Roger Oldham was an inquisitive, creative, winsome and musical youngster, seeking adventure where he could find it, and feeling deeply about whatever captured his full attention. On the evening of December 7, 1941, as President Roosevelt announced on the radio the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Roger’s attention was captured. His mind was focused. His purpose was determined. He wanted to join the military and he pleaded with his dad to sign him up. On January 31, 1942, twenty-one days before his 16th birthday, Roger was sworn in to the United States Coast Guard.
Just An Ordinary Person
Though Roger was certain he would be killed in the war, he knew this was the place he was to be at this time in his life. His father took him to the Greyhound bus station, and as they said their goodbyes, they both cried.
Upon completion of Boot Camp in St Augustine, Florida, Roger was assigned to the newly commissioned ship out of San Francisco, The USS San Pedro. His first destination was Cairns, Australia where he met two sailors; Elmer Dymmel, and James Seastead. These two men, part of a group known as Navigators, invited Roger to a prayer meeting aboard a sister ship. Roger was intrigued by the manner in which these men conducted themselves. Though physically strong from working out with heavy weights, they had a deeply spiritual nature.
By the time Roger turned 17 he had embarked upon two life-transforming journeys. The first journey took him aboard the USS San Pedro into the waters of the South Pacific entitling him to wear the American Theater Ribbon, the Asiatic-Pacific Ribbon with 1 silver star for the Admiralties, British New Guinea, Dutch New Guinea, Morotai, and Philippines Campaigns, and the Philippine Liberation Ribbon with 1 Bronze Star for the numerous engagements in combat with the enemy. When the USS San Pedro received orders to go to the Halmahera Islands, the sight of The Bloody Buna Invasion, Roger wept often. He felt terror like never before. In a letter home, he wrote that sailor’s much older than he, feared for their lives. Suicide bomber planes dived at his ship with regularity, and then there was the typhoon which threatened to suck their ship to the bottom of the ocean.
Second Life-Transforming Journey
The second transforming journey was the one that most profusely altered the course of his young life. He writes about that journey in his letters home to his mother.
Wednesday, January 16, 1946 San Bruno, CA
Mother, since I last saw you I have really become a different man. ‘Old things are passed away, behold all things are new.’ I’ve joined the Navigators. It’s a Bible study and memorization group using the Navigator Wheel. I’m much happier and can daily feel the closeness of Almighty God.”
Monday, March 4, 1946 – at sea
Mother, I sit here on this “dirty ol’ tug.” I bought a Bible and it is being mailed here. “I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved” (Psalm 16:8).
Saturday, April 6, 1946 – Oakland, CA
I went to a Bible Conference for 3 days and really received some wonderful blessings. I’ve been really digging into the Word of God. Several Bible verses that mean a lot to me are these. “Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass” and “Cease from anger; and forsake wrath; fret not thyself in any wise to do evil” (Psalm 37:5,8). Also I’ve been challenged by these verses. “Only let your conversation be as it becomes the gospel of Christ; that whether I come and see you, or else be absent. I may hear of your affairs that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” and “That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death” (Philippians 1:27, and 3:10).
This second transforming journey became the anchor Roger sought and needed, to hold him steady amidst the storms of life. He was just an ordinary person seeking to serve an extraordinary God.
When in 2001 Roger had a heart attack which compounded many of his physical infirmities from previous strokes, he shared with family many significant experiences that he considered life-changing events.
Meeting Dawson Trotman for the First Time
“One day when we were in Oakland, CA, we had shore liberty. Me and some buddies were invited to the home of Dawson Trotman, Founder of Navigators. Mrs. Trotman served a large group of us sailors tall glasses of iced tea. Dawson Trotman had such a strong influence on my life….probably one that changed the course of my life forever.”
On the Navigator website Dawson Trotman is mentioned as being just a regular guy. He was an ordinary California lumberyard worker who had a vision in 1930 of what it would be like if Christians would study the Word of God, and then teach others to do the same. He had a vision for the mandate of II Timothy 2:2, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.”
By 1933 Dawson had extended his ministry to a young sailor named Les Spencer. Les wanted Dawson to teach his friends, but was instructed, “You teach them.” And so, he did, and they did, and eventually two sailors named Elmer Dymmel, and James Seastead, aboard a ship in Australia in 1942, began to teach Roger Oldham.
A Regular Guy
As one by one the four Oldham children made their presence known in the Roger Oldham family, the Navigator Wheel steered not only his life, but helped to guide each of their paths. He taught them to memorize scriptures. “Fore and aft,” he would say. “Always state the reference first, then the verse, then the reference last. This way, you’ll always know where it is located in the Word of God.”
The Influence Spreads
As Roger worked with thousands of young people in church music and youth ministries, his emphasis was always on Bible memorization. One man who recently lost a lengthy, painful battle with cancer, spoke of a youth minister who had taught him to memorize scriptures nearly 50 years earlier. He said that as he walked through those dark, tall weeds of his life, it was the scriptures of his heart that sustained him.
A Mother’s Confidence
In February, 1965, Roger’s mother wrote concerning her son: “The Lord was merciful and delivered him home [from the war] with increased faith, increased purpose and an unbelievable knowledge of the Word of God. His capacity to quote from memory, passage after passage of scriptures was like a miracle. …” With the publication of hundreds of songs and melodies, many will go unheralded, even unsung, until some sudden day their words of worth and faith and inspiration will spring into the hearts of the hearer and become a blessing indeed to the soul in need. Roger, through his testimony in song has become a fearless witness, making known the love of the Savior.”
Dawson Trotman, founder of Navigator’s, was a regular guy – an ordinary person serving an extraordinary God. His vision was “to know Christ and to make Him known.” Roger Oldham was another ordinary person. As a Christian composer, he too lived to “Make Jesus known by full surrender.”
Think about it. In the 1930’s a man began Navigators and taught young men to memorize the Word of God. By the 1940’s a 17 year old on a war ship bound for battle, made Christ the Lord of his heart, and began memorizing scriptures. In the 1950’s that same young man began teaching his four children to memorize Bible verses. And now in 2018, his children continue teaching their children to memorize the Word of God.
Today, February 21, 2018, would have been Roger’s 92nd birthday. I pause to give thanks for the life of Dawson Trotman who taught Les who in turn taught scripture to Elmer and James. Because each of these men chose to anchor their lives in God and follow His teachings, the very course of my life was set.
I pay tribute to this one ordinary person, my dad. I remember with thanksgiving his sole purpose in life, to Make Jesus Known. Do you know “ordinary people” who have been instrumental in your spiritual journey? Drop me a line – I’d love for you to share their stories.