State Journal-Register, The (Springfield, IL)
The Long Road to Peace

November 26, 2004

Story by Kristen Schmid Schurter/Correspondent

Ken Wise's story is 57 years in the making, and it is a good one. The themes of his life - work, addiction, faith, redemption and music - are like a Johnny Cash album.

Wise beat the odds. He survived alcoholism and being shot in a hunting accident, and he is grateful. "When I was laid out shot, I should have died, but I stayed alive," Wise said. "When I was in booze alleys, I should have been dead, but I stayed alive." His life began like most country western ballads - in poverty. Wise grew up in Rushville, the adopted son of sharecroppers. He was interested in music but didn't have the money to rent an instrument. His fifth-grade teacher also told him he had no talent. And while that hurtful put-down stayed with him, so did the loving guidance of his grandparents. Wise's grandmother took him to Sunday school. His grandfather was a licensed farrier and Wise grew up around horses. Years later, when he had to rebuild his life, Wise drew from these influences. In between, there were some rough patches. Because of his shooting injury, Wise didn't go to Vietnam with best friend, Billy L. Cook. Instead, he stood on the side of the road, bottle in hand, as they brought back Cook's body in 1968. Wise has a tracing of Cook's name from the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., on his living room wall. The death of his friend is probably the hardest thing he has ever experienced, he says.

Wise's personal war with alcohol continued for many years. He says he started drinking heavily in his early 20s for a number of reasons. He was sad about the deaths of people he cared about, such as his grandfather and Cook. Drinking made him feel better, he says, smarter and handsomer than when he was sober.

But in 1983, delirium tremens (tremors and hallucinations caused by drinking) finally drove him to seek treatment.

After several months of sobriety, though, he didn't think he could continue. His moment of truth came in a Las Vegas hotel parking lot during a long-haul truck run. Wise says he "surrendered" for the first time in his life and prayed: "God, I can't do this on my own. I need help." He decided if he didn't have peace of mind when he got back to his hotel room, he would shoot himself.

Once inside his room, he found the phone book open to Alcoholics Anonymous. Wise called the number, and three people came to pick him up and take him to an AA meeting.

"From that day on, I never had a problem," Wise says. "The day I quit drinking was the day I decided to help someone else - and my life got better."

Today, Wise and his wife, Carla, own Shiloh Mowing & Landscaping. He also is head of security for the Hanor Corp. hog farm; she is a manager at Casey's General Store. The couple lives near White Hall.

Wise helped himself, and others, by looking to his past. It was caring for horses that rebuilt his self-esteem and gave him the motivation to walk again after the hunting accident left him with constant pain and traumatic arthritis. Wise has nine draft horses, and in addition to hosting field trips for developmentally disabled children to visit the horses three times a year, he gives carriage rides at charity fund-raisers. Although a religious experience pulled him out of drinking, Wise didn't immediately embrace his faith.

"I didn't get in with church," he says.

One Sunday morning three years ago, Wise was in the barn with his horses when he heard a voice behind him say, "Go to church." He ignored it. The voice shouted, and Wise took notice. He went inside the house and his wife asked him what was wrong. He told her he was going to church. She was surprised, but said if he would wait for her to take a shower, she would go, too.

"Woman, I don't have time for you to wash your body," Wise replied.

The Wises went to Pleasant Hill Baptist Church south of Alsey and have been members ever since.

Music was Wise's next calling. Although he had never before sung, he suddenly felt he had to obey the 100th Psalm and "make a joyful noise unto the Lord."

Ralph Vincent of White Hall had encouraged Wise to sing for years, and Vincent remembers Wise's first hesitant performance. "If it hadn't been for the pulpit, he would have fallen over. I don't believe I've ever seen anyone have as hard a time."

Wise finally agreed to sing if Vincent came up front with him. He got a standing ovation when he finished. "It was hard to get him started, and now I can't get him to shut up," Vincent jokes.

That first performance at Wise's home church has evolved into the Pleasant Hill Gospel Songfest, a gathering of volunteer musicians held at different churches every Saturday. Wise is fond of saying he isn't going to the Grand Ole Opry unless he has a ticket; nevertheless, he has taken up the resonator guitar and he and Carla perform as Saved by Grace. He only plays Southern gospel, he says, because the music is slow enough that people have to learn the words. He hopes audiences will be receptive to the music even if they aren't ready for the larger message of religion.

Another songfest theme is struggling with alcoholism, which Wise says is applicable to people confronting sin of any kind. After attending a recent performance, a woman called him to find out where her husband could be treated for alcoholism.

Wise leads the songfests with a mix of humor, faith and down-home charm. When Jim Peek of Springfield came to White Hall to sing as part of the Southern gospel duo The Messengers, he was surprised by Wise's long beard and overalls. "Man, who is this guy?" Peek says he thought. But Wise's skill as an emcee, the way he spoke with sincerity and made everyone laugh, quickly won Peek over.

