He was “all in,” they said. “Larger than life,” they said. “Big Daddy,” his grandkids called him.
He leaves behind a loving family and an outsized legacy. His name was Ralph Watts. He was a member of our church, and his funeral was Monday.
Ralph Watts graduated to glory at 96 years of age. He still went to the gym regularly till weeks before he died, making his family joke that the trainers must have been on their toes every time he walked in, brushing up on their CPR. Ralph loved all of life, so he loved the joke. He seems to have died like Moses:
Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated (Deuteronomy 34:7).
Ralph was born in 1921. He lived through the Great Depression, and had the work ethic to prove it. In high school, when he heard about Texas A&M, he hitchhiked from Kentucky to College Station with the $200 his mother earned from selling her dining room suite. He would study engineering, and go on to serve in World War II.
After he was called up, Ralph got tired of waiting around in D.C., so he contacted the military offices, and ended up at Omaha Beach. He would serve in both France and Japan. He was part of The Greatest Generation.
Ralph’s memorial service was one of the most striking I’ve ever attended. Hundreds of people filled the chapel at Houston’s First Baptist Church. Story after incredible story cascaded from the stage, and the cascade continued in conversations afterward at the reception. Laughter filled the service, the laughter that surrounds a long life well-lived.
One after another, children and grandchildren read Scripture and shared memories. Everyone spoke of his devotion to prayer and evangelism. He handed out tracts and the Gospel of John to everyone who would take one. A Lebanese member of the Druze shared how Ralph shared Christ with him while buying a car, then invited him to study the Bible together, then met with him for two years, and then mentored him after his conversion.
Ralph and Carolyn were married for sixty years. Their son Steve read a list of thirty things Carolyn appreciated about Ralph, written for their golden wedding anniversary ten years ago. Taken together, the list was a 360° view of a man of God—in marriage, in business, in evangelism, in discipleship, in Bible reading, in constant prayer, in service, in hospitality, in patriotism, in self-discipline, in consistency. Any potential for hagiography seemed overwhelmed by the joyful consistency of this giant man.
My fellow pastor Tom Douthit led the service. Tom’s own father had been converted to Christ under the influence of Ralph Watts. Tom said that Ralph had two speeds: go and sleep. He was “all in,” Tom said. All in for his Savior. All in for his marriage. All in for his family. All in for evangelism. All in for his country. All in for ethical business practices. Ralph Watts was all in.
He served his church as an elder, attended every mayor’s prayer breakfast, and served on the board of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I met some InterVarsity leaders at the reception who told me that Ralph had personally funded four different Bible translations.
I hung around the reception for hours, because Ralph’s memorial service was clearly a reunion of a vast network of people whose lives were deeply influenced by his love and example. You never knew what story would come next from a family member or friend gathered to celebrate his life. But I learned one thing: somehow the stories were all unique, and all consistent, all at the same time.
One of the hardest things about being a new pastor in an established church is that you inherit so many incredible stories about people you didn’t get to experience yourself. But one of the most joyful things about being a new pastor in an established church is that you inherit so many incredible stories, and such a legacy of faithfulness.
That’s the kind of legacy BridgePoint Bible Church has inherited from Ralph Watts, and I know I’m a better man for it.
Nevertheless, I still wouldn’t dare tell Ralph Watts to rest in peace. He’s at peace, to be sure, but I have every confidence that he’s still living (and worshiping) to the hilt.
Thanks for everything, Ralph. I look forward to hearing your stories in person one day.
One thought on “All In: The Legacy of Ralph Lee Watts (1921-2017)”
Great thoughts, Gunner. Thanks for putting together Ralph’s mini-bio — I’ll re-read when I need a fire lit under me, and be reminded of the work that God can do in one singular-purposed clay pot. Don’t Paul’s words to the Corinthians come to mind? “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.”