40-year NOBTS worker touched lives of many in SBC leadership

NEW ORLEANS (BP)--The Broad Street bus made the same sweeping turn -- around from Old Gentilly Boulevard onto Gentilly Boulevard, performing its typical, daily routine. A young woman, in a freshly starched white dress, stared intently out the bus window, nervously waiting for the bus to come to a complete stop.

Nestled among the hundreds of pecan trees were new buildings, construction trucks, men wearing hard hats and lots of activity out in this rural part of Orleans Parish known as Eastern New Orleans.

March 15, 1959, seemed to be just another typical day for the men and women crisscrossing the campus of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Students dressed in their Sunday clothes crossed paths with men in hard hats and blue jeans, all in a hurry to be somewhere on the new campus at 3939 Gentilly Blvd.

This is a big place with a lot of people running around, the woman thought to herself. In just a matter of minutes, another bus could take her back to her job of cutting hair, if accepting this new job turned out to be a mistake. Pushing the nervousness aside, the tall, thin woman with long, dark hair and an easy smile continued her journey, never once looking back. On that beautiful, spring New Orleans morning, she began a career that has lasted 40 years, touching the lives of students who would serve in Southern Baptist agencies, churches and mission fields around the world.

The steps she took among the freshly painted buildings and budding pecan trees that morning have led to a lifetime of smiles, laughter and memories, not only for her, but also for everyone who has been fortunate enough to cross her path.

"Ms. Almetta," as she is lovingly called by everyone on the campus of New Orleans Seminary, has been an icon of affection, stability, love, laughter and smiles for four decades. In fact, her tenure at the seminary is half the number of years the seminary itself has existed.

Almetta's loyalty, hard work and love for the institution she has called home for so many years are trademarks for a woman whose roots began on a cotton farm in Tylertown, Miss. Back then, she was in bed by 6:30 each evening and up at 4:40 every morning to milk four or five cows before going to pick a field of cotton.

Those long days on the farm set the standards for hard work that have sustained Ms. Almetta for a lifetime.

Having moved to New Orleans a few years before that spring day in 1959, Almetta was told of an opening at NOBTS by a woman who was working for the seminary. While Almetta was cutting the woman's hair one day, she learned that O.J. Farnsworth, the man who built most of the buildings at NOBTS, needed a maid. Almetta applied, got the job and a few days later came to work at the seminary.

When Almetta came on board, the staff grew to five people, including herself. It was a lot of work on a growing campus for a small staff, but no one complained and the work got done.

Recalling those early days, and of course all of the memories she has made over the years, brings a bright smile to Almetta's face; but behind her glasses, her eyes become soft and misty. But she laughs again and forces the tears to retreat.

"The Lord has blessed me through sickness and health," Almetta said when asked about her endurance as a faithful employee. "Through good times and bad times, the seminary family stuck together and the Lord brought us through."

Her faith in God is apparent as she is quick to tell anyone about the difference Christ makes in her life and about how his strength is what sustains her each day.

She vividly remembers her baptism in the McGee River at the age of 12, but it was an incident a few years earlier that got her thinking about the Lord. In the third grade, in order to get the children's attention, her Sunday school teacher told them there was a real devil, with a tail, that would come and "joog" people with a pitchfork if they were bad. That night, she had a horrible nightmare about it and awakened the whole house with her cries. Her mother, upon learning about the reason for the nightmare, gave Almetta some sound advice -- to pray!

Almetta has been praying faithfully since that day. One day, Almetta found herself praying following a sad day on campus, when despite her efforts, she could not hold back her tears. With tears falling, Almetta found herself walking across the campus quadrangle praying out loud. "Lord, Lord, don't let me cry right now," she said. Her sadness came after seeing yet another moving truck and another close friend leave the seminary campus. After experiencing this routine several times, Almetta could no longer hold back the emotions and sadness of knowing that someone she had come to love dearly would be moving far away.

It was only during these times that she ever felt like giving up the job she loved so much. Saying goodbye to people was at times more than she could handle. "Lord, why do my friends have to move away?" she found herself praying. Then, with a gentle voice, Almetta said, the Lord explained to her why her friends had to leave. "These people are shepherds over my flocks," the Lord explained. "They have to leave to teach someone else and shepherd flocks in another place." From that moment on, she became keenly aware of the calling on her friends' lives and why many were there for only a short time and then had to move. It was at that moment, Almetta said she realized yet another lesson. "No matter what, the Lord is my true friend."

