The Rev. Eric King
As a young boy, Eric King sat down to dinner anticipating a ritual questioning by his father. “He would ask me, well, a test of whether I was listening or not. I usually passed. I knew as we sat down to the dinner table that he was going to ask me about the church service, how it affected me,” King said. Now at the ripe age of 98, the Rev. King, who was influenced by his father and grandfather, lay speakers before him, has 75 years of ministry service to show for himself.
King was born on Jan. 13 in Deer Harbour, a small village on the coastline of Newfoundland, Canada, where his family earned its living from the soil. His family seldom went to the store, as they produced what they needed themselves.
A strong religious influence was bestowed upon King long before he learned to walk or talk. As a baby, he was carried in his mother’s arms to his family’s pew at their parish. “I always would look at my mother, who sat next to me. I could see the angelic look on her face as she prayed and as she listened to the sermon. My father, more or less, had the same aspect on his face. It kind of rubbed off on me,” he said.
At that time, King’s favorite stories of the Bible were those of the creation, of David and of Noah and his ark. “I learned that God was more or less in charge of life. He could destroy us again if we didn’t behave ourselves,” he said.
Each summer King would work to save up money for college. He took summer school classes in English and mathematics to be admitted at an early age. His older brothers, college students at the time, “knew I was just wasting my time staying in this little two-by-four village, where the teacher didn’t know any more than what I did. They came down for me and brought me up to Mt. Allison,” King said.
At the age of 14, King enrolled at Mt. Allison University in New Brunswick, on the condition that he would complete his matriculated courses, French and history, before he became a full-time student. After just one year of schooling, King ran out of money. He dropped out and picked up a teaching job to earn enough money to return to school. King remembers playing tug-of-war with the older students, who “thought they were stronger than I was. They used to say let’s test it out.”
In 1935, King received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Mt. Allison, later earning his Bachelor of Divinity from McGill University in Montreal. He furthered his education at the United Theological College in Montreal.
While in seminary, King’s oldest brother, a minister, died after preaching just one sermon. He had to take over the church, and responsibility of his brother’s wife and infant. He spent two years serving in this capacity, all the while learning as he preached.
At the age of 23, the Montreal-Ottawa Conference ordained King a minister of the United Church of Canada. The year was 1937, and two years later, when World War II broke out, 90 from King’s church would enlist. “I was taught in seminary to love, that we should love one another. When World War II broke out, that theology went out the window,” King said. “I had to be with the people regardless of whether they were in the war or out of the war, and support the families while their loved ones were wearing the uniform.”
King served 12 years as a minister in Montreal before going to the Troy Conference of the United Methodist Church in Vermont. He served 30 years there and in upstate New York. While there, King was asked five years in a row to lead a service to thousands on Christmas Day in the Tri-City.
King’s demeanor is soft, his accent distinct, and he speaks of his ministry work as if he wished he’d done nothing else. But his influence was never limited to church. He was appointed a member of a committee, which investigated the amount of pastoral work done in the hospitals of Montreal. The report generated from the committee resulted in greatly enlarging chaplaincy services in hospitals. Additionally, King served as district grand chaplain of the Grand Lodge of Quebec, and together with a labor union leader he formed a council of senior citizens organizations of some 5,000 members. The council also founded a senior citizens center, which in the ’50s, was one of the first in the country.
“I’ve had an awfully enjoyable life especially since Onita has come into my life,” King said. Onita Barkley King, his third wife, and he met in 1971. Barkley was under King’s ministry in upstate New York for a short time. When she moved away, the two kept in touch through Christmas letters and a mutual friend, “an outstanding correspondent,” who would write to each of them to relay what the other was doing.
In January 2004, King’s second wife passed away and he had no one to take care of him. Knowing Barkely’s husband had also passed, he asked her to be his caregiver. Barkley had trained for Stevens Ministry one-on-one ministry to give care and support to people experiencing life difficulties. Although she now says she has now broken all of the rules of the ministry, Barkley noted, “I had that training and that mindset.”
Barkley described King as kind, loving and generous.
“You know we’ve been married now five years,” King said. Barkley whispers to him, “three.” King smiles,“ Seems like five. I want to give you full credit. But I can only make three out of it.”
Retired from preaching, King spends his days singing in the choir, a favorite pastime, as a member of a men’s prayer group and with Bible study sessions with the pastor. At times, he even makes hospital visits. “The pastor will call him and say, ‘So and so is in the hospital,’ and we’re out the door to go see that person in the hospital,” Barkley said.
A March 1955 letter to the editor about King in The Vermont Journal reads, “He had belief in the saying, ‘Somewhere between sunrise and sunset there are many golden minutes,’ each set with its own particular ‘diamond’ and these he made to shine in the service of the Master to whose cause he was dedicated.”