Wise finds that poking fun at himself is a crowd-pleaser. Between sets, he tells of a recent visit to the doctor, where he was ordered to lose 120 pounds. "It is going to take something from the good Lord to get 120 pounds off of me," he jokes.

As she waits for a songfest to begin, Ruth Byrn of Springfield promises other audience members that Wise will have them laughing and that he has a great testimony. Byrn started coming to the songfests at the suggestion of some friends after her husband died. "It has just filled my life so much," she says.

Wise addresses the songfest audiences as if they were his relatives - and in his eyes, they are. "You're my family," he announces to an intimate crowd at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. "I just want you all to know how much I love you."

One of the songfest regulars, Betty Newman of White Hall, is his adopted mother. Shortly after Wise's mother died, and Newman lost two sons, Wise approached her in a coffee shop and asked, "Do you care if I call you Mom?" She took to the idea immediately. "It just blessed me," Newman says.

Wise is an unofficial parent in his own right. On the seat of his big white truck is a photo of him in a tuxedo with a young woman in a wedding dress, one of several people he mentors through a 12-step program. Although he says that "me in a tuxedo is like washing a hog," Wise walked Michelle Morris down the aisle at her September wedding.

"Ken's my dad," says Morris, whose natural father is deceased. She has even started wearing bib overalls like Wise. "When I couldn't love myself, he loved me."

Michelle and her husband, Tim, met Wise through a recovery program and have sung with him at songfests. Tim Morris recalls seeing Wise at meetings and thinking he wanted to be like him. "He was peaceful with himself and with life. It came from the help of God," Morris says.

Wise sponsors several recovering addicts, making sure they attend meetings and listening to their late-night crises. He holds an annual retreat, too.

Wise says he likes to be around people in recovery because it reminds him of where he was as an alcoholic - and keeps him from going back. He feels the liability of his past drinking is now an asset, because he understands what addicts are going through.

In one of his frequent horse analogies, Wise says you should yoke a young horse to an old horse, because together they have energy and experience.

Last November, Wise was yoked to a very young horse. He and Carla, who have four grown children between them, became permanent guardians of one of their grandchildren. Wise jokes that God has a sense of humor pairing a nearly 60-year-old man with a 14-year-old, but he also calls Matthew a blessing.

"I thank the Lord for this boy here," he says. Wise felt betrayed when he found out at age 12 that he was adopted, and says he can relate to Matthew's situation of not being raised by his natural father.

When Matthew came to the Wises, he was flunking all his classes. Now he's on the honor roll. Wise is proud of his grandson's accomplishments: "He got an A on his Constitution paper, and I can't even spell it," Wise says.

It's hard to see the troublemaker in the grinning boy proudly showing off his mud-stained jeans. "We've been working all day," he says after a Saturday of taking care of horses with his grandfather. Matthew made his singing debut with Wise last month. Carla Wise says her husband of 15 years is totally different since his spiritual awakening. He has a new sense of commitment and direction. "I believe Ken is being called," she says.

Although his volunteer activities have made him a visible figure, Wise's goal is to help people who are less fortunate while remaining in the background. Construction is almost finished on his new barn, which will have a special chute to hold horses so that handicapped children can pet them safely.

Wise looks forward to seeing their expressions of enjoyment, but wants to watch from the sidelines, anonymously.

1. Wise emcees a recent gospel songfest at the Pleasant Hill Baptist Church south of Alsey, where the event originated two years ago. Wise says his dream is for the songfest to be a "light of hope to lift spirits."

2. "Might as well teach you to drive," says Ken Wise to Matthew, handing the reins to his grandson for the first time. The Wises were at Gregory Farm outside White Hall, giving wagonette rides to people attending a Percheron horse conference in Springfield.

3. Wise divides his life into good choices and bad choices. He says his good decision to stop drinking led to "a 14-year-old grandson in my home that loves me to death." Wise and his wife Carla, center, are now Matthew's permanent guardians.

Update as of January 10, 2008

Matthew is no longer living with us. He turned back to what he probably considered the "easy way" and began living like he wanted and not have anyone telling him what to do. We still love him dearly and pray that God will take care of him until he comes out of his determination to do things his way.

We are no longer attending Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. The Pastor that was with us from the first day that Ken stepped into the Church has since passed away and an erosion occurred from within and we felt led to leave and find a different Church to worship in. We are still looking but, feel that we are very close to making a decision as to where we will be going.

The Saved By Grace group has gone beyond our dreams and hopes. We are now traveling and giving Praise and Honor to our God in many states and area Churches. Through Testimony and Song we traveled a little over 12,000 miles in 2007. We can only hang on and see what God has in store for us this year.