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By Bev Odom
The Red River Sun
WELLINGTON — What are the odds that not just one but two couples in the same small Sunday school class at the First United Methodist Church have been married more than 70 years?
The former Young Adult Class taught by the late Olivia Hill for years and years evolved into the Wesley Class, the name the late Harold Caldwell labeled the group. The Carter Class, founded by the late Lynn Carter, recently merged with the Wesley Class.
“Tommy and I are the only ones left of the original Wesley Class members, although Ruth Caldwell still attends church,” said Jo Lewis.
Tommy Lewis’ grandparents arrived in Texas in 1901 from Arkansas in search of expanded opportunities and a better place to raise their children. In 1905, they had saved enough money to buy land in Collingsworth County.
Today, Tommy and Jo Tanner Lewis still live on the farm in the Collingsworth County Kesler community, where Tommy was born. The couple started raising cotton in 1950.
They met “by accident” in Shamrock in December 1949. Jo said she and a friend pulled over to investigate who was following them around town. After a brief visit, Jo took off, catching the bumper of Tommy’s parents’ car with her parents’ car.
Tommy said he bribed her into a date, and the rest is history. The couple married six months later, on June 24, 1950, at the age of 17 and almost 19. The old locust tree lane has perished, and whistles of three daily trains that crossed Atteberry Creek and passed by the old Lewis homestead have vanished, but the commitment and love for each other have never faltered.
“It doesn’t matter whether one marries in a church or somewhere else, the vows are serious,” Jo said. Tommy added, “I didn’t enjoy my wedding very much as we both took it very seriously. We were so young.”
Saved and baptized at Twitty Baptist Church at 10 years old, Jo said there was never a question about where the newlyweds would attend church. She joined the Kelley Methodist Church in rural Collingsworth County, built on land donated by Tommy’s grandfather, T.J. Lewis. Already a member, Tommy had become the Sunday School Superintendent at only 18 years old. When the Kelley church closed in 1963, the Lewis family moved its membership to the First United Methodist Church of Wellington.
“The church and the love of God has been our foundation,” Jo said. “But like most marriages, we’ve had our ups and downs, and the heartache of losing our only grandson when he was 30 years old. Overall, we’ve had a wonderful life.”
The couple watched the building of the new Wellington church in four phases, beginning with the Sunday school wing in the late 1960s, then the parsonage in 1977 and sanctuary in 1978. The fellowship hall was completed in 1981.
“The Wellington church always welcomed us, but the building project became sort of a bonding experience,” Jo said. “We treasured the time too that we attended the Trinity Methodist Church on Haskell St. during the construction of our new sanctuary. Then some of those sweet ladies moved over to our church when theirs closed.”
Tommy and Jo have traveled extensively through the years with fall foliage trips being their favorite. In their books, bus excursions of the U.S. countryside top touring Europe for 13 days, in which they visited seven countries, and trips to Alaska, Canada and Hawaii.
“Despite the beauty of our travels, we have been more blessed by being able to share God with our Emmaus, prison ministry and local jail ministry,” said Jo.
Tommy explained he always had a yearning to be a pilot. With a good cotton crop in 1979, he bought a used Cessna 172. He recalls being so close to God the 10 years he spent flying his airplane. When his hearing suddenly vanished in one ear, he gave it up.
“God blessed us so much that after it was all said and done, after all the expenses of owning and flying my plane for 10 years, I came out ahead financially,” he said. “We’ve witnessed so many things, from farming with two horses pulling a one-row plow to our son Jerry farming with 16-row tilling equipment and 125-foot sprayer rigs. It’s been a joy.”
The couple has two children. Daughter Gwen and husband Bob Ware live at Granbury. Gwen’s three daughters are Kara and husband Russ Woollard with grandchildren Faydra and Kaiser of Wheeler, Jordan and Trent Ware with Landon and Addie of Addison and Drew and Joe Sewell with Ella and Kloe, also of Wheeler.
Son Jerry and wife Della Lewis live nearby and farm in Collingsworth County. Their daughter Heidi Lewis and grandson Hunter live at Wellington. Jerry and Della’s daughter-in-law Kasha Lewis Bills, wife of deceased son Levi Lewis, and grandchildren Kaden and Braelyn Lewis, live at Stephenville. Kasha is remarried to Bret Bills.
Harry and Doris Downs Stallings, Harmon County, Okla. natives, left the canopy of Ohio’s monumental trees and retired to Wellington in 1993.
