‘A beautiful example’
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FLORENCE, Ala. — Robert and Wilma Huffaker met in high school in Grove, Okla., in 1943. He was a senior, she a sophomore. At the time, Robert said, he’d never heard of the Church of Christ. But he would go to church with her — with the promise of a good home-cooked meal afterward.
He didn’t immediately become a Christian. “But I learned the truth,” he said. The seed was planted — and it grew.
Robert went on to influence countless lives as a preacher for over 60 years — 59 of them with the Mt. Zion Church of Christ in this northwest Alabama community — and as a teacher, principal and bus driver at the nearby Mars Hill Bible School for 30 years.
“I don’t know how many souls that man has helped us save,” said Milton Sewell, a former president of Mars Hill, which is associated with Churches of Christ.
But none of that would have been possible without Wilma’s Christian example and encouragement.
The couple marked their 75th anniversary this past December and celebrated with family — it’s a big one, with four adult children, 15 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren — and friends at the Mt. Zion fellowship hall in January.
A few years after graduating, in January 1946, Robert enlisted in the Army. He said he knew he was about to be drafted, but if he enlisted, he could get out sooner. And since he could type, Robert was able to stay in California working in payroll.
At the end of the year, he came back to Oklahoma on furlough for Christmas. That was when they decided to get married — quickly. He had to be back to base in California at the first of the next year.
So they got married on the day before Christmas in 1946.
Wilma later remarked to Robert, “You realize we got married on Christmas Eve? … I’ll never do that again!”
She stayed behind in Oklahoma for six weeks, but she couldn’t stand being apart any longer. So Wilma took a three-day train ride to California to be with her new husband. They started going to church in Richmond, Calif., and not long after, Robert decided to be baptized. He remembers the exact date: April 10, 1947.
“If it hadn’t been for her encouragement, I’m sure I would not have been,” he said.
After Robert was discharged from the Army, a friend loaned the Huffakers money to buy some land in Oklahoma, and they worked a successful 500-acre farm for nearly a decade. They had two sons there, Steve and Stanley.
But one day they attended a Bible lectureship at Central Christian College in Bartlesville, Okla. — now Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City. The minister who spoke talked of the desperate need for preachers and made a statement that Robert said challenged him.
“I used to lay awake at night worrying about all those people being lost,” the minister said. “But I don’t worry about that anymore. … Now I worry about what’s going to happen if we don’t take it (the Gospel) to them.”
That stuck with Robert, and he and Wilma soon decided to give up the farm so he could go to Central Christian and become a preacher. He went to school there for two years before finishing his bachelor’s degree at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn. Meanwhile, Wilma worked as an administrative assistant for Lipscomb President Willard Collins.
Robert planned to get his master’s at Abilene Christian University in Texas, but Collins convinced him to stay in town.
“I think it was because he didn’t want to lose a good secretary,” Robert said.
So the Huffakers stayed in Nashville for two more years while Robert attended graduate school at Vanderbilt. Afterward, he preached in Cornersville, Tenn., for two years before getting a preaching job at the Mt. Zion church in Florence in 1962. The couple has lived in Florence ever since and had two more children there, Scott and Suzette.
“I found a good home, and I didn’t want to leave,” Robert said.
He recalled visiting a woman in the hospital once, whose husband asked him where he planned to go when he left Mt. Zion.
“Well, heaven, I hope,” Robert responded. “I’m still holding to that.”
The youngest children — Scott, 59, and Suzette Hall, 55 — remembered their dad taking them to the hospital after school most days to visit the sick.
And he kept that up long after they were grown — until two years ago, when he had to stop because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sewell described Robert as firm but fair, wise, hardworking and dependable — a man loved and respected by the community.
“He became known as a person of passion, compassion and concern,” Sewell said.
That’s a sentiment heard a lot with respect to the Huffakers.
“You’re just not going to find a preacher, not a person more respected than him — and her,” said Kirk Brothers, president of Florence-based Heritage Christian University, where Wilma also worked as an administrative assistant.
The Huffaker children agree.
“He’s probably more recognizable than a lot of celebrities when he goes to Walmart,” Scott said of his dad. “We’ve been very blessed. We couldn’t ask for better parents.”
Likewise, Stanley, 70, said, “I don’t know anybody who doesn’t think they’re good people.”
Suzette remarked on their dedication to God.
“They sacrificed a lot because they believed in Christian education and kingdom work,” she said.
The oldest son, Steve, 72, remembers some infamy of Robert as well, though.
“He’s famous for his paddling” at Mars Hill, where all four children went to school, Steve said. “He’d say, ‘You get three licks, but you won’t feel it after the first.’”
And students on the school bus would call him “Wild Bob,” among other nicknames, Suzette added.
“Very faithful and always encouraging to do what the Lord wants us to do.” That’s how Robert describes Wilma. “If it hadn’t been for her, of course I probably wouldn’t have even been a Christian. … So she’s been the perfect helpmeet.”
Wilma’s earliest memory is sitting in a Bible class, “learning how to love Jesus and appreciate God,” she said. “So I grew up with that kind of influence and always tried to follow that all my life. There’s always so many people that need to be encouraged, and I try to be an encourager, both to him and to everyone. … I try to be more concerned about others than myself.”
And Wilma describes Robert as a man of service. They’ve always had one goal, Wilma said: “to try to live with God forever.”
That doesn’t mean 75 years of marriage have always been easy, though.
“It’s just a lot of give and take,” Robert said. “You have to do a lot of compromising through the thick and the thin — and of course commit to the Lord, try to live for him and let him direct you.”
Wilma recalled giving a man a paper on the history of the church, and he told her, “As you get older, this is so important to know … how those people handled their struggles and still stayed faithful to God.”
The Huffakers have done exactly that.
“We have a beautiful story I think, not because of what we did but what God did through us and the people that we worked with,” Wilma said. “And I’m thankful for every opportunity that we had.”
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