Memorial Message for J. Russell Capps
By Dr. Mark H. Creech
Christian Action League
October 14, 2020
Former North Carolina Rep. J. Russell Capps was a member of the Christian Action League’s Board of Directors for more than forty years. Capps passed away Tuesday, October 6th, after a brief bout with cancer. He was eighty-nine years old. His Memorial Service was held at Christ Baptist Church in Raleigh on Monday, October 12th. The following memorial message was delivered by Dr. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, in Capps’ honor. Many said the message was a beautiful tribute to the deceased’s life. It also provided a powerful challenge with much inspiration. –Christian Action League Staff
Words can be poor tools with which to fashion the appreciation our hearts would like to express today. The distance between our sentiments and the reality, as is in this case, can be great. But it’s never more baffling than when we try to state the meaning behind the life of someone who lived so marvelously, giving himself fully to the Lord and the good of others. How does one within only a few minutes adequately summarize a life so rich and full?
It is taxing, to say the least. And as you can see, I have already stumbled in the endeavor by my employment of a word that Russell would have loathed – taxing.
I think it is somewhat apropos that our brother would pass from us at this time, during an election year, as we approach November. Of course, this is the time when Russell was always busy handing out voter guides. So many depended on him for advice and counsel, inquiring of him which candidates were worthy of their trust.
But there’s something else which seems equally relevant to me, especially considering that he was a life-long resident of Raleigh, the City of Oaks.
On the occasion of the death of Texas Senator Sam Rayburn, Senator Tom Corcoran of New Hampshire wrote a letter to his colleague Lyndon Baines Johnson, then presiding over the Senate. In the letter, he took a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, which reads, “It is November and the leaves that shelter my generation are falling fast.” Corcoran went on to write, “Once our world was full of older men who were magnificent individuals in the grand manner. Many big oaks sheltered us. Like the leaves in November, they fall fast, and we are now our own front line.”
A mighty oak has fallen. James Russell Capps was like a tree planted by a stream of water, whose leaves never withered and dried up. His branches extended far and wide so that many could lodge under its shadow. He was a mighty oak.
What makes a mighty oak of a man like Russell Capps? What may we learn from his example that will prepare us to be our own front line?
He Was a Man of Early Consecrations.
Russell’s home life as a boy was distinctly classical Americana. He always said that he owed so much to his parents, who were simple folks with little education and income, but rich in godly influences. His father was a quiet gentleman, a superb finish carpenter, that demonstrated to him the value of a hard day’s work and good stewardship of one’s possessions. His mother was a stay at home Mom, whom Russell said, “loved the Lord and was a good wife that spent much of her life in prayer for her children, and in attending the needs of his Dad and his family.” The family attended church twice on Sunday, in the middle of the week, and whenever there was a revival meeting anywhere nearby. His two brothers served in the military during World War II, one of which heroically participated in the “D” Day landing in France in June of 1944.
And thus from this soil was formed a tremendous Christian conservative and patriot – a mighty oak – a man consecrated early to a certain way of life that would guide all of his aspirations.
After High School, Russell knew what he wanted to do in life. He wanted to go into broadcasting. One day he met a man named Jesse Helms, who at that time was the manager of Raleigh’s radio station, WRAL, and who would later become a renowned U.S. Senator. Russell asked Helms if he could visit the station, maybe in the evenings when he wouldn’t be in the way. He told Helms he could sweep the floors and do some chores. He was willing to do whatever, just to get a chance at some experience.
Helms gladly consented, and within a remarkably short time, Helms elevated Russell to reading the late news. Soon he was promoted to an announcer’s position, then a news reporter. Eventually, he was planning and running much of the programming for both the AM and FM stations, which included handling the remotes for sporting events and station breaks, announcing musical programs, and doing commercials.
But then came a day of testing for this young man’s burgeoning broadcast career – one that would test whether he would be a sapling or become a sturdy tree.
