Because of his refusal to be anything less than a servant, Bill Stokes drew people to him, especially the college students he gave his heart to as director of Louisiana Tech’s Wesley Foundation from 1957 until his retirement in 1988.
When he passed away in the spring of 2020 at age 95, he left behind thousands of handshakes and smiles and friends forever loyal to his heart and memory.
Saturday at the corner of Railroad Avenue and College Street on Tech’s campus, in an unassuming brick building he turned into a second home for so many of us when we were struggling with acne and advanced math and advanced life, a couple hundred of us met, finally, to share memories and to dedicate the Bill Stokes Room at Wesley.
The delay was due to circumstances, but the feeling, being in that building with people who knew and loved Bill, was familiar.
This was a man who never met a stranger, but a lot of strangers met him, whether they wanted to or not. And then, forever in his world, they would never be strangers again. Not if Bill had anything to do with it.
And he made it his mission to have everything to do with it. You could not be on campus very long without meeting Bill. He made it his mission to be Jesus’ hands and feet, to reach out to kids trying to find their way and to give them a home in his heart.
“A Southern gentleman,” said Vicki McGuire, whose father Doug pioneered Wesley Foundation work in 1937 during his college years, became a minister, and was a best friend to Bill when the 32-year-old young preacher from Mississippi showed up in Ruston to follow his calling of working with students. Vicki can’t remember a time she didn’t know Bill.
A lot of us felt that way.
“His outgoing, friendly personality made him irresistible,” she said. “I think that he reached out to everyone describes him as much as anything. When someone reaches out to you, that intentionally, you have to respond. You like people who like you and care about you. That’s how he made you feel.
“I was amazed that he could come up with everyone’s name and hometown,” she said. “He was a master at that.”
He was. Because he cared.
His memory and genuine concern must have been something God gifted him with to increase Bill’s impact on so many of us. We weren’t just students. We were Bill’s students, Bill’s kids, each of us one of his projects. Because of him, lots of lives were changed in what is now the Bill Stokes Room. I witnessed it more than once.
What Bill did as much as anything was bring people together. Sometimes, that was romantically. (A couple dozen people at Wesley Saturday were introduced to each other by Bill, then married by him.) But mostly, he got students from all sorts of backgrounds together and, somehow, he got us to believe we needed each other, that we were better and fuller, more ourselves in the moment, together.
He was a friend and a friend maker, a deeply missed man of truth and goodness, a man who leaves behind not only a room but also a heart that always had room for us.
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