Remembering a Minister Member of the Presbytery
by Shelley Hundling, Wheatland Presbyterian Church
Roger Williams had graduated from Palomar College and San Diego State University in California, served in the US Army as a chaplain’s assistant in South Korea, married Merry McFarland in 1966, and graduated from San Francisco Theological Seminary in 1969. Rev. Williams was then called to serve as pastor at Wheatland Presbyterian Church, rural Breda, and the First Presbyterian Church in Arcadia.
Roger and Merry began their family here with the 1970 birth of their son, Shawn Christian Williams. Unfortunately, Shawn died in 1971, after surgery to correct a heart defect. He was buried at Wheatland Cemetery. Pastor Williams and Merry continued to serve in this area till 1975, when he was called to a congregation in Pratt, Kansas. They went on to raise two daughters, Michelle and Colleen, and he ministered in Kansas and Missouri until his retirement in 2000, after a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. Roger and Merry moved back to the west coast and were caregivers for Merry’s mother in the family’s historic home at San Marcos. Roger died at home, from Multiple Sclerosis complications, in January of 2021.
Through email correspondences with Merry, I came to know that she and her daughters wanted Roger’s cremains to eventually be buried in Wheatland Cemetery, near Shawn’s burial site. Thus, the cremains were shipped to our house, and we had them in safe keeping until Merry and her daughters were all able to come to this area for interment. That happened in early July of this summer, when Merry, Colleen, and Michelle came from their respective homes for a private family graveside service and then time with Wheatland friends in the church basement, sharing lunch, reminiscing and lots of “catching up.” Merry now lives in Hastings, NE, near her daughter, Colleen Schukei, and Colleen’s family. They traveled together to Iowa for the burial, and Merry’s other daughter, Michelle Phillips, came from her home in Olathe, KS.
Michelle and her husband Eddie have twin sons, William and Shawn, and she is the Director of Christian Education and Congregational Ministries at a diverse Presbyterian congregation in Kansas City.
Colleen and her husband, Chris, also have two boys, Campbell and Caleb. Colleen is a News Anchor at KHGI Television, an ABC affiliate. Interestingly, Sara Geake Kirkley, who grew up on her family’s farm south of Wall Lake, and the granddaughter of one our Wheatland members, Lucille Geake, is also an anchor at the same ABC affiliate in Kearney, NE.
David and I did not come back to this area until the fall of 1974, so we did not have many months with Roger pastoring our congregation before the family moved on to Kansas. I made email contact with several people who knew Roger and interacted with him and his family during his tenure at Wheatland and received remembrances of Roger that I would like to share.
Here are the recollections shared by Dr. Paul Weber, a retired family practice physician who grew up near Wheatland Church and now lives in Denver, Iowa:
The name Roger Williams brings up so many wonderful memories for me. He was the minister at Wheatland during my adolescence, a very formative time in any teen’s life. Here are just a few thoughts that come to mind.
The very first sermon I heard Roger preach was when he was ‘auditioning’ for the Wheatland job. His topic was the cartoon Peanuts by Charles Schultz, always one of his favorite subjects. I can remember thinking, ‘Wow! This is not the typical minister that I am used to hearing!’
The whole atmosphere that both Roger and Merry brought to Wheatland was a breath of fresh air. We Iowans were not used to the California mindset, but we young people, especially, quickly decided that we liked it. Roger’s entire approach to the gospel and its relevance to our personal lives was memorable and impactful.
Obviously the mission trip we took to California to work at Cameron House in San Francisco in 1970 was unforgettable and very eye-opening. What a great experience for us farm kids to be dropped into the middle of Chinatown and paired up with a partner from the local area to transport little children on the city buses to a day camp in Golden Gate Park. Since Roger had done his seminary training in the Bay Area, he was instrumental in setting this entire mission trip up for us. The experience gave me memories that I can remember vividly to this day. Other teens on the trip from Wheatland were Donna von Glan, Bonnie Michaelsen, David Clausen, and Randall Druivenga. I seriously doubt that any of us had ever been that far from home, especially to a ‘happening’ place like California in 1970! What a brave man who, along with another young couple, was willing to chaperone a bunch of crazy kids in two vans to California for approximately three weeks. That took courage!
On a sadder note, I still have a picture of little Shawn sitting on my lap when the folks had the Williams family over for Sunday dinner after church.
Some memories of that time will stay with me forever. A great man and a great family.
