The Preacher and the Bear

By Raymond Williams
  July 21, 2004

as told by Raymond B. Williams H’68

On a beautiful fall day in 1955, Professor of Religion Emeritus Raymond Williams was a sophomore at Johnson Bible College in Knoxville, Tennessee, taking part in that school’s version of Wabash’s “Elmore Day”—classes were cancelled, and Raymond and his classmates climbed onto a bus and headed for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

After a day spent hiking, the group went to the Chimney Tops parking lot for dinner. Raymond tells this story about what happened next:

In those days, bears would come into the picnic areas and rummage through the trash cans for food, but I was hungry and didn’t notice any bears when we drove in that evening.

We were going to have hot dogs for supper, so Jim Jacks and I walked up the mountainside from the parking lot to pick up branches and twigs for the fire. Jim was a hulking, strong guy. I was the 90-pound weakling. He went on up the hill ahead of me collecting branches, and I followed behind  and picked up the sticks he’d missed.

I heard the scuffle of shoes on rocks. All of the sudden Jim came running downhill at full-tilt, jumped over a ledge, and ran past me without saying a word. When I looked back up the trail, a bear was loping down the hill toward me.

I was a city boy from Bluefield, West Virginia, and this was the biggest bear I’d ever seen. It gets bigger every time I think about it! We realized later that she was a mother bear with two cubs that she’d left up the hill before she’d set out for the parking lot for food. Our sudden appearance threatened to get between her and the cubs, and that’s probably why she charged us. But her maternal instincts weren’t the focus of my concern at that moment. I just ran.

The bear was gaining, and when I saw a sapling ahead of me, I figured it was my best chance. I grabbed hold of it and climbed up as fast as I could. Nowadays, brochures for the park note that black bears are “excellent tree climbers.” But, as I said, I was a city boy from Bluefield. I was just hoping the bear would leave me alone. She could run after Jim if she was so bent on chasing someone down the hill.

The bear ran up to the sapling, huffed, hit it with her paw, and knocked me right out of that tree. I fell to the ground, and an image of tomorrow’s newspaper flooded my mind with a headline reading “Boy Killed by Bear in Park.”

That thought inspired me to my feet, the tree between myself and the bear. I took off running again.

As I ran down the hill, my best friend, Joe Stump, came running up the path with the bus driver and a handful of rocks. I didn’t stop. I ran all the way to the bus and climbed in. I would have closed the door, too, if I’d known how to work it.
But the fact that she’d successfully chased us away from her cubs, combined with those two men coming up the hill with rocks, caused the bear to stop and turn around.

The next morning I was so stiff I could hardly get out of bed. I don’t know if it was the fall from the tree or all that adrenaline-inspired running.

I had to give a speech in class two days later, so I told this story. The people who’d been there thought it was a riot. The story  didn’t really have a moral or lesson, unless it was: If you’re being chased by a bear, don’t do all the wrong things that I did.

Jim and I never talked about what happened. If we had, I might have said, “The next time you’re chased by a bear, holler out, would you.” But probably not; I doubt that I’d have been able to say much if I’d been the first one running down the hill that day.

Joe Stump’s family and mine got together for Thanksgiving last year, just as we have for the past 40 years. He and I have hiked in the Smokies many times since our  college days, often with his sons.

I don’t remember if Joe said  anything when I ran past him that autumn day long ago. I just remember him charging up that hill. A man who will charge a bear for you when you get into real trouble—now that’s a friend!

Have a bear or wild animal story of your own? Let’s hear it: charless@wabash.edu