I was lucky enough to get a private glimpse into the heart and mind of Lucius Bunyan Compton, the founder of Eliada Orphanage – but only with a little help from one of his orphanage daughters. She had been among his very favorites, and I was drawn to this woman in the same way he had been over a half-century before. I only met her once, but during our many phone conversations I grew to understand why he referred to her as his “queenly daughter” – she had a sharp sense of humor and spoke with grand assurance. One of the most successful of the many children who grew up there, she also possessed a collection of highly personal letters that Compton had written to her in the years before he died.
She told me about the correspondence one day in 1999. She mentioned that Compton had written the letters to her back in the 1940’s – letters that still moved her every time she read them. She said there was one that she treasured above all the others, thanking her for the love and support she had given to him during his darkest hour, a period he vividly described as “the most critical trial in my life and the history of Eliada Orphanage.”
Compton was referring to a period of strange and subversive behavior on the Eliada campus. It had been an unsettled time during WWII when the older boys were in open rebellion and the girls were out of control – one of the older girls had actually tried to burn down the Administration Building. And then in June of 1943 Compton had been arrested on the steps of the Buncombe County Courthouse and charged with multiple counts of attempted sexual assault involving four of the orphanage girls. The community fully backed him, and the mayor of Asheville personally posted Compton’s bond.
Shortly thereafter, he sent out an urgent appeal to his supporters that read in part:
“The devil is seeking to destroy the Eliada work, ruin me and our blessed Lord’s Name is at stake. The enemy of our souls has used the most malicious and diabolical lies, and through these fiendish charges is seeking to destroy the Lord’s testimony here. There is not even a shadow of truth to these charges, of which I have written in the July issue of the New Testament Christian.”
“Pray that truth and righteousness will prevail, that I will come through completely exonerated, that Eliada will go forward with a greater work, and that glory will come to His precious Name.”
–Lucious Bunyan Compton (August 1943)
After months of delays, the trial began in October of 1943 and lasted for three days, making headlines all over the region. On the third day Compton was exonerated on all charges – his lawyer called it a “complete vindication.” Compton had been certain that the truth would prevail, and after the positive verdict he vowed to live a more humble and devoted life. He thanked his many followers who had shown their support, and ended the discussion with a prayer: “Blessed is he that considereth the poor; the Lord will deliver him in time of trouble.”
Over five decades later, his orphanage daughter wanted me to have a copy of Compton’s letter describing those troubled times, along with several others he had also sent to her, but their personal nature prevented her from doing so. It took me two years to gain her permission to use the one in this story. When she finally agreed, she made me promise not to reveal her name because she feared it would make her orphanage sisters jealous. She was also afraid that people would not understand the true nature of her relationship with “Dad” Compton, which she assured me was entirely appropriate.
She sent me an envelope containing the package of letters in 2001. Also enclosed was her description of an idyllic childhood at the orphanage, a period she considered to be one of the happiest in her life. I have posted her letter first.
The second letter below is written by her “Dad” about his darkest hour. It was penned by a man who loved his daughter with passion and without reservation – a quality that L.B. Compton acknowledged was his greatest strength, as well as his direst vulnerability.
–Clifford B. Davids
Asheville, North Carolina
June 23, 2001
This is a short letter to accompany the enclosed letters and telegrams from 1943-47.
When I was 5 years old, I was the youngest “little girl” at Eliada, excluding the nursery. I was a quiet, shy child and seldom said much. They let me help in the office doing filing and sorting the New Testament Christian by state, and I did a good job.
We had good healthy meals and home-raised veggies. I remember Dad eating corn on the cob with gusto. He did everything with gusto—when he came into the dining room he would often sing “Oh Happy Day that fixed my choice on Thee my Savior and my God.” He visited the tables and spoke to different ones in an individual way.
He had the ability to lift your spirits almost like in John Irving’s book Cider House Rules, where the director referred to the youngsters as “the Prince and Princesses of Maine.” He would comment on your fake jewelry, and called you “gypsy” in a lilting manner. Genevieve Blackburn was “Little Orphan Annie” when she curled her hair in rags, which stuck out all over her head. Furman was “Curly” with his tight ringlets.
He would lift us up over his head to show how “strong” he was, and he walked the ground with his cane swinging. I know it gave him stability over the rocky terrain.
On Thursdays we had Prayer Meetings after supper, and Mom Edith would remember everyone and everything in prayer. We knelt at our dining room chairs, and often fell asleep because the workers were so fervent in their devotions. But God answered the prayers almost daily for the needs of the home, from a new well to a car load of coal for the furnace that we needed in the winter time.
