By Rev. Wilson Shearer
The Rev. Wilson Shearer was friends with the recently deceased Bishop Joseph Yeakel for 68 years. Shearer was recently asked by Lebanon Valley College to reflect upon their relationship. He remembers:
When I first met Joseph Yeakel in 1947, it was at an activity on the campus of Lebanon Valley College. Joe was a returned Seabee veteran, taking advantage of the GI Bill that covered most costs of a college education. I was a 16-year-old freshman wearing the customary "Beanie" hat that we had to wear until the LVC football team defeated rival Albright College or lost, which then meant we had to wear those badges of lowly status until Thanksgiving.
His marriage to Lois, and their living in a small off-campus trailer, plus we were never in the same classes, didn't make us become close friends at LVC. That didn't even happen during the brief period our seminary years overlapped in Dayton, Ohio, where we lived on different floors of the same building.
However, our friendship really began in 1953 when Joe was in his first appointment after ordination and serving as the assistant pastor at St. Paul's EUB Church at Hagerstown. He was also the manager of the Pennsylvania Conference summer camp (Camp Penn) at a former CCC facility in the Michaux State Forest near the Mason-Dixon Line. He hired me to be the camp song-leader and director of recreation, plus occasional dishwasher. Joe and Lois frequently visited camp, and joined the "permanent staff” in a small back room of the kitchen after the campers were fed.
During lunch one day in July, I asked Joe if I might have his permission to leave camp early Saturday morning and make a fast trip to Springfield, Ohio, to visit a student nurse friend who was recovering from polio and released from isolation to fully recover at home. He was very reluctant to say "yes," until Lois spoke up on my behalf and changed his mind. This fast trip became a crucial factor in my future wife's decision to accept my proposal in late October, and we were married on August 29, 1954.
I was told by the bishop that my first appointment after ordination would be to St. Paul's EUB Church in Hagerstown and replaced Joe as assistant pastor after he moved to a different charge. But at the last minute, the bishop changed his mind and kept Joe there for one more year. I was sent to a new two-point charge that straddled the PA-MD border near Hagerstown. So, we were neighbors for one year and enjoyed mutual visits in our parsonages.
Two years later we became neighbors again in York, Penn., where there were EUB churches named First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth. Joe was already at Fifth Church, and I became Pastor at Third Church. He was a golfer, and I was not. However, at his urging J became one and he was my first (and only) golf instructor. ln later years he bragged that he was such a good teacher that I consistently beat his score whenever we played together.
Neither of us ever imagined during those friendly and neighborly years in York that our ministerial paths would cross in significant and surprising ways in the future. Joe was moved from York to Silver Spring, to Memorial EUB Church in 1961. In 1963, he was selected to serve as the Associate Executive Secretary of the EUB General Board of Evangelism with offices in Dayton, Ohio. In 1965 he became the Executive Secretary. In 1968, during negotiations related to the union of the EUB and Methodist denominations, it was decided that he would become the new General Secretary of The Board of Evangelism of The United Methodist Church with its headquarters in Nashville, Tenn.
Meanwhile, in 1965, I was selected to be a program staff member of the Susquehanna Conference as Director of Youth Ministries and Camping. Then in 1970, after church union, I was appointed senior pastor at the former St. Paul's EUB Church in Hagerstown (now named "Otterbein"), where Joe had begun his ministry.
ln 1972, Joe was elected a bishop by the Northeast Jurisdiction Conference and assigned to the Syracuse New York Area. He remained there until moving to the Washington Episcopal Area in 1984. At that time, I happened to be the bishop's administrative assistant there, and one of my duties was to serve as the "Transition Officer" to facilitate the retirement of Bishop Fred Wertz and the arrival of Bishop Joe Yeakel. After 21 years of being friends at a distance, we were brought by circumstances once again into very close proximity. I even found and recommended to the annual conference trustees for purchase, a new episcopal residence that had a small greenhouse attached to it that pleased Lois Yeakel very much.
In 1985, due to several important factors, Joe asked if I would be willing to return to the Otterbein Church in Hagerstown as the senior pastor after an absence of nine years (six as a district superintendent and three as the bishop's assistant). I said "yes.” Eleven years later we both retired in 1996.
The Yeakel's moved into their third personal purchased home on Windy Haven Road, midway between Hagerstown and Waynesboro, PA, not far from the farm where Lois had been born and raised. My wife and I were living in our first personally purchased home in Hagerstown. Joe and Lois began attending Otterbein Church and renewed some old friendships from the 1950's. He also accepted the role as a "lesson enabler" and spiritual leader of the Steeple People, a young adult Sunday School class my wife, Marilyn, had successfully founded, and they were warmly received by many new friends.
Joe and I frequently played very enjoyable rounds of golf for several years until Lois began to suffer major health concerns, and they had to move to a cottage on the campus of Quincy Village, a former EUB church-related retirement community a few miles distant.
Lois' struggle with Alzheimer’s eventually required skilled nursing care until she passed away in March 2014. Not long thereafter Joe moved to Wooster, Ohio, to be closer to his family. Once again, our friendship has been affected by circumstances beyond our control. We've had much in common during the 68 years of our friendship. Unfortunately, the most recent sad commonality was that my wife, Marilyn, also lost a lengthy struggle with Alzheimer’s and passed away on May 3, 2021.
For many years Joe had the habit of frequently asking me (and others) "Is everything copacetic for you these days?" If you don't know the meaning of this word, look it up. But I'm confident that if I personally gripped his hand now, looked him in the eye, and asked: "Joe, is everything copacetic with you these days?", his answer would be an affirmation: "Yes, my good friend, it is very copacetic. Thanks be to God!"