“Just a Little Wine:” a Church Leader’s Story, Part OneAlcohol
This article is not intended in any way to minimize the influence of a man who dearly loved the Lord and left a powerful legacy. For years M. Norvel Young edited the 20th Century Christian, a brotherhood periodical from years past that blessed and strengthened the faith of many. He was known as a godly, faithful, exemplary leader among God’s people in the 1970s. During part of that time he was the preaching minister for the Broadway Church of Christ in Lubbock, Texas. He left that position to become the president of Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. Of course, this was long before the more recent changes have occurred in various congregations and schools.
Rather, this post illustrates that even a very good man can begin drinking wine and start down a path that ends tragically. It’s a reminder that, if a person never takes the first drink, that person cannot possibly become drunk or become an alcoholic. Understanding from others’ experiences the potential consequences of drinking is a great deterrent. It always has been for me personally.
Thankfully, Norvel Young told his own story publicly, so that others might learn from it. That took great courage, and it helped him go forward after the tragic effects of his conduct.
In fact, his entire life story is told in the book Forever Young: The Life and Times of M. Norvel Young & Helen M. Young, written by Bill Henegar and Jerry Rushford. It was published by 21st Century Christian in 1999. While the entire book is well worth reading, the following excerpt regarding Young’s bout with alcohol is used with permission from the publisher. It is presented here, without any editing, in two parts. – Cory
Beneath the seemingly glamorous life of the Youngs in a paradise setting, something terribly troubling was stirring. The stress of knowing that raising the funds for the new campus was primarily on his and Bill Banowsky’s shoulders was taking a heavy toll on Norvel. His doctor prescribed Valium to help relieve the pressure. Though the tranquilizer quieted his nerves, it also took away his upbeat attitude and made him depressed. But he found a new “friend.” For more than fifty years, Norvel had never touched a drop of alcohol, but now he convinced himself that taking “a little wine for thy stomach’s sake,” as Paul advised his young friend, Timothy, in the New Testament, might be helpful. Maybe a cocktail now and then would ease the stress and bring back his optimistic spirit.
Months went by and the drinking became regular. But somehow, Norvel was able to keep his new habit hidden. Only a few people saw the telltale signs. Once, he was arrested for driving under the influence, but a friend was able to keep it quiet. Looking back now, it may have been better for Norvel to “take his lumps” at that point, because what happened next was a tragedy of the first magnitude.
On an evening in mid-September of 1975, news reached the Youngs that a young professor at Pepperdine, Dr. Charles E. Wilks, had been riding his motorcycle on the university’s rain-slick campus drive and somehow had lost control while heading downhill. He struck a light pole and was killed. Norvel was responsible for bringing the young man to the university; he had been sure that the new professor would be a wonderful addition. Now the young man was dead. And as Helen went to be by the side of the man’s wife and daughter, a depressed Norvel turned to alcohol.
To add to his grief and stress, he was concerned about an upcoming event – the largest one the university had ever seen – which was to take place in about three days. President Gerald Ford was to visit the Malibu campus to dedicate Firestone Fieldhouse (named in honor of benefactor Leonard Firestone) and also the president’s home, Brock House (named for longtime friend Margaret Martin Brock). The University had been searching for bleachers that were to go up in the parking lot of the Fieldhouse for the many thousands who were expected to attend the event. Because of a recent attempt on President Ford’s life, security was to be tight. And the Secret Service was hounding Norvel and others to get the bleachers in place so that the area could be secured.
Then Norvel was notified that those running the main frame computer had just discovered that the student accounts-receivable total was about $5 million, which meant that the university was owed $5 million of uncollected tuition and other student costs. In addition, they found that the University’s accounts payable total was up to about $3 million. The news was a disturbing surprise. Everything seemed to be closing in on Norvel Young’s dreams. There was so much to do. Too much. And now the death of a promising young professor …
The next day, Norvel began work in his Beach House office, going about his usual routine. At about eleven o’clock, he got into his car, drove out the gravel driveway and headed south on Pacific Coast Highway toward Los Angeles. He had made the drive hundreds of times, and today he had a meeting in town with Don Darnell, who served as chairman of the Pepperdine President’s Board (later, renamed the University Board).
As his car sped by the backs of the houses that lined the ocean, he was not feeling well at all. The death of the professor and his grieving family were on his mind, along with financial concerns and the anxiety over the biggest event of Pepperdine’s history, hosting a sitting president. But he had also consumed some alcohol to “comfort and calm him.” As he drove, his mind began to fog over. Then, as he neared Pacific Palisades, he began to experience blurred vision. He tried to clear both his mind and vision … he shook his head … then there was blackness. A few hours would pass before he realized what happened next.
Near the J. Paul Getty Museum, his car struck another car that was waiting at a signal light. The violent collision drove the trailer hitch on the front car into its fuel tank, and the gasoline ignited. The car was soon in flames. Then Norvel’s car also caught on fire.
The driver of the other car had her mother and her aunt in the back seat of the small two-door car. There was no escape. Both of the older women were killed. The other driver and Norvel were both injured and were transported to the hospital. In fact, a man in a nearby home ran and pulled Norvel from his burning car, probably saving his life.