A senior at Vinson High School in 1946, Harry said that Doris Downs had caught his eye. He managed to sit with her on the school bus on the way home from a basketball game.
“I asked if I could take her home even though she only lived a short distance from school,” he said. “We drove out a little way and parked. Soon we did a little smooching. It was then that I declared, ‘this is it.’”
Doris called him crazy when he told her at that moment that they would be married. Harry served 18 months in the U.S. Army and completed one semester of college, waiting for Doris to graduate. Two years after that school bus romance, they tied the knot. The couple married June 5, 1948, at the age of 17 and 19.
The teenagers headed straight to Weatherford, Okla. where she worked as a secretary at Southwestern State College. Harry graduated with his bachelor’s degree in July 1950.
He taught elementary and wood shop classes from Stafford to Sickles and then Elk City, all in Oklahoma, and their son Jim was born in Mangum in June 1953. Harry’s plans for a profession in school administration evolved into becoming not just a pastor and carpenter, but a “church builder.”
He earned his Master of Divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. In the spring of 1960, the Stallings answered a letter from the Lincoln Heights Baptist Church of Mansfield, Ohio about starting a mission, Lexington Baptist Chapel.
During this time, the Stallings daughter Sherree came to be their own at almost two years of age. The family moved to Westerville, Ohio on Labor Day 1966 to begin a new field of service with First Baptist Church. Harry did substitute teaching to supplement his preacher pay and to keep up with new ideas in the industrial arts field.
In 1968, Doris began a 25-year career with Battelle Memorial Institute, headquartered in Columbus, Ohio as an executive assistant. Battelle is the largest, private, non-profit research and development organization in the world. Doris recalls a riot by Ohio State University students due to Battelle’s participation in the development of the atomic bomb.
In July 1969, the invitation came for Harry to participate in the East Africa Evangelistic Crusade, where he discovered a need for a type of industrial training in the Bible schools for pastors. With their new skills, the locals could develop better church and personal dwellings and help provide a source of income. Harry’s industrial arts background benefited the natives immensely but not only that, he had the privilege of preaching God’s word in East Africa.
Upon retirement, the Stallings chose Wellington to raise their grandchildren, Erica and Jacob Ballinger, whom they had been appointed legal guardians for upon their daughter Sherree’s death at the age of 26 in 1988. Harry and Doris agree that losing their daughter has been one of the more challenging times in their life, but the saving grace is embracing the hope of eternal life in heaven.
The Wellington school system seemed like an appropriate fit. Little did they know, they would be sharing in the raising of their great grandchildren, Wellington High School 2020 graduate and Texas Tech University student Jayden Ballinger, WHS freshman Kenzi Ballinger and Wellington Junior High School eighth grader Rilynn Southerland.
Since their move to Wellington in 1993, Harry and Doris have maintained active roles in the community. Among his many ministries, Harry spends countless hours building and constructing Collingsworth County Museum displays and exhibits where Doris continues to serve as director since 1994.
For three years of his retirement, Harry served as pastor of Faith Baptist Church, and he volunteered building cabins at Panfork Baptist Encampment. While they still had their RV, Harry and Doris traveled to construction jobs with Texas Baptist Men. She recalls many RV trips through the years with her brother and sister-in-law, Jim and Esma Downs, now of Amarillo, who are also Harry’s sister and brother-in-law.
The Stallings’ son Jim recently relocated to Granite, Okla. from Colorado. His daughter, Kelley Jo Stallings and husband Suresh, live in Ohio. Harry and Doris’ great grandchildren, in addition to Jayden, Kenzi and Rilynn, are Kobe, Albri Leigh and Sherree.
In January 2020, Doris and son Jim traveled back to Westerville for the wedding of Kelley Jo and Suresh. The Hindu wedding rituals and activities took place over several days, a trip Doris said she will always treasure. In fact, she discovered that Suresh’s father worked as an engineer at Battelle during the same time of her employment.
Harry has pretty much given up golfing, so his main mission is fishing almost every morning. He restocks ponds that once again contain water with fish he catches in other locations and continues to share the gospel with all he meets.
“Mainly you just have to want to forgive because we all make stupid mistakes sometimes,” Doris said when asked what the secret is to stay married through multiple moves and the trials of life. “From the beginning, we had a home built on a belief in Christ, and we’ve always gone to church.”