LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) – June B. Rice is 94 years old and her words of wisdom and wit have inspired and encouraged for decades. She has written several books that include her columns that appeared in weekly newspapers throughout eastern Kentucky for years.
But it was somebody else’s words that lifted her up recently.
A student from years ago, when she was a youth leader at Liberty Baptist Church in Paintsville, remembered her impact on his life. He wrote her a letter that is now a cherished item in her hands. As she read the letter over the phone, the crack in her sweet voice perfectly described the emotion she was feeling. You could almost see her blushing.
“I give thanks to strong Christians like yourself who made sure we were churched,” the author wrote. “There’s not a day that goes by that I do not think of mission stories and even why we have missions. … Thank you personally for being the Annie Armstrong and Lottie Moon in my life.”
June Rice, a lifetime warrior for missions through the Kentucky Baptist Convention, could have received no bigger compliment and it moved her to tears. It was high praise indeed.
She was so proud of the letter penned to her by one of the students who would gather in her basement on Laurel Lane in the 1970s and use a “duplicator machine” to churn out the Liberty Lifeline, a newsletter for the church, every week. Words always mattered to June Rice.
The writer was Jeffrey Tackett, who works with the Church of God in outreach ministries. Each quarter they publish a ministry magazine that’s shared all over the country. He wrote, “Each time they come to me and ask where I got the knowledge to do this. I can’t help but say it started on Laurel Lane with the Liberty Lifeline.”
June Rice, who has lived an almost Forrest Gump-type life with early intellect that led schools to keep bumping her up grades because they were struggling to challenge her, has been a mission hall of famer for years. She has taught Sunday School for nearly 70 years and served on state boards of the KBC, including the Western Recorder and the missions board on three different occasions, along with being on the board and regular participate and contributor to the WMU's statewide and worldwide efforts.
She’s a regular on Facebook, with more than 1,700 friends, and only a couple of weeks ago stopped teaching Sunday School since she and one other friend were all that remained of a class at West Broadway Baptist Church in Louisville.
“I inherited that class and had it about nine years,” she said. “I told everybody, when they got out of my class, they got to go to heaven. I guess it wasn’t a real good recruiting tool. I didn’t get any new ones. I kept my old ones except they kept graduating on me. Finally, it got to where it was mostly us telling each other where we ached, like a support group. I insisted we went over the Bible lesson anyway and we did.”
The class dwindled to two and they asked to merge with another one, she said. “They didn’t want to merge so we decided to split up. I went to Jim Hume’s class, a very nice class, and I’ve enjoyed Mr. Jim’s classes. I retired from teaching (Sunday school) and the world didn’t end or anything.”
That wit and wisdom that made her a lovable mountain figure is still with June Rice, as spry a 94-year-old as you will ever meet. She served as a librarian at Paintsville High School for 34 years and made impacts on the lives of students she taught. Her list of students reads like a who’s who from the small school and includes doctors, lawyers, coaches, teachers and preachers. Some have even surprised her with their success.
“One girl was a majorette in the band, she was a blonde and she was pretty,” Rice remembered. “She wasn’t much of a reader. She was a sweet girl mostly interested in hair spray and fingernails. She’s on my Facebook. She had gone to Notre Dame, majored in engineering and now designs airplane seats. I’d have never guessed that from her.”
She endured heartache in her life when her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the age of 59. Her husband, a World War II veteran and the light of her life along with her three children, was saddled with the dreadful disease for 15 years until passing away at 74.
“My husband was the best man in the world,” she said. “(But at the end) He was more like a child who didn’t know what was happening. I’m so grateful every morning I get up and know who I am, where I am and whose I am. It’s wonderful. I do pray that I don’t get to where I don’t know those things.”
She wrote about her dark days of the Alzheimer’s journey called The University of Adversity. Rice was also involved in a mountain ministry called “Haven of Rest” in eastern Kentucky where she was involved with Eilene Mullins “who God had told to build a hospitality house for those who were coming to visit incarcerated loved ones” in the Big Sandy federal prison.
June Rice may be in her mid-90s, but her mind is razor-sharp along with her opinions on a variety of subjects. She will debate you on politics and the current condition of the United States or discuss the Bible and missions for as long as you want. Nothing is off limits.
“I held my nose and voted for him,” she said of President Donald Trump. “I couldn’t vote for Hillary (Clinton). He had said he was going to do these (federal) judges and he’s done that. If I don’t vote for him, I’d be voting for Hillary. I voted for him. I’ve been surprised he’s done as well as he’s done. He’s not a perfect person and I don’t know anybody else who is. I don’t like some of the things he’s done, but I like a lot of the things. Our country is in better shape than it was except for how we all hate each other. I’ve always had friends who were Republicans and friends who were Democrats. We always stayed friends during and after elections. Maybe the Lord will take me home before the next one.”
In a life full of highlights that including teaching in one-room schoolhouses, hearing President Roosevelt give his “Day of Infamy” speech at a school assembly and having a boy she had a crush on in high school killed at D-Day, Rice said she looks back thankfully on all that God has done for her over the past century.
Her love of the Lord has trumped it all and a spirit-lifting letter from a student of decades gone by underscored that.
“God has been good to me, but I didn’t realize I was being a Lottie Moon or Annie Armstrong to somebody,” she said. “How much is a letter like that worth to somebody who is 94 years old?”
MARK MAYNARD is managing editor of Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org