There was one man who kept the boiler going so we could have steam heat in the radiators. We had someone come in on Saturdays to help with the wash. We ironed on Mondays and mended every Tuesday–even the boys’ farmer jeans.
We learned to can, cook, and sew. Someone in South Carolina would send a truckload of peaches in the summer and we would dip them in hot water to loosen the skins, peel and seed them, pack them in quart jars, and have the most wonderful peaches in the winter months. We canned tomatoes and green beans and husked a lot of field corn. This was good training for future homemakers. The boys did the milking and took care of the cows, under supervision.
I helped Mom Edith bake pies, mostly lemon. She would make the crusts, and I would make the filling and the meringue. She made the most wonderful waffles; nothing, even to this day, can compare to her waffles. She would bake one to see if it needed to be altered, and then take the mix back to the kitchen and fix it. What was left over at the cottage she would put in jam jars and send down to the girls.
I began to feel that I was loved just for myself. Mom Edith came to my graduation from high school and Dad gave the baccalaureate sermon on Sunday. I don’t think they do that anymore because of the separation between church and state.
At Camp Meeting we would walk the sawdust trail and did a lot of special music. Dad and Mom Edith loved good music. Singing was something we could do without costing anything. We sang when we did the dishes, set the tables, and any other time we were together. Dad had a black man who was a blind pianist, and he would entertain us; I can still hear his “Kitten on the Keys.” At one camp meeting he had a black quartet to stay and sing. Dad loved everybody.
I could go on and on, but you are the one writing the book. God’s blessing be on you and yours during this stupendous undertaking. I tried to give you a feel for the little things that made up our life there.
I want you to have these enclosed letters. I was at the cottage when Dad was alone and devastated over the trial of his life. I was able to comfort and console him, to stand by him. I have deleted a phrase here and there from that one letter because it might possibly be misunderstood. It is too personal. However, most of this elegant “thank you for being there and believing in me” is intact.
Of course I cried when I re-read the letter, and I felt special all over again.
Compton’s dearest Daughter
March 29, 1945
My dearest Daughter:
How is my girlie today? Well I hope, and enjoying your work. I missed you so much the last night I was home—no one there but me and my dog Gippy, lonesome I should say it was. I went in your room, turned on the light, walked around, and finally went to bed. Well, such is life for me.
I am having splendid meetings, the Lord is blessing the people and the crowds are large. The church is well filled every night with extra good interest. I always enjoy coming to this place as they are above the average church people. Such a high type, they are thrifty and intelligent, all good lives and modern homes. A lovely company of young people, and all of them are in their places every night. I guess one reason why I love these people so much—they all seem to love me. The young folks here are like my youngsters at Eliada, but I wish my children were as spiritual as these young men and women. I don’t think there is one of them that won’t lead in public prayer. But many of them are now in the war.
I wish you were here with me to meet these folks as this is my fifth time I have been here. I close Sunday evening and head home Monday–I kind of dread being up at the cottage alone. I will miss you something awful. You will have to come out here in a while to get supper for me—that will help lots. You must not stay away from me too long at first or I will suffer with loneliness something awful for you. I am ashamed a man of my age to confess his loneliness. But daughter, this has been one of your Dad’s human weaknesses. Anyone I am attached to I suffer unbearable loneliness for them. This has been my main weakness from childhood.
You have been a source of great comfort and pleasure to me. When I was alone up there, passing through one of the greatest trials of all my life, your love, attention, and concern for me got very deep in my heart. You permitted my lonesome soul to find rest, relaxation, and comfort in you, and you seemed to fully understand me. I have always loved, confidenced, and admired you—and I always will.
So my dear, you hold a place in your Dad’s heart far deeper then you know. Remember, so long as your Dad lives, you will have everything you need or want.
I cannot begin to repay you for your understanding heart and soul—I love you for it. And I will stand by you sick or well, living or dead. You are my girlie and I am proud of you, glad that you are able to hold a good position. But always remember, should any misfortune or need come to you, you will always find your Dad’s heart and arms both wide open to you.
So please don’t stay away from me too long, it will be hard for me. It may be a sacrifice to you to go out of your way to pay attention to this devoted old man, but honey, after it is all over and I am gone you will never regret it. Then and only then will you fully know just what your kindness, attention, and care meant to me.
God Bless you my child. Pray for me every day.
Your wholehearted and devoted,