A student summed up the experience as well as anyone:
When we walk into the divinity school halls for the first day of classes, we are in Eden: everyone loves us, the prayers of the saints are palpable in the air. Then comes Efird’s midterm, and we are lovingly expelled from the Garden.
He’s been called the smiling assassin, the Andy Griffith of the chalkboard. He is a man whose passion for the Bible is rivaled only by his love of the classroom. James Michael “Mickey” Efird has taught biblical interpretation to students at Duke Divinity School since 1962. Thanks to gifts from loyal students and friends in recognition of Efird’s many years of service, his name will grace a classroom in Duke Divinity School’s new building addition.
The honor affects Efird, whose voice tightens as he says he wishes his parents could be alive to share it. Neither of them had an advanced education, but they were determined their only child would. During Efird’s youth in Kannapolis, N.C., the local mill provided the best job in town. Both his parents spent years in the textile industry and were able to help Efird get his undergraduate degree at Davidson College and his seminary degree at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
Entering the ministry did not occur to Efird until his senior year of high school. For as long as he could remember, he had wanted to be a teacher. Then, sitting in the pew of his Presbyterian church during a Sunday morning service, he felt God’s call to commit to Christian ministry. “I couldn’t very well tell God ‘No,’ ” he says. So he made his commitment and began college pursuing that calling.
Throughout college and seminary, Efird worked—J.C. Penney, Montgomery Ward, Woolworth; even a stint in Davidson, N.C., as a landlord, when he leased a house, lived in one room himself and took on four renters. As he was completing coursework at Louisville, Efird’s dean encouraged him to consider further study at Duke.
That advice set Efird on a path linking teaching and ministry in ways the young seminary student had never considered. Shelton Smith, the director of graduate students at Duke University, was looking for students interested in advanced graduate degrees in Bible and hoped to expand Duke’s own Bible department. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, there was a shortage of faculty for upper level classes in Old and New Testament. Duke was offering financial aid to promising seminary students with an interest in doctoral studies.
Presbyterian students were particularly attractive because, unlike Methodist students, they had to pass Greek and Hebrew courses to be ordained. The Ph.D. program would not have to provide remedial language training for a Presbyterian.
Efird’s first visit to Duke yielded a lasting friendship. As he walked to his interview, William Stinespring, chair of the biblical studies division, stepped out of an office and said, “I know who you are; you look just like your picture.”
The interview took place in the hall while a student in Stinespring’s office completed a make-up exam. Sitting on a bench in the hallway with Stinespring, Efird began his long association with Duke Divinity School.
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