Life Stories

Life Stories: A faithful friend of Jews

In culture, scholar found love, work, community

CORRESPONDENTOctober 17, 2011 

Dr. B. Elmo Scoggin did not want an obituary.

There was little notice of his death. There wasn't a funeral. And his wife of 70 years, Hannah Scoggin, has had to put a stop to a number of tribute efforts since he passed away this month, a few weeks short of 96.

He donated his body to the medical school at UNC-Chapel Hill and wanted his remains to eventually be scattered in nature, which makes sense to those who knew him well.

Scoggin, a retired professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, spent his entire adult life as an ambassador of sorts towards Jewish people. Born Christian and ever devout in his faith, he immersed himself in Jewish history and culture, never once proselytizing, always open to learning about and appreciating Judaism without judgment.

Although some might only have known him as the voice on WCPE's "Music in the Night" program - something he volunteered for in retirement for some 25 years - many consider him one of the most significant friends of the local Jewish community, and even the Jewish community at large.

Elmo Scoggin met his wife, Hannah, 92, through mutual friends at Folly Beach, just outside Hannah's hometown of Charleston, S.C. He showed an immediate interest in courtship, she said, but her mother had just died, and as Jewish custom dictates, she was to mourn for one year.

He was patient.

"He said, 'Well, we could walk, and we could talk,' " she recalled with a smile.

They strolled around a lake and sat on park benches getting to know one another.

Scoggin was slowly making his way through his undergraduate degree from Furman University in Greenville, S.C., alternating semesters working and learning.

'So, so wonderful'

He had grown up on a farm in rural Polk County, the eldest of 10 children. They were without electricity but had a battery-powered radio, and his father would play a broadcast from the Eastman Symphony at night, making Elmo a classical music fan from the start.

"They didn't have many books, but they had a Bible, and he just loved the Old Testament," his wife said.

Scoggin would see that passion through toward additional degrees from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and it would bring the Scoggins to the ancient cities of Jerusalem, Nazareth and other historic sites during the 30 trips he made to Israel during the next 50 years.

Their first trip to Israel came in 1949 when the couple was sent by the Baptist Church as a liaison to the Jewish community. By that point, Hannah had converted from Judaism to being a Baptist- but not because he at all pushed her to do so.

They lived in Israel for five years, and they both studied languages and developed an interest in archeology. They also adopted their only child, Scarlett, from a Baptist orphanage they ran for a period of their stay.

"They made my life so, so wonderful," Scarlett Scoggin Kamar said of her parents.

This initial trip to Israel would prove life-changing - Scoggin would return dozens of times as a visiting scholar and archeologist and to visit old friends. He returned from one of these trips with a piece of the Western Wall from an archeological site - the architect who was constructing the Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh asked if he might come back from Israel with a token, but this was more than anyone could have imagined.

The rock now sits in the synagogue's Eastern Wall, facing Jerusalem, said Rabbi Eric Solomon.

"I essentially considered him a part of our congregation," Solomon said. "He was the perfect example of the righteous Gentile," he continued. "It was a beautiful interfaith relationship."

Scoggin strongly supported the Judaic Art Gallery at the N.C. Museum of Art and was also asked by Gov. