Beloved Morley pastor left legacy of warm friendship

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 14, 2007

A pastor familiar to many in the Morley-Cochrane area passed away recently. A memorial service was held March 10 in Bentley, Alta., for Rev. Frank McPhee, who served the Morley United Church from 1978 to 1985. He was 87.

My memories of Frank are of a gentleman who loved to go hunting, tinkered with all kinds of things, always had a gentle word for all he met, and in general, had a passion for living out the social implications of the gospel to which he was ordained.

Cochrane coffee companion Bill McLean, a longtime teacher in the Stoney Nakoda school system at Morley and Big Horn, regarded Frank as one of his closest friends. Upon hearing of Frank’s death, Bill wrote me:

“Frank was a true inspiration to me. Here was a person who graduated as a chemical engineer, then gave up that life for another when he went to theology school.”

One of Bill’s favourite memories of his friend is from the time when Frank announced that he was going to retire with his wife, Ruth, and live at Gull Lake.

“He decided to paint the church at Morley,” Bill recalls. “The white church that is currently in the town site is huge for one person to paint by himself, but Frank did just that. Plus he was a perfectionist about priming and cleaning. The priming took him two weeks alone, without any painting! This project took at least a month and is not normally what a person does in their last days of retirement.

“Frank's legacy was that he wanted Morley United Church left in the best possible shape for the community as his contribution to its longevity.”

At the time, Bill was teaching at the Morley Community School, just behind the church. Bill continues to chuckle over the humorous side of Frank’s personality when, on one occasion as he returned home after school, he saw Frank finishing up his day’s work of painting.

“Out of guilt, I said, ‘Frank, when you finish the white I will paint the cedar shakes on the roof.’

“For the first two weeks of my summer holidays I was up on that roof painting the brightest red roof possible. Finally there was only a strip left about three metres long from top to bottom. When I was 90 per cent done, I realized that I was going to run out of paint.

“The drive into Calgary to get more for so little roof left seemed hardly worth it. So I told Frank about this. I had almost five gallons of barn red left, but I probably needed about six gallons to finish.

“Frank told me not to worry, as he found some paint at the dump and we would just add that to what we have.

“Wouldn't you know it! Frank brought back black, but he said that it wouldn't matter, that it might give it a slightly darker tinge, but it would almost be the same. Why Frank talked me into that with him being a chemical engineer and everything is beyond me. As we mixed it, he said colors always appear lighter when they dry.

“Now that I have taken a few art courses, I realize the strength of black, and that probably a tablespoon wouldn't have made any difference, but what Frank put in made a huge difference.

“Anyway, I painted a partial strip on the church to see how it looked. The red was so much darker than the other red that it looked like there was a permanent shadow two metres down at the far end of the roof in the direct rays of the sun without there being an object to cause the shadow.

“I remember coming down the hill looking at the roof in the distance, and all I saw was this reddish-black strip that did not fit in, and all I could say was, ‘Frank, I should never have listened to you!’ The dilemma for me was that now I was going to have to repaint the whole roof reddish black, but who ever heard of a white church with a reddish black roof? Luckily, when I repainted the reddish black strip, it covered nicely in bright red, so that now the roof looked right.

“Anyway, the United Church in Morley in the early 1980s was a reflection of the dedication and commitment of Frank Angus McPhee.”

It was also, I think, a reflection of Bill’s brush with his twinkling-eyed friend.

Frank had developed Alzheimer’s Disease and for some time had been in a Lacombe nursing home. “Ruth took up residence in a suite near the hospital so she could be with Frank,” Bill said.

Thanks, Bill, for the memories of our friend, Frank.

© 2007 Warren Harbeck

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