One afternoon, Russell noticed from the control room two well-dressed men conversing with the station’s sales manager in an adjacent studio. A short time later, the sales manager entered the control room and handed Russell copy for a commercial to voice record. It was an advertisement for beer.
Russell said when he saw the content for the ad, he told the sales manager with a tone of humility, “I’m sorry, but I don’t do beer commercials.” The sales manager then grabbed the copy in a huff, left the room, and returned to the studio where the well-dressed men were still waiting.
Russell said he fully expected to lose his job that day. Someone else was assigned to cut the commercial. But a short time later, the sales manager came back into the control room where Russell was and, instead of giving him a pink slip, smiled and said, “I just want you to know that I hope my daughter marries someone just like you.”
I think it’s also significant that for much of his years as a broadcaster, Jesse Helms was a mentor to him. And if you knew Russell Capps, then you know that the two men were very much alike.
Great men are not born, but they are made. Characteristically, they are individuals who have learned the highest and best and have consecrated themselves to it at the earliest stages of life.
Russell Capps was a man of early consecrations.
He Was a Man of Conviction.
In I Samuel 2:30, we read, “Therefore, the Lord, the God of Israel declares: “Those who honor me, I will honor.”
Russell’s life was one long trajectory of honoring God, and in turn, God advanced him to more significant areas of responsibility. From radio broadcasting, he moved up to television broadcasting, reporting on the news, sports, and weather. He was even assigned to co-anchor local television broadcasts during the same era that Huntley & Brinkley co-anchored the national news. He also did televised editorials.
Did you know that Russell Capps was the last living member of the original broadcast staff of WRAL Television?
After his years in radio and television, at the behest of public officials, he was drawn into public service. His resume in this arena was also stellar. He served as a department head in Wake County Government as a planner in the NC Department of Crime Control and Public Safety. He was a volunteer fireman and chief of the volunteer fire department. He was the Fire Marshall for Wake County from 1969 – 1986, and President of the Wake County Fireman’s Association. He was the Wake County EMS founder and director from 1976 – 1985. And he was Wake County’s first Planning Director.
After serving faithfully for years in county government, he was approached to run for statewide office and was ultimately elected to honorably serve in the North Carolina House of Representatives for six consecutive sessions, which is twelve years.
During his entire tenure of government service, he was well-known for being forthright about his faith, a trait that sometimes got him into trouble. You know, I can remember my pastor of many years ago telling me, “Mark, if you never run up against the devil, it’s likely you’re walking with him.” Russell walked with God, and sometimes it brought out the devils.
When he was Emergency Management Director, he and some of the other county employees would meet before office hours for Bible study and prayer. It was all voluntary, and everyone appreciated it. But when the authorities got wind of it, they ordered it to cease. Russell stopped the devotional time as directed, but being the man of conviction he was, he just moved it to a building across the street and out from under the auspices of government. So every day, he and his little band continued to pray for the EMS responders and the patients to whom they were sent to rescue. His conviction was that people needed more than just the latest expertise, science, or technology. They desperately needed God’s grace and mercy.
As a legislator, he once took on a colossal challenge. He introduced a bill to require that evolution be taught in public schools as a theory of origins and not as fact. He meticulously researched all of the state’s 23 science textbooks and proved irrefutably that in every one of them, without exception, evolution was being taught as fact.
Opponents of the measure, aided by the media, smeared the legislation, saying it would end the teaching of evolution, when it wouldn’t. Instead, it would only require it to be taught as a theory. Moreover, the media made a buffoon of him. One cartoon depicted him as a monkey with a banana. There was a T-shirt with a cartoon of Russell being held in the hand of an ape with a questioning look on its face.
I find it most interesting, however, that when Russell was asked if he ever regretted introducing that measure, He said: “No. Not at all. I know where the truth lies and consider it a badge of honor that I was, and am, on the side of truth on the subject.”
