Jackie Mansfield doesn’t remember serving the Rev. Stuart Latimer and his wife, Charlotte, last month at the Cracker Barrel store in Washington. She has no idea what they look like.
So, the Wheeling Jesuit University student, who waitresses at the restaurant, was surprised when a letter addressed simply to “Jackie the server” arrived there a few weeks later.
Latimer, a retired minister from Taylors, S.C., thanked Mansfield for her friendly and efficient service when he and Charlotte passed through town as they completed a 13,000-mile, 44-day road trip to Alaska and back.
“It was nice of him to take the time to do that,” said Mansfield, 20.
For Latimer, making Mansfield’s day a little brighter is part of what he calls his encouragment ministry.
Over the past 20 years, Latimer has written thousands of letters to people he’s met throughout the country – at the doctor’s office, at the bank, in the grocery store.
Latimer believes in the power of pen and paper, and writing motivational letters is his way of paying it forward, a thank-you to the people who encouraged him throughout a grueling recovery after he was shot during a robbery in Trinidad the night before Easter in 1994.
“I think you can make a difference and encourage people by sending them letters. There are people all around who need encouragement,” said Latimer, 74, who served as a Baptist minister for 22 years and a Presbyterian minister for 16 more before retiring in 2011. “I remember reading once that the average person doesn’t receive a single compliment over the course of a day. We all have critical comments made about us, though, and words can hurt very much.”
Latimer was on a mission trip when he was shot at near point-blank range.
The shotgun blast, intended for his chest until a dog leaped at the gunman, left a hole the size of a fist in his knee but missed vital arteries.
The minister found himself in a Third World country without adequate medical care and with a leg that quickly became infected because of limited access to antibiotics.
An acquaintance of Latimer’s, reconstructive surgeon Dr. Michael Bentz, chairman of the Department of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at the University of Wisconsin who practiced at UPMC-Presbyerian hospital, Pittsburgh, when Latimer was shot, helped arrange for a medical jet to transport him to Pittsburgh, where he underwent five surgeries to save his leg (he has no knee joint, so his right leg is pencil straight) before he returned to South Carolina and spent months learning how to walk again.
Bentz was struck at the time by Latimer’s attitude and his faith.
“I’ve never met anyone quite like him in my life,” said Bentz, who receives a Christmas letter from Latimer every year. “Here’s a person who needed complex reconstructive surgery, who could have died or lost his leg, and he was so kind to the people who were treating him.”
Latimer, though, drew strength from the people who rallied around him.
“During that time, people sent me things to encourage me – cards and letters, the phone calls,” said Latimer. “Their generosity was inspiring, and it played a big role in my recovery.”
Latimer grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, and graduated from Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., where he met his wife and taught for more than a decade. He became the pastor of a Baptist church there, and developed a college ministry for students at nearby Clemson and Furman universities.
“I miss preaching, and I loved working with college students,” said Latimer. “They’re the people we need to reach out to and encourage. I love their openness and curiosity.”
Latimer, the man who has spent the past two decades encouraging other people, finds himself in need of encouragement one more time.
A pancreatic cancer survivor, Latimer was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer, and chemotherapy has left him weak and fatigued these days.
The diagnosis prompted Latimer and his wife to trek by car to Alaska during a three-month window before he started treatment, with Charlotte driving the entire trip in a Honda Odyssey equipped with a custom driver’s seat so that Latimer can drive on short trips in Taylors (he uses his left leg to brake).
It was the second time in two years they made the journey. For their 50th wedding anniversary in 2012, Charlotte announced she didn’t want a party.
“She said, ‘I want to drive to Alaska.’ So that’s what we did,” said Latimer.
It was one of the best experiences of their lives, stress-free and inspiring.
“We had a great time. It was like an escape,” said Latimer. “We saw all kinds of beautiful, amazing things.”
The highlight during their most recent trip was driving the minivan into the wilds of Alaska to reach the Arctic Circle. Charlotte navigated the Top of the World Highway, one of the most beautiful – and dangerous – stretches of road in the country while Latimer sat as he often does: in the back with his bad leg stretched out on the seat. Throughout the drive, Latimer occasionally penned notes to people he met.
Sometimes, he receives thank-you letters from recipients, but he doesn’t expect them. It reminds Latimer of the parable where Jesus heals 10 lepers, but only one returns to thank him.
“I rarely hear anything back, but I don’t do it for myself. The Bible tells us to encourage one another. As Christians, we are called on to build each other up,” said Latimer.
He recently mailed out his Christmas encouragement letter, and in it he writes, “We can express appreciation to those who serve us in stores, banks and restaurants, etc., and let them know we care. And even more, tell them the real meaning of Christmas.”
Said Latimer, “I’ve had an unusual life. It’s been very good. I believe in miracles, starting with the little dog jumping up and causing the robber to misfire when he shot me. I believe the Lord wanted me here, and I will continue to do what I’ve been doing.”
Jackie Mansfield is a daughter of the writer of this article.