The Wednesday, September 17, 1975, the Los Angeles Times ran a story with the blaring headline: “Pepperdine’s Chancellor Held in Fatal Crash.” Apparently, in the reporter’s mind, the thing of real importance was that Pepperdine’s chancellor was in trouble – he was being “held.” The opening paragraph, indeed the first seven or eight words of the article, gave the bias of the story:
Pepperdine University Chancellor M. Norvel Young was jailed on suspicion of manslaughter and felony drunk driving after being involved in a traffic accident in which one woman was killed and two others were critically injured, the California Highway Patrol reported.
THE COMING OF WINTER
When Norvel woke up, he was in a hospital. He had facial lacerations, a brain concussion and internal bleeding. As the haze in his mind lifted slightly, he could see the face of Helen close by his side. He asked her what had happened and she told him he had had an accident and was injured. The awfulness of the situation was beginning to descend on him. li was like having a nightmare, somehow forgetting it, then remembering it again -only to discover that it was stark reality.
He later said, “I turned my face to the wall and cried. It was the worst day in my life. I knew I was completely at fault because I had been drinking, but I didn’t know how disastrous my mistake had been.” As the details unfolded, he began to gradually recall parts of the accident and the things that led to it.
Norvel Young was absolutely crushed by the guilt. He wondered why he hadn’t just been killed in the accident. He kept thinking of the two older women and the driver. Then he thought of his family. And he pictured the hundreds of thousands of Christians in the fellowship of which he was a part. The university campus on the hills in Malibu with all of its people would come into his mind. He had betrayed the trust of many thousands of people. How could he face the world again? How could he live with himself?
News of the accident traveled fast. All the local media covered the story because of its sensational nature. Even Paul Harvey mentioned the story on his national report. And Norvel had no one to blame but himself. He knew he deserved whatever punishment came his way, even imprisonment. Perhaps as never before, he threw himself on the mercy of God. He prayed for the driver of the other car, and he prayed for the families of the two that perished. Again and again he prayed that God would heal the wounds of this unbelievable ordeal.
He entered the winter of his soul.
Certainly, the Los Angeles community was distressed by the accident. But the Pepperdine community was in a state of utter shock. And because of Norvel Young’s long years of leadership within Churches of Christ, a whole fellowship of people was aghast. Some critical members condemned Norvel, but most were people of good will and they prayed for God to heal the situation as soon as possible.
Within minutes of the news, Norvel’s three daughters, Emily, Marilyn and Sara, were at his bedside, along with Emily’s husband, Steven Lemley. Norvel’s son Matt was in medical school in Houston and he immediately caught a plane for home. The family surrounded Norvel with love. And they prayed. They knew that his soul would need more healing than his body.
Publisher Ralph Sweet, a longtime friend of the Youngs, grabbed a plane and flew in from Austin, Texas, “just to help.” Another Texan whom Norvel had known since college days, Reuel Lemmons, editor of Firm Foundation journal, also caught a plane and came to encourage Norvel.
Amazingly, Dr. Paul Davis, the education editor of Reader’s Digest, simply arrived with his suitcase from San Francisco saying he would stay and help deal with the situation as long as it took. The hospital put him in a room next to Norvel’s and Davis spent four days talking with the press, helping visitors and assisting Helen with the whirlwind of problems.
Calls began to come in from across the nation. And more than 2,000 letters, cards and telegrams poured in to Norvel and the family. Remembering the comfort the communications provided in the terrible aftermath of the accident, Norvel said, “We received thousands of letters that were supportive and helpful. Helen still has all the letters.”
He continued, “We began to get checks from people like George Elkins, David Packard and Tex Thornton. Leonard Firestone told us he had a similar thing happen to him.” Suddenly the truth was apparent: for years Norvel Young had taken great pains to be kind to every person he met; now that kindness was returning to visit him.
Although everyone at 20th Century Christian Publishing was supportive, an emergency meeting was held in Abilene, Texas, and the board decided to accept Norvel’s decision to turn over his editorship of 20th Century Christian magazine. He was obviously more than willing to do that. Joe Barnett, minister of the Broadway Church in Lubbock, Texas, was asked to become the new editor in light of the situation.
As for Norvel Young, the days following the accident were filled with terrible bouts with despair and desperation. The feelings would leave for awhile, then return with a vengeance, overwhelming him. Some family members and friends were afraid of leaving him alone. As they observed his mental state, they wondered if he might try to take his own life. But they were not as afraid as Norvel himself. His entire world had shattered. Everything he was, everything for which he stood, went up in the flames of the accident. He simply did not believe he could endure the shame. He repeatedly read the book of Psalms, especially Psalm 51, and prayed over and over for forgiveness.
On October 30, 1975, there was a preliminary hearing for Norvel in the Santa Monica Court. Both he and his attorney agreed to waive the preliminary hearing, giving up his right to defend himself and to question witnesses. Later, in the Superior Court the judge asked Norvel for his plea. Norvel quietly said, “I plead guilty, your honor.” The judge set December 4,1975, for sentencing.
The December 4 date for sentencing was delayed until January 27, 1976, to allow the judge time to study the large number of letters he had received from interested people. The vast majority of the letters asked for leniency for Norvel Young because of his great contributions to society throughout his life.
When January 27 finally came, a frightened Norvel Young stood before the judge for sentencing. He had no defense. He was at the mercy of the court. The judge sentenced him to one year in jail – but immediately suspended it on the condition that Norvel take a six-month leave of absence from his duties at Pepperdine and perform public service. Specifically, he was to conduct courses for drivers who drink and do research on the kind of stress that contributed to his use of alcohol. He was fined $2,000 and his driver’s license was suspended for four years.
Continue reading Part Two of this story here.