Yes, Russell knew as J. Wallace Hamilton once said, a terrible “corrosion of the human spirit” befalls the generations “when they forget who they are and try to explain themselves as the offspring of this world only.”
Russell Capps was a man of solid Christian convictions, and it was evident in every public-policy initiative he weighed in on as a lawmaker. Whether the issue was related to some fiscal matter or the size of government, or flying the American flag, or one of the social issues such as marriage and the family, abortion, or religious liberty, whatever it was, his Christian worldview directed either his support or opposition.
He was a man of conviction.
He was the Consummate Churchman, Friend, and Family Man.
There is no question of the love he had for our Savior. He was an evangelist at heart. He was a volunteer pastor for a small mission church for 13 years here in Raleigh, where he won many souls to Christ. He served Christ Baptist Church. And there isn’t sufficient time to mention the numerous ministries in which he participated, promoted, or served on their Boards.
One story summarizes, I think, his love for friends and family. Russell and his wife Gayle used to enjoy taking bus tours with their friends to places like the Amish Country, the Kerr Potato Chip Plant, the Original Chocolate Factory, the Harley Davidson Plant, Washington, etc. It was a fun time, and it took a lot of effort for Russell to arrange those trips.
One year, Gayle suggested that Russell let someone else do the planning. He should take a break from all the work, she said. But Russell resisted saying he wanted to make one more trip, to which Gayle suggested a bargain. The workshop where Russell, like his father, loved to do his woodwork was a disaster area. It was strewn with pieces of scrap lumber, small and great. There were empty spray paint cans and a myriad of junk everywhere. The place was in complete disarray. Gayle told Russell if he would clean out that workshop and organize it, she would consent to his planning another trip.
One day Gayle drove up the driveway coming home from work, and lo and behold, there was Russell on the second level of the workshop cleaning and tossing out things onto a large pile of garbage.
Gayle was in such disbelief of what she was witnessing she approached the shop while clutching her chest like Fred Sanford on the old sitcom, Sanford and Son, and cried out, “O my, O my, I’m having a heart attack. This is the big one. This is the big one. I can’t believe it. I’m coming home, honey! I’m going home, Russell.”
That’s an apt picture, I think, of a man’s passionate desire to enjoy time with his friends, and his earnest wish to please his wife. I’m sure that I don’t need to belabor that he loved you, Gayle. Furthermore, he loved his son, Rusty, his daughter Candy, and their spouses, his stepson, Anthony, and his nine precious grandchildren.
He was the consummate churchman, friend, and family man.
It has been my assignment today to eulogize our brother. But if I had said nothing else, a quote from a eulogy for a Chief Justice (though my source did not say which one) made by Samuel L. Southard, would have been more than sufficient for this occasion. It reads:
“His best and truest eulogy is that he had a vigorous intellect, sustained by lofty purposes, and based upon an honest and feeling heart. Such, it was his high ambition to be – and such, he was. Such, does the state of which he was a native, regard him: and he will continue to be admired as one of the richest portions of her fame. The universal distress of her citizens; the excited sympathies and profound emotion of this assembled multitude of the learned, the patriotic, the wise, and the benevolent of every rank and sect, form a precious tribute to his worth, and give assurance that he did not live in vain; and that his name and actions will continue to be had in remembrance. His memory will be cherished by his fellow citizens, with enduring affection; with sincere reverence; by his personal associates, with emotions as strong as a brother’s love; and in the domestic circle, it can be forgotten, only, when memory itself shall perish.”
Yes, a mighty oak has fallen. Although we rejoice that he is now at rest and in the presence of our Lord, we feel a sense of profound loss. He worked diligently for the redemption of so many. He instructed us by precept and word to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this world. His roots were deep. He stood uncompromisingly in the storms and struggles. We all felt secure and protected with someone like him on the scene.
A mighty oak has fallen, and we must pick up where he left off. For “we are now our own front line.”