Interim pastor recalls days as youngster in North Augusta

Hundreds of Aiken residents know the Rev. John Wall as interim pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Aiken these days, and some North Augustans - especially the longtime football boosters - may recall him as a major force in the Yellow Jackets' football success in the mid 1960s.

Hugh Eggersman, Rick Barnett and Charlie Waters were among his teammates, and the late Jim Buist was their coach.

"I started, as a sophomore. It was big-time," he recalled, noting that he never actually won The Star's weekly honor as the top player, although he was the runner-up on numerous occasions.

"At the sports banquet, the final banquet my senior year, they gave me 'most valuable player,' and it blew my mind."

Wall, who graduated in 1968 and went on to play for Wofford College, served the Yellow Jackets as a lineman on both offense and defense. Several of his teammates also "played both ways," rarely getting a moment off the field during some games.

"I remember when they built the Sno-Cap," he said. "I remember when Parks Pharmacy built their 'new' building, and it's not new anymore, and the Pink Dipper went in, and the Baptist church didn't take up the whole block, and Grace Methodist was there, and the Nancy Carson Library was in the old school, right beside it."

In those days, the high school was at the current site of North Augusta Middle School, and Wall's home church was Fairview Presbyterian, where his future wife, Carolyn, also attended.

"I had a great high-school experience - just a good, close group of folks," Wall said.

He was part of a tremendous streak of football success, dating back to his days at Paul Knox (then known as Paul Knox Junior High School). The Patriots, coached by Hubert Morris, did not lose a game starting with Wall's seventh-grade year and continuing until he was a sophomore at Wofford.

"They got to where junior highs wouldn't play us. We were playing B-teams," he said.

Wall, who stands about 6-foot-1, also had bulk in his favor. In high school, he weighed 235, playing as a guard. Teammate Barnett, a tackle who went on to play for Furman, weighed 245-250. On defense, both were tackles.

"I beefed up at Wofford. Played at 265. Ended up having to play against Rick ... We had a lot of size those years. Even in junior high, as a seventh-grader, I played at 225, so I grew up fast and got some size."

A reality check came through Wall's friendship with schoolmate Ed Arnold, who played baseball and basketball for the Jackets, and attended Fairview with Wall. Arnold, who was one year older than Wall, died of cancer during Christmas break of Arnold's senior year.

"It changed us all. We realized that life isn't always fair, but because he was just a good guy, he had that opportunity, to either become bitter and act like nothing mattered, or you could say, 'Just maybe there's something else more important than what I thought,' and those seeds really came to fruition later in my life."

Wall also noted that a bone-snapping experience in college wound up helping him make a major move in life.

At Wofford, the Terriers were building a 22-game winning streak and were among the nation's top teams, but Wall suffered a thigh-bone break during a game in his second year.

"That really got me re-oriented to what was really important about life, and that sort of was the start that had me thinking about going into the ministry. I was in pre-law economics, accepted to go into law school, and senior year, decided to go to seminary instead."

Wall still has the rod that was inserted into his leg. It was removed about three years after the initial surgery. "I keep it on my desk, because it reminds me that sometimes, when you think is the worst time ends up being the best time. You don't know it until you look back."

After Wofford, he went on to Princeton Theological Seminary and then proceeded to the University of Chicago for his doctorate, focusing on "baptism as a sacrament in congregational renewal" for his project.

As a minister, his initial posts were mostly around North Carolina, followed by 13-14 years as a senior pastor in Greenwood and a 10-year stint in Savannah. His next step, taking place May 1, 2012, was to Aiken - much closer to North Augusta, the home of his wife's parents.

"Her father was dying of cancer. He died about a month ago, and her mother needs some special care," he said.

As for the community itself, Wall said, "North Augusta's a good place to raise a family and to grow up."

Recalling his friendship with Barnett, Wall noted that Barnett came to see him in the hospital when Wall broke his thigh bone. That day, Furman (Barnett's team) had played an "away" game, and Wall was injured in Wofford's game against Presbyterian, in Clinton.

Barnett was back in Greenville by the time he got the news. Having no car, he hitchhiked to Spartanburg "to see me, in the dead of the night, just to sit with me in the hospital room," Wall said.

"He's a good friend, so recently, when he had a heart attack and had heart surgery, I was not going to miss that. I was going to be there and sit outside his room if I needed to. He's a good guy."