By DAN WHITTLE
"Come to the church by the wildwood...
Oh, come to the church in the vale ...
No spot is so dear to my childhood ...
As the little brown church in the vale."
The song "Church in the Wildwood" could have been written about Old Pearl Valley Baptist Church that sits serenely in the woods of Neshoba County, Miss., near county seat town Philadelphia.
Alzheimer's helped to snuff out Mississippi native John Richard Stuart's life at age 83, but the dreaded disease did not wipe out the sweet memories that soared with angels on April 16, 2015 when 'country boy John's' life was celebrated by his son, country music star Marty Stuart, plus family and host of friends at Old Pearl Valley Baptist Church.
It's a church located at Rural Route 8, Arlington, Miss., within walking distance of the old farm house (still standing) where Mr. John was birthed on April 5, 1932, the son of Levi Lincoln and Eddie Lee (Gamblin) Stuart.
"My Dad was a country boy through and through, and he never changed," testified recording artist Marty at his "Dad's Celebration of Life" that could be compared to a sweet-spirited Saturday night Grand Ole Opry production.
"It's OK to applaud and clap your hands during today's Celebration," Marty instructed mourners in the packed-out little brown-bricked church that features interior walls made out of native Southern Mississippi hard woods, and lined with beautiful stained glass windows as memorials, many of which have the names Stuart, Johnson and Darby inscribed as an ancestral trail of life for John and Hilda Annette Johnson Stuart, who survives at their present-day home in Smyrna, Tenn.
Hilda and John courted and held hands as childhood sweethearts while walking to and from Old Pearl Valley Baptist, a church covered with modern bricks, thanks largely to John Stuart, a brick mason.
The Meridian TV station's forecast for the afternoon of April 14 called for 90 percent chance of rain.
And as Marty stood to help eulogize his father the forecast proved accurate as not one, but two torrential cloud bursts soaked the nearby Old Pearl Valley Cemetery grounds that rest adjacent to the historic church.
"I guess God knows best," the singing son noted as the rain beat an intense rhythm on the church steeple that points toward Heaven.
That's when Jennifer, Mr.John's daughter, leaned over in the front pew, and whispered a prayer in Mother Hilda's ear: "God, help this rain to cease, for Dad doesn't like to get wet."
Do you believe in Divinely-inspired miracles?
A photographer/biographer stationed outside the church, described what happened next: "As Mr. John's pretty bronzed casket was being brought out the church front door by pallbearers and accompanying honorary pallbearers, a church member pulled the dangling rope that sounded the big ancient church bell as it rang out to the heavens. And that's when a soft clap of thunder faded in the distance as the ominous-looking dark clouds parted, the rain stopped and the sun appeared."
"My prayer was answered about the rain," daughter Jennifer confirmed in a post-funeral conversation.
A moving part of Mr. John's celebration came when legendary 'Fiddling' Jim Brock and accompanying guitar man, Jim Brock Jr., entered the sanctuary through the back door as soulful notes of "Amazing Grace" filled the sanctuary.
"Dad loved 'Fiddling' Jim Brock and his fiddle playing going back to their days of youth," chronicled son Marty.
"I don't know whether this next song (East Tennessee Blues) belongs in a church service?" Fiddling Jim questioned.
But when he and Jim Jr. bolted through the fast-paced classic Bluegrass song, Marty christened the effort: "That's just right."
A spirited hush along with gushes of tears flowed through Mr. John's farewell audience when lifelong Stuart family friend/vocal artist Marshall Fillingim warbled, with a dramatic pause, the high notes of "When They Ring Those Golden Bells."
Although John Stuart and family left their beloved Neshoba County, Miss., due to son Marty's fledgling country music career back in 1974, Mr. John's heart never left Rural Route 8, Arlington, Miss., as documented in the edition of the Neshoba County Democrat newspaper containing John Richard Stuart's obituary.
Memories with a touch of merriment bubbled through the sanctuary, when Jennifer and Marty presented a pictorial documentary of their father's life, accentuated by Mr. John's last renewed State of Mississippi driver's license.
"Dad had to be the worst driver to ever come out of Mississippi, but each year, instead of going along with the system, Dad required we bring him back to Neshoba County, where he never gave up his Mississippi license," Marty chronicled back through his Dad's Mississippi legacy. "And somehow, despite having several minor accidents, he never got in trouble for not having a valid Tennessee license. And the accidents were never Dad's fault, since it was always that same old woman who pulled out in front of him."
"And it had been years, due to failing health, since Dad drove his pickup," added Jennifer. "But he would spend hours on end, shining and buffing his beloved truck."
Marty added a suggestion to Dr. Dan Howard, Rev. Dwight Fleming and other preachers in the audience: "Since Dad was the worst driver in Mississippi history, your church could have won many more souls for the Lord if you had made prospective church members ride with Dad. If they ever rode with Dad, they knew how to pray."
A nice touch during the funeral procession from Philadelphia's McClain-Hays Funeral Home to rural Arlington came when entertainer Marty's tour bus and hearse drivers threaded their way through a woods to pick up Ralph, Mr. John's last surviving sibling who still resides at the old family home place within a stone's throw of Old Pearl Valley Baptist Church.
And a 'special touch' was added when brother Ralph brought Roscoe, a smart canine that 'country boy' John loved, to the grave site.
"John would have loved it that Roscoe made it to the graveyard," confirmed Hilda.
John "Country Boy" Stuart is home ... home being Rural Route 8, Arlington, Miss.