The first happiest day of my life was September 1, 1947. That was the day I left five acres of unpicked cotton in the field and was driven to Collegedale, Tennessee, to attend Southern Missionary College (now Southern Adventist University).
At the time, many freshmen, especially women, became homesick and went home after just a few weeks; some never returned from Christmas vacation. But not this Georgia boy: the happiest day of my life stretched into weeks and months.
Unlike some people who loved farm work, I couldn’t get away fast enough. I was born in 1931 and grew up during the Great Depression. Times were tough. My father had been a successful merchant who had to close his business in l929. He paid off all his debts, but he had to move back to Georgia.
Making a living in the red clay following a plow pulled by two mules was difficult. Fortunately, we were able to eat the vegetables and fruit we raised.
In 1940 my sister, Ethel, left home to attend Southern Junior College. Now the only child at home, I had no one with whom I could communicate or lean on. I was isolated from other boys my age. My “friends” were my two dogs.
Mother became a Seventh-day Adventist as a teenager, and had attended Winyah Lake Academy (now Forest Lake Academy) in Orlando as a senior. Her mother had died when she was 5 years old, and she had been raised by an older sister and her husband.
Mother worked odd jobs. At the age of 19 she met my daddy, and two months later they were married. He promised Mother he would quit smoking, but it took him 45 years to fulfill his promise. He did keep another promise, however. That was never to interfere with her religion, or with raising her children as Adventists.
We lived 70 miles from the nearest Adventist church in Atlanta, so church attendance was out of the question. But as far back as I can remember, we studied our Sabbath School lesson daily. Every Friday sundown we sang at least five songs to welcome the Sabbath, and again on Sabbath afternoon to close the Sabbath.
Along with singing, we had Sabbath School right in our home. We sang, prayed, read the mission story, collected our pennies for mission offering, then studied the Sabbath School lesson all the way through.
We went years without seeing another Seventh-day Adventist, but we remained faithful. When Daddy asked Mother what she wanted for Christmas, she always said, “Just my church papers.” Review and Herald, Youth’s Instructor, and Our Little Friend continued to arrive by mail every year.
The Methodist minister went to Atlanta from time to time, always on Saturday. We had a good relationship with this wonderful man, so Mother asked if he would take us to church when he was going to Atlanta. I saw my first streetcar and said, “Look, Mama, that car is tied to that wire.” I still remember how I was dressed (I think I was 6 or 7): short white pants, white dress shirt with sleeves rolled up, a necktie, and no shoes (it was summer).
In 1946 W. J. Keith and an intern visited us. Pastor Keith presented a Bible study. He was aware that I knew my Bible quite well, and he invited me to go to Atlanta and be baptized. That was the fifth time I had stepped into an Adventist church.
In 1947 I left for Southern Missionary College.
Not everything was rosy at Southern. At the time the school I went to in Georgia had only 11 grades. Most of my fellow college freshmen had attended school for 12 years. This put me at a disadvantage academically, as well as being younger than most of the other freshmen.
I was also one of the most poorly dressed students. My clothes were no big deal in high school; all the students came from farm families. But at Southern I was ashamed and embarrassed by my clothes. My secondhand, l00 percent wool, double-breasted suit was too short in the arms and legs and definitely out of style.
I was introverted, bashful, and backward. I tried to make friends. But most students didn’t want this “hayseed” following them around. They told me so!
But the Lord has a way of looking out for His children. All freshmen were required to take a one-hour, one-semester course called “college problems,” taught by Kenneth A. Wright, the college’s president. Students were required to stand, say their names, where they were from, where they had attended high school or academy, and what they were taking as their major in college.
When it was my turn, my knees were knocking as I stood. I had never spoken to that many people in my life. I told the class in my Southern drawl, “My name is Arnold Cochran; I’m from Apalachee, Georgia.” The other students never let me finish. They laughed, whooped, hollered, and slapped their legs. I just stood there with a grin on my face (I still grin a lot) and finally sat down, my face red with embarrassment.
After that class everything changed. My nickname became Apalachee, which many shortened to Appie. While 50 people might have remembered the name Arnold Cochran, 500 people knew Apalachee. To this day my college friends call me one or the other.
Since I had no money coming from home, and since every college student needs a little cash, I started a shoeshine business, making $5 to $10 every Friday afternoon, in addition to working three or four jobs for the college. Eventually I was accepted by most of the students.
The last thing my mother said to me before she died was “I’m so glad you left this hick town and made something of yourself.”
I’m thankful for my mother, who taught me the Bible and the love of God. I’m thankful for my father, who was 100 percent honest. As a merchant and a farmer, he wouldn’t cheat anyone, not one iota. Three months before his sixty-fifth birthday he quit smoking and was baptized.
I’m fortunate to have two happiest days of my life. The second one took place on June 14, 1951, the day Mary Chesney, with black hair and twinkling brown eyes, became my bride.
My mother taught me the Bible, my father taught me honesty, Mary helped build my self-esteem and put up with me. My heavenly Father gave me life and made it possible for me to enjoy eternal life.
I hope that soon we will all be in our heavenly home, where every day throughout eternity we can say, “This is the happiest day of my life!”
After he graduated from Southern Missionary College, Arnold Cochran lived near Chattanooga, Tennessee, and spent his career in sales and sales management.