Originally published July 5, 2012.
If you ask around, some people will tell you Elzie Spencer has performed more funerals and weddings than anyone else in Huntington County.
They may be right.
The 87-year-old retired minister has been a local figure since the 1950s and says he can't leave the house without being recognized.
"Everywhere I go, I am known," Spencer says. "I can't even go into a store without people coming up to hug me."
Born and raised in Kentucky, Spencer says he didn't grow up in a Christian home, although he remembers his mother as a devout soul.
When he went into the Army at 18 to fight in World War II in 1942, she wrote her son letters reminding him of her daily prayers for his safety.
Those prayers were needed, too. By the time Spencer was 19, he was sergeant and in command of 120 soldiers. On a 41-day boat trip to the Philippines, a Japanese submarine caught their trail for about four days.
Spencer says he remembers standing with the other troops in full gear on deck, ready to abandon ship if the sub attacked.
Spencer's tour lasted several years.
After completing his time in the military, Spencer worked in the coal mines in Kentucky. A few days a week in the mines wasn't much to support a growing family, though, and when his brother-in-law offered him work in Markle, Spencer asked his wife Opal if they should go.
"She said, ‘I'll go wherever you go,'" he remembers. "I told her, ‘You're a good girl.'"
So he, Opal and their two children moved to Indiana so Spencer could work in construction. He says it was at a United Brethren in Christ church in Markle that he became a Christian. Two years, later he began preaching at the same church, kicking off a career as a pastor that he had never dreamed of.
In 1962, Spencer founded the Gospel Community Church on Grayston Avenue in Huntington. As the overseeing pastor at the church he never accepted any pay, but kept a full-time job at a Kmart plant as a supervisor and later a superintendent.
His duties as a pastor often took Spencer away from the job, which he knew didn't please several of his coworkers. When a new manager came on the scene, Spencer made sure to take him aside and explain that as a pastor he often had to leave work early - up to three times a week.
"He told me he didn't want me to change a thing," Spencer says. "The Lord has gone before me in everything."
It was a busy time of Spencer's life. After work at Kmart, he would regularly visit three hospitals before returning home to his wife and seven children.
Spencer also made personal calls as members of his congregation faced sickness and death. He remembers making 2 a.m. drives to the hospital in winter, making his way by lamp posts as the road lay hidden under the snow.
The church, through Spencer, purchased a motel on the side of Old U.S.-24 and converted it into apartments for individuals living on Social Security. Spencer had a house for himself built next to the apartments, where he still resides.
He estimates that he performed around three funerals a week, as well as weddings. He remembers the wedding of former Huntington sheriff Rod Jackson as one of the biggest ceremonies he officiated.
"The whole police force was there," Spencer remembers. "I said, ‘Who in the world is taking care of our town?'"
Spencer retired from Gospel Community Church in 2004. A year later Opal - the "sweetest wife that ever lived" - passed away after an unexpected diagnosis of cancer. He was told later that an estimated 1,200 people attended Opal's visitation in a six-hour period, and that many couldn't reach the guest book to sign in.
"All that I've got left now is a big black Labrador," Spencer says, referring fondly to his 6-year-old dog Shadow. Several of Spencer's seven children still live in the Huntington area and drop by to visit on a weekly or daily basis.
Spencer still preaches occasionally as the need arises at First Free Will Baptist in Huntington, and likes to reflect on where life has taken him.
"I know good and well one thing - that God has been looking after me," he says. "I have been a blessed man."