Monday, November 16, 2015

The Rest of Tom Osborne's "Currens Story"

Legendary former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne has long promoted the importance of mentoring. In 1991 he and his wife Nancy launched the TeamMates Mentoring Program, aiming to inspire youth to reach their potential by matching them up with an adult mentor.

Part of Osborne's motivation is personal. As he has often explained, his grandfather, Thomas C. Osborne, grew up on a farm in western Nebraska in the late 1880s/1890s. Thomas's home life was somewhat dysfunctional because his father was an alcoholic. But a traveling preacher named Currens took an interest in Thomas. Currens encouraged him to go to college -- something that was exceedingly rare in the nineteenth century -- and to become a preacher. Thomas did just that, enrolling at Hastings College, captaining the football team, and eventually earning his Presbyterian ordination. "I'm quite certain that if it wasn't for this guy named Currens who was a mentor to my grandfather," Tom Osborne explains, "that my father wouldn't have had the life he had, [and] I would not have had the life I've had."

But who was this "Currens" character in the first place? I have not seen Osborne or anyone else provide many details beyond his last name and occupation. So I decided to see if I could piece together some details about the man who, by Osborne's account at least, unknowingly altered the history of Nebraska football more than a century ago.

From History of Western Nebraska
and its People
I suppose we can start with his name: James B. Currens. Currens was born in Kentucky around 1842. A nineteen-year-old living in a border state when the Civil War broke out, it is unclear if Currens fought for the North or South (or at all) during that conflict. But we do know that he married a woman from Kentucky named Susan, and that he settled in Mattoon, Illinois, sometime after the war. We also know that in 1877 he moved to Chicago to enroll in the Presbyterian Theological Seminary of the Northwest (renamed McCormick Theological Seminary in the 1880s). After receiving his D.D. from the school in 1879, Currens headed west for the plains, leaving Susan behind with friends in Illinois while he tried to establish himself in the new town of Parker (population: 113), in southeast Dakota Territory.

Currens spent his first summer in Parker building an eighteen-by-twenty-foot house, made of boards and paper. He also tried to establish connections with "widely-scattered Christians" in the area, but the work was hard and discouraging. "Covetousness, Sabbath-breaking, and intemperance are here before us, and meet us on every hand, undisguised, bold, and defiant," he wrote. The settlers were so busy building their homes and tending to their farms that Currens found it nearly impossible to "induce them to stop and think of religion." But Currens soldiered on, laboring in sparsely populated McCook and Turner counties for the next six years. One settler from the time recalled that Currens pastored seven churches and routinely preached in three different towns every Sunday. By 1883 Currens was reuinited with Susan, and the two earned reputations as local champions of the temperance cause.

In 1886 the Currens moved backed east to Illinois. But after Susan died in 1888, James headed west again, this time taking up work as a Sunday school missionary in western Nebraska. Incidentally, in 1887 Samuel and Emily Osborne also moved to western Nebraska from Illinois, bringing along four children, including an eleven-year-old named Thomas.

While the Osbornes settled on a homestead near Bayard, Nebraska, Currens worked a circuit that covered western Dakota Territory (it would become South Dakota in 1889), eastern Wyoming, and the Nebraska panhandle. As he had done in eastern Dakota, Currens served a widely-scattered constituency. He established headquarters in Crawford, Nebraska (pop: 570), but lived most of his life on the road. With the combination of railroad and cart and pony, he visited countless farm homes and small towns. If there were enough Presbyterians in an area, he would organize a new church. If not, he targeted the public school house, inviting farmers and their families to meet there on Sundays for basic Presbyterian-derived Bible lessons. And if that was not an option, he visited homes, where he distributed educational religious literature for youth.

Currens quickly became a beloved figure in western Nebraska, helping to establish thirty-four churches in the area by the time he retired. Settlers told stories of his exploits, recalling how he waded rivers full of ice rather than miss a chance to preach at a school house on Sunday. Nearly every town seemed to have some story about Currens. In Alliance, he was credited with preaching one of the first sermons in town history.  "How well we remember the text: 'For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son' &c.," the editor of the Alliance Herald recalled.

From History of Western Nebraska
and its People 
In Scottsbluff, the details were a bit more dramatic. Currens had decided in 1899 that Scottsbluff needed an organized Presbyterian church. In order to make this happen, Currens pitched a tent on a corn field owned by an area farmer. He planned to preach a series of sermons from that tent, stirring up interest. But the night before he was to begin the sermon series, a winter storm came through and destroyed the tent. Undaunted, the next morning Currens crossed the Platte River to Gering, where he purchased lumber for a small church building. With help from a few local farmers, he managed to build the church and bring together a congregation of eight charter members. The congregants added a few items to spruce up their simple building: instead of the original pine boards, women in the church procured chairs and an organ. Another charter member provided a stove. Currens gave the church his lamp. And two months after the building was completed, Scottsbluff had an official Presbyterian church.

Along with providing for the spiritual needs of western Nebraskans, Currens sought to provide temporal relief in the form of food and clothes. In the 1890s this was particularly important, for in the early part of the decade the Great Plains region was in the midst of drought and agricultural distress. In 1895 Currens tried to explain the dire situation to contacts back East. At the time, many middle- and upper-class Americans believed that poverty was an indication of moral failures or poor decisions (a view that has certainly not disappeared), so Currens took pains to assure potential benefactors of the uprightness of his constituents. "These are not tramps, unworthy of our help, but honest, hardworking farmers, struggling to make homes for their families," he explained. "They have not come to want by extravagance or dissipation, but by the Providence of God -- the frequent loss of crops by repeated droughts."

Samuel Osborne was one of those "hardworking farmers" who felt the heavy weight of the hand of providence. It is unclear if Currens provided material goods to help Osborne out. Even if he did, Osborne had his eyes on more than temporary relief. He aimed for structural reform, channeling his frustrations into politics by joining the Populist insurgency that gained steam in the 1890s. Samuel's son, Thomas, also felt the burden of hard times. In the early 1890s he went to work tending cattle in the area near present-day Bridgeport, Nebraska. It was there that Currens first came into contact with Thomas. As Currens later recalled, "I found him when he was a mere boy, a young 'cow-puncher' down at old Camp Clark."

The story from here is familiar to anyone who has heard Tom Osborne's "Currens Story." The old pastor saw something special in Thomas, urging him to further his education. Thomas took it to heart, eventually making his way to Hastings College where, Currens recalled, "he was converted and consecrated his life to the gospel ministry." Thomas Osborne was not the only farmboy who went to college at the urging of Currens. In fact, the old preacher viewed helping bright, motivated boys escape the farm as part of his ministry. But Thomas did turn out to be the most successful of Currens's mentees.

Reminiscing on Thomas's life in 1914, Currens could hardly contain his pride, calling Thomas "my son in the gospel." Currens could be doubly proud, for by 1914 Thomas had taken on the ministerial charge of the Scottsbluff congregation that Currens had formed fifteen years before. Even though Currens was clueless about the details of the ultimate impact that Thomas Osborne would have on Nebraska, he seemed to have some inkling of the generalities. Those who thought about the years Currens spent laboring on the wind-swept prairie had a vague idea, too. After talking with Currens about his work in western Nebraska and his impact on Thomas Osborne, an interviewer in 1914 could only ponder the possibilities: "Who can measure the influences going out from this place, which but a few years ago had its beginning in a day of small things?"

[Interested in the sources I used for this piece? Shoot me an email: paul dot putz at gmail]

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