Another former Wheatland member and a retired legal secretary, Bonnie Michaelsen Neuberger now lives in northeast South Dakota, and offered the following similar remembrances:
I remember the mission trip of 1970. Roger was one of the chaperones when we went to San Francisco to work through the Donaldina Cameron House. Eleven people in a 12-seater van with a suitcase, air mattress and sleeping bag for each and coolers for meal ingredients! It was quite an experience for 8 kids from Iowa! On a couple weekends we got to spend time with some of Merry’s family.
I also remember I enjoyed the times I got to babysit for sweet young Shawn. Thinking back, I believe that with his death came my first sad realization that people so young could pass away too.
David Clausen, also a Wheatland participant on the youth mission trip in 1970, currently lives in Salmon Creek, Washington, dividing his time between there and Thailand. Now retired, Clausen worked overseas teaching with the U.S. Department of Defense dependent schools and noted that his biggest memory of Roger Williams, like those of his contemporaries, was of the young pastor “taking our contingency of Iowa youth to work in a day camp in Golden Gate Park with underprivileged youth from the Potrero Hills area of San Francisco.”
Thinking that it would be good to also get a non-Wheatland Church perspective on Roger Williams’s impact in the Breda area, I did an online search of Roger’s name and found the following, excerpted from a newspaper article titled “The Germans of Wheatland Township” and written by Dot Monahan for the April 13, 1971 issue of the Carroll Daily Times Herald. The article is now available on the Carroll County IAGenWeb website.
The Wheatland Presbyterian Church today had a remarkable young minister in Rev. Roger Williams. A visitor is greeted by a colorful sign above the bell. ‘Joy.’ And within that is exactly what one finds. We all have images, either from childhood, or movies of the minister’s wife. Merry Williams, a native Californian, is a happy young Christian. Rev. Williams is a native of Indiana, and when we asked how they like living on the Iowa prairie it was a foolish question. Between the two, their baby, Shawn, and their foreign exchange student, Miriam Emerick, from Chile, whose father is a Presbyterian minister as well, there is laughter, fellowship, and true Christian spirit.
We spoke of the new youth movement toward Christ and asked what in his opinion had brought this about. ‘The realization that the answer lies not in drugs.’ How long had it been since we had met someone as young as these two so fired with the spirit of the Lord? ‘Religion is not old to you, but new, isn’t it?’ And the young minister said, ‘Yes,’ but to our suggestion that he belonged on a college campus, he replied, ‘No, I am too conservative, and besides here I can reach them before they get to a college campus. I hope they will know what it is.’
In another newspaper article, written by Des Moines Tribune columnist Gordon Gammack in 1973, and which I found clipped and pasted on a page in a Wheatland church history album, the writer discussed joint annual worship services held in cooperation between rural Wheatland Presbyterian Church and St. Bernard Catholic Church, located in Breda. Referring to varying political and religious beliefs held by community members at the time, Mr. Gammack stated that “tolerance seems very high.” The Catholic priest at St. Bernard’s at the time, Fr. John Doherty, proposed the joint services and writer Gammack stated the following:
Twice the Wheatland congregation came to St. Bernard’s to worship with the Catholics and last summer there was a joint outdoor service at the Wheatland Church.
‘I was brought up in Larchwood where Catholics were the minority, so I appreciate the role of the minority,’ says Msgr. Doherty. ‘Also, I’d do anything to bring about the Christian unity that Christ wants.’
Obviously, the spirit of cooperation works both ways. The Rev. Roger Williams, the progressive 33-year-old Wheatland pastor, has sent a number of his young people to St. Bernard’s to learn about the mass.
Of the Rev. Mr. Williams, Dr. (Al) Henning (a veterinarian and the only family head in Breda who wasn’t a Roman Catholic) says ‘He took some getting used to but now my only worry is that he’ll be leaving us for bigger things.’
Williams has long hair and sports a beard. He grew the beard last summer while on a camping trip with young people. The first Sunday after the trip, he referred to it during the service, ‘Let me know what you think about it on your way out of church.’
Only five parishioners made comment. Four said they liked it. One disagreed.
‘So I kept it,’ he says. ‘It seems to me that our people are taking very well to changing times.’
The above-quoted commentaries describe our former pastor Rev. Roger Williams as a personable, forward-thinking, tolerant, and inclusive Christian leader especially concerned with the young people he shepherded. Such a scenario, with a full-time minister and a sizeable number of young congregants, seems unlikely to happen in our parish again. Yet the pastoral qualities and the personal and community relationships involved seem like important things to recall and emulate still.