primary President” because of her love for the color purple.
Once the children planned a surprise party for Penny. They greeted Penny with their faces painted purple and served her a meal featuring such items as “Penny Lambchops,” purple mashed potatoes, purple bread, and purple milk. They even gave her a purple shirt with the words “Purple Primary President” written on the back.
After several years of involvement with a city Cub Scout pack, members of the branch now have their own Boy Scout troop and Cub Scout pack, with Marty Gameon as Scoutmaster, Ed Lemond as assistant Scoutmaster, and Jane Lemond as den leader. “I grew up in a branch without a Scouting program,” says Marty, “and I want to give these boys what I missed.”
“Sometimes it’s a challenge when you have either no members or one member in an organization,” says President Smith. “But the ones who do it are really strong.” The Acuffs agree. “Living in a branch has made our children strong,” says Karen. “When the gospel finally clicked in my son Nathan’s life, many saw the change in him. Now he stands up for what he believes.”
Huntingburg and Jasper, like most of the towns in northern Dubois County, were settled by German immigrants. People in the area have strong social, religious, and family traditions. For many people, breaking away from these traditions and joining the Church is a painful process requiring a great deal of courage. Yet several branch members have done so. As a result, branch members are keenly aware of the importance of interacting with the community in positive ways.
Some members automatically have a high profile because of their careers, but others seek out opportunities. Debbie Miller, a nurse who has five children, and Diane Smith, mother of six, show their commitment to the gospel and their understanding of the value of human life as they counsel with unwed mothers and others considering abortion via a telephone hotline sponsored by a volunteer group.
Jan Griepenstroh, a single sister, has been involved in Special Olympics since she participated in them as a high school student. Awards for long jump, track, and shot put decorate her apartment. Since her graduation from high school, Jan has volunteered yearly at the local and state Special Olympics. “So many people have helped me that this is my way of paying them back,” says Jan.
Curt and Karen Acuff’s dream of a college education became a reality in 1986 after they took their two children and moved temporarily to Bloomington, Indiana, to attend Indiana University. Curt continued to commute to his factory job in Jasper while Karen went to school, and then Karen taught high school while Curt attended college. Their new careers—Curt’s as a musician and Karen’s as a high school French teacher—allow them to make a difference in the community. “I like to be an example,” says Karen. “The kids say, ‘You can’t tell me that you don’t drink or swear,’ and I say, ‘Yes, I can.’”
Several Church callings, traveling long distances, and heavy home teaching loads are only a few of the challenges that members of the Huntingburg Branch face. However, members agree that it is the acceptance of these challenges that makes them and the branch strong and that therefore, the challenges are actually advantages.
Opportunities to speak in sacrament meeting come every few months to members of the branch, including children as young as seven years old. But members gain competence as speakers and increase their knowledge of the gospel as a result of preparation for their many talks.
Many branch members serve in several Church positions at a time, but classes and programs usually run smoothly because of their small size. However, multiple callings can sometimes result in humorous situations. Once Lester Trusty served concurrently as a counselor in the Huntingburg Branch presidency and as a high councilor. “We’d like to welcome our high councilor, Brother Lester Trusty,” said Brother Trusty as he introduced himself as the speaker in sacrament meeting that day. “It’s always good to see him and hear his great talks.”
Home teachers visit about eight or nine families because there are only a few priesthood holders available to visit all the members. In spite of the heavy loads, 95 percent of the families are visited some months. “I think home teaching is one of the greatest programs in the Church because you’re always in contact with other members,” says Ed Lemond. “I get a lot of enjoyment from that. I have eight families, and I like visiting them.”
The fact that three members of the branch serve in stake positions attests to the strength of the Huntingburg Branch: Rhonda LeClere serves as a counselor in the stake Young Women presidency; Greg Miller serves as a high councilor; and Debbie Miller serves as education counselor in the stake Relief Society presidency.
Members of the Huntingburg Branch enjoy some of the technological advances found in larger wards—a satellite dish, a computer for their financial records and the Personal Ancestry File, and a copy of the International Genealogical Index (IGI) for America and Germany in the local library. In this German community, residents as well as branch members use this resource.
Distance can be the enemy of the growing Church, but members of the Huntingburg Branch find that riding together to attend stake meetings, stake conference, or the temple has increased their love for each other.
“We carpool to New Albany to attend the 6:00 A.M. priesthood meeting, and we have a great time,” says President Smith. “It keeps us excited about the gospel, and you’ve got to be excited to get up at 3:00 A.M.”
Temple attendance also requires sacrifice because of the distances involved. As part of the Atlanta Georgia Temple district, members of the Huntingburg Branch travel eight hours to Atlanta. Bus trips, arranged quarterly by the stake, provide an opportunity for members to attend the temple with others. Sometimes members carpool when the weather is good. And when members attend the temple for the first time, all of the branch members who can make the trip joyously share the occasion with them.
“One night I had to work late and I didn’t get home until 2:30 in the morning,” said Bill Powell in a testimony meeting at the Huntingburg Branch. “I was really tired when I pulled up in my driveway and got out of my car. The clear, crisp night sky was filled with stars. I stood there and looked at my house. I knew my wife was inside and that we had a baby on the way. We had our baby things, and Debbie’s health had straightened out. As I stood there, a falling star just flew right down through the sky over my house. And I thought, ‘This has been a good year for us,’ and I thanked Heavenly Father for it.”
Other members of the Huntingburg Branch are thankful and happy to be living here, too. Though they are few in number, they are mighty in spirit.