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A tribute to Herschel and Mardell McClurkin's long and happy marriage

A tribute to Herschel and Mardell McClurkin's long and happy marriage

Their long marriage (almost) started with a shotgun wedding:
Herchel and Mardell McClurkin

This article from the July 2015 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith is made available again as a tribute to the late Herschel H. McClurkin Jr., who died March 20, 2017. His full obituary is available here.

Little did the attractive young couple suspect as they were being driven to a small supper with friends that they would be greeted at the top of the front steps by a tall, stern man with a shotgun.

“You’ve heard of shotgun weddings,” he told them. “Well, this thing has been going on long enough, and it’s time you two young people did something about it.”

At his side stood their host for the evening, a Methodist preacher in clerical gown, prepared for any contingency. The preacher’s wife was playing the Wedding March. The shotgun was in the hands of Jim Cheyne, a Fort Smith architect. The preacher was his brother, Bill Cheyne, at the front door of his parsonage in Booneville.

The astonished guests were Herschel McClurkin and his girlfriend Mardell Christello of Fort Smith, who for years to come would be an example of how a couple can share a ministry.

The wedding didn’t take place that night, but it did take place. At their 45th wedding anniversary, Mardell would say, “If he had asked me sooner, this could have been our 50th.”

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Their ministry knows no bounds. In his first pastoral appointment, to the Gentry-Springtown-Highfill circuit, Herschel frequently visited the Gentry café, where a friend introduced him around. These visits led to more than casual friendships. From time to time, one of the men would appear at his front door. “Herschel, my grandmomma died. She ain’t got no preacher.” Herschel preached 57 funerals in his two years in Gentry.

The McClurkins estimate they attend, or Herschel participates in, two to three funerals a week. Deaths are not scheduled on a regular basis, as every undertaker knows. On a recent Saturday, they attended a funeral in Alma, a funeral in Fort Smith and a wedding. “Why do you have to go to so many funerals, Momma?” their children asked.

“Because they’re our friends.”

On the previous weekend, Mardell accompanied Herschel to the 125th anniversary celebration of his University of Arkansas fraternity, Kappa Sigma. They had to miss the opening night because of a colleague’s funeral in Little Rock.

Not many Kappa Sigs are preachers; Herschel grew up in Mulberry, where his grandfather had a general store and a farm, and he was not planning to be a preacher when he was getting his degree in agriculture with a master’s in animal husbandry.

He spent two years in the Air Force. And, he then accepted the Rev. Fred Roebuck’s invitation to become the first youth director at First United Methodist Church in Fort Smith. The youth program flourished. Herschel began to consider going to seminary. And Mardell Christello moved to Fort Smith with her parents.

Her father, Tony, grew up playing hockey in Minnesota, and when the newly organized Tulsa Oilers began recruiting, he was the only American among a team of Canadians who moved to Tulsa. Tony Christello sold life insurance besides playing hockey. He also gave lessons at the ice skating rink, where he met and soon married a young woman named Margaret Adele. (One of the younger members of her family contracted “Margaret Adele” to “Mardell,” and it stuck.)

His employer gave the successful young salesman his choice of where to start a new company, and he chose Fort Smith, where he later formed a new insurance company with Vincent Narisi. Fort Smith would become home to their daughter, whom they had named Mardell.

Christello and Narisi bought the Goldman Hotel in 1959, in time for young Mardell to move into one of its mezzanine floor apartments when she graduated from the UofA in 1960. She rented space across Garrison for her car, walked to church, and took her meals in the Goldman dining room. She started work as registrar at Fort Smith Junior College and taught a few classes.

She had worked as a secretary at Wesley Foundation, the Methodist student group in Fayetteville, and its director, the Rev. A.W. Martin, called his friend Herschel and told him, “Herschel, I’m sending a very pretty young girl down to Fort Smith, and if you’re as smart as I think you are, you’ll know what to do.”

Thus the seed was planted, and it germinated, albeit slowly. Herschel served here as youth director for nine years, and he decided he had better get a seminary degree. After two years at seminary in Dallas, he and Mardell were married. She became one of the wives who scattered from the married students’ dormitory to their respective jobs (she was a teacher) each morning while their husbands left for class.

The itinerant Methodist ministry took the McClurkins from Gentry to Wesley Methodist Church in Russellville, to Walnut Ridge, Newport, Wynne, to Conway to serve as Superintendent of the Conway District, and finally to Greenwood, where he was obliged by church conference rules to retire at age 70.

Not yet ready to hang up his spikes, he then served 10 years as pastor at Kibler, Ark. until the church could afford to have a full-time minister.

Like all his churches, this one flourished on his watch. The church built a family life center in honor of the McClurkins, generously paid for by the Ted Skokos family, named the Skokos Family Life Center.

While preaching at Kibler, he also served as a senior visiting minister at First United Methodist Church in Fort Smith. Mardell was baptized and married there, and she says she expects to complete her trifecta by being “hatched, matched, and dispatched” in the same church.

The McClurkins lead a senior adults’ program known as the Pacesetters at First Methodist, and after 16 years it continues to meet two Fridays a month for fellowship, refreshments, a program and lunch.

Herschel comes from Irish stock, but Mardell’s father was Italian and her mother Scotch-Irish.

“What did I know about St. Patrick’s Day?” she laughed. Even so, the McClurkins are now associated with the holiday by long tradition.

Their annual March 17 celebration began during their pastorate in Russellville, where it took the place of the more onerous duty of hosting a Christmas reception at their parsonage. “And it just evolved from year to year,” Mardell says. Dressed in green for their ongoing observance, they serve bean soup and soda bread at the family life center of the Kibler church. Many friends, including some from their previous pastorates, drop in to see them and performances of traditional Irish country dances by costumed performers.

While serving in Kibler, the McClurkins began remodeling and adding on to her parents’ house on a hill east of Alma, which had stood vacant for a little over 10 years. Their home is a museum of souvenirs – a spool cabinet from his father’s store in Stephens, pictures of her family’s three-story house on North 14th Street in Fort Smith, a glass case of Goldman Hotel mementos – a room key, hotel stationery, a book of matches. Two of the doors in the house are from the Goldman.

Do the McClurkins ever spend a whole day at home? Both slowly shake their heads. It’s clear that they spend their lives on the go.

Fewer preachers join civic clubs nowadays, but Herschel is, by definition, old school; and at the most recent Rotary meeting, he accompanied his Rotary pen pal, a fifth-grader with whom he exchanges letters weekly.

Besides doing good, the McClurkins save time for just having fun. They have been attending Razorback games since their courtship days.

“Often it was just me and Herschel and Tom Gray and John Holland,” Mardell recalls. “I was the queen­ – but I didn’t get to see that much of Herschel.”

Several younger preachers have found success with some of the trade secrets that Herschel has shared: When you need to raise money for something in the church, invite everyone to come to a spaghetti supper, and then tell them why you need to raise the funds. Giving young mothers a chance to share their baby clothes is a good way to bring the women together. Invite young couples over and grill hamburgers in the back yard. And, of course, stop by the local café and just visit.

There’s one catch to most of these tricks, though, and it’s one that Herschel may not mention, even though it’s pretty obvious: Marry well – even if it takes a shotgun.

By Taylor Prewitt

This article appeared in the July 2015 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine. 

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