FORT WORTH, Texas (SWBTS) – Eugene Florence may be 104 years old, but he is anything but set in his ways.  His recent visit to Indianapolis June 9-11 marked his first trip to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and his longest flight on an airplane. Florence continues to model hard work and endurance as he experiences new things. There has rarely been a time in his life when he did not hold two full-time jobs in addition to juggling family responsibilities, odd jobs when they became available, and ministering whenever God provided an opportunity.

The dark color of his skin hindered him from attending classes at Southwestern during the day, but he was faithful to attend the Negro Extension program, which consisted of night classes in the seminary’s basement. He completed the same courses as the daytime students, but after eight years of tirelessly studying God’s Word, he received a diploma in theology, while the white students received a Master of Divinity.

Despite these hardships, his 104-year-old smile demonstrates his Christ-like attitude. Instead of expressing anger, he devoted his life to preaching on the weekends and to his career as a loved janitor at Texas Christian University. He never questioned the degree he was awarded because he was confident in the education he received and the Lord’s calling on his life. Florence says, “As long as he keeps me living, I’m going to trust Him and preach the Gospel whenever I can.”

In 2004, Southwestern faculty and trustees determined from Florence’s records that his coursework qualified him for a master’s degree rather than a diploma.  Forty-three years after completing his coursework, seminary president Paige Patterson invited Florence back to campus to receive a Master of Divinity degree in the fall 2004 commencement ceremony. Though he has granted degrees to thousands of students at three different institutions, Patterson recalls this particular occasion as the most fun he has ever had giving a degree.

Patterson acknowledged that when the Southern Baptist Convention began in 1845, our Baptist fathers had many things right. “But they made one tragic mistake. With regard to race, our convention took a very sad position that was unbiblical, ungodly, and un-Christian in every way,” Patterson said during the ceremony. “It is one thing to make a bad mistake. It’s another thing to never come to the point where you say, ‘We were wrong.’”

Florence has returned to campus on several occasions, either to address a class or preach in the seminary’s chapel service. He has remained an active part of God’s continued work at Southwestern. Because of his dedication, Florence was honored at the SBC’s Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Alumni Luncheon by being named one of three 2008 Distinguished Alumni recipients.

Patterson expressed his gratitude for Florence during the award presentation. “I marvel at this wonderful man of God…To give you this distinguished alumni award is one of the greatest accomplishments of my life.”

Florence proved that he is a man without bitterness through his acceptance speech. “I don’t see color,” he acknowledged. “I just see God’s people… However many years I have left, I just want to be a blessing.”

Florence’s advice to current students and pastors is simple. “Be obedient and have determination. We are all God’s children, but we should seek to be obedient children above all.”