During her ministry on the campus, she has made many friends and has seen many people come and go. She has worked during the administrations of four seminary presidents -- Leo Eddleman (1959-70), Grady Cothen (1970-74), Landrum Leavell (1975-95) and Chuck Kelley (1996-present); two presidents emeriti -- Roland Leavell and Landrum Leavell; and six interim presidents. She proudly will tell anyone who asks that she has worked in every building on campus.

While working in the president's home in the 1960s, Almetta met a student wife who taught her many things, including a love for hats. That young woman's name was Dorothy Patterson, a student herself at NOBTS, whose husband, Paige Patterson, then was working on a doctor of theology degree. Of the many roles Dorothy Patterson held on campus, it was during her tenure as campus hostess that she worked closest with Almetta.

The skills they acquired together then would prove, for both women, to be excellent training as each would go on to other jobs, more responsibilities and other areas of ministry. Almetta used those skills to take on some supervisory positions on campus, including manager of the cafeteria for four years in the 1980s and, since 1976, supervisor of janitorial services and housekeeping.

Dorothy Patterson, who since those days has completed two doctoral degrees and raised two children, is now in charge of Magnolia Hill, the president's home at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., where her husband has been president since 1992. In June 1998 her husband also was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Dorothy Patterson easily remembers her years of working "elbow to elbow with Almetta," as she put it, taking care of all campus receptions, parties, meetings and other events. Those busy days for Patterson still seem to be fresh on her mind, and her fondness for Almetta is stated quickly as well.

"She was always a spontaneous, gracious person to anyone who came along," Patterson recalled. "She had a joy in her heart, despite her share of heartache. The joy of the Lord permeated, and Ms. Almetta always projected that gracious spirit."

Patterson added that she has worked with very few people who possessed the kind of work ethic Almetta consistently has exhibited. A strong work ethic is something Almetta is very proud of, and she is not afraid to tell others about hard work. Even today, at age 69, she continues to work more than 50 hours a week, arrives nearly an hour early for work each day and boasts, despite the number of children and grandchildren she has raised as a single mother, that she has never had to rely on welfare.

"Some people get on welfare, food stamps, and live on the state. I raised my children, and what they got, I worked for," the mother of five children, with 10 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren, said confidently.

A hard worker, a strong Christian, the woman with the contagious smile -- these are just a few traits many people remember about Almetta. But those who are blessed to get to know her better affectionately use the word "friend."

"Almetta is an amazing combination of personality -- plus, loyal employee, hard worker and mentor to many," said Jo Ann Leavell, wife of NOBTS President Emeritus Landrum P. Leavell II. "But the best thing I can say about Ms. Almetta is that she has been my friend. She helped us settle into the president's home the day we arrived on campus in 1975, and she helped us settle into our retirement home 20 years later," Leavell said.

When the Leavells return to NOBTS for a visit or meeting, Almetta is always the first person Jo Ann Leavell wants to see. "Her first words will always be, 'Mrs. Leavell, you look so nice. Mrs. Leavell, you are so pretty. Mrs. Leavell, we miss you and Dr. Leavell so much.' I know better than to believe all that, but Almetta has the ability to spend 20 seconds with you and leave you feeling as if the sun had just shone on you and you alone. That, perhaps, is her greatest gift," Leavell said.

Becky Brown, director of housing and student services, as well as a longtime friend and supervisor to Almetta, echoed Leavell's comments, saying, "It's obvious that Almetta is respected and well liked by everyone at NOBTS. Almetta is the first person alumni want to see when they return for a visit because she is everyone's favorite."

When Ms. Almetta is not at New Orleans Seminary working hard, she can be found doing two of her favorite things: gardening in her yard or babysitting her great-grandchildren. She is vice president of pastoral aid at her church, Greater New St. Luke Baptist Church on Montegut Street in New Orleans, the place she has worshiped for many years.

Much has changed since that bright spring morning in March 1959. The young woman who had stared nervously out the bus window, wondering about her future and not sure where that new road would take her, now wipes her eyes and fondly recalls the precious memories and wonderful friendships she has made over 40 years.

Without hesitating, she gives a hug and then says, "I love you," in her distinctive, charming way. Then she smiles really big, laughs a hearty laugh and heads toward the door, on her way to touch someone else's life and bring a warm smile to another friend.

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