Retired Lake Houston-area priest earns master’s from Rice University at age 81

Amid a parade of youthful capped and gowned graduates was one 81-year-old face with a smile that outdid all others. On this crystalline May day, having waited more than...

Amid a parade of youthful capped and gowned graduates was one 81-year-old face with a smile that outdid all others.

On this crystalline May day, having waited more than 60 years to earn a degree from Rice University, Father James M. Abernathey, accepted his Master of Liberal Studies at Rice’s 104th commencement ceremony. Father Jim, known for his friendliness and hardy, contagious laughter, has had a lifelong love of learning.

 The only surprise is that he undertook this intensive, four-year program in his late 70s. His interest in academics is well known, having helped found Holy Trinity Episcopal School. What many may not know about him however is his love of sports. He played on a minor league baseball team, the Victoria Rose Buds, in 1949, as well as Rice’s freshman football and baseball teams.
 In high school, when a choir director promised any football player a guaranteed ‘A’ if they would join the school choir, he and most of his team signed up, helping his school win all state that year. His rich tenor voice elicited a scholarship offer from Juilliard.

He was also pleased to get a letter of admittance from Rice. At that time those accepted at Rice paid no tuition. The only expenses were meals, books and lab fees. Father Jim opted to attend Rice.

From 1953-1955, he enjoyed his Rice experience to the fullest. In fact, perhaps he enjoyed it a little too much as he ended up being booted out of Rice in 1955.

Before departing, however, he and his friends had time to kidnap Bevo, temporarily, after a Texas/Rice football game. They built remote controlled model airplanes filled with flammable fluids in a failed attempt to burn down the Aggie bonfire prematurely and, lastly, placed a cow on the third floor of Rice’s Lovett Hall.

 However, feeling a need to redeem himself, Father Jim gained admittance to the University of Texas at Austin and graduated in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. After six years with Brown & Root Inc., with a three-year break, working as an engineering consultant in Kansas City, he felt drawn to the priesthood.

In 1970, upon completing his Master of Divinity from the Seminary of the Southwest, Father Jim headed to his first assignment, St. John’s Episcopal Church in Palacios, Texas. Strangely, their church rectory on Tres Palacios Bay was to become his home a second time more than 30 years later, when he purchased it after deciding to retire in Palacios.

Father Jim has spent almost 50 years serving various churches as an Episcopal priest, building congregations and friendships along the way. During this period, he also managed to have six children. After his retirement from Christ the King in Atascocita, it didn’t take him long to join a group of Episcopal priests who, a bit like circuit riders of old, take turns sometimes driving almost 250 miles on a Sunday to serve six small parishes spread far and wide across the diocese of West Texas.

Continuing to enjoy his various interests, especially study and travel, he noted he had visited all seven continents, including Antarctica. He had taken an African safari, and toured the Taj Mahal.

As he comes full circle, accomplishing one of his mother’s greatest wishes for him, a degree from Rice, Father Jim has more reading with several trips planned, including one in 2018 to Cape Town, South Africa via Rio. After more than 47 years, he still loves being behind an altar every Sunday.

“Enjoy life – it’s not a dress rehearsal,” Father Jim said.

Sue Lane is a former director of the Humble Area Assistance Ministries.

Source: AP Associated Press

Photo Credit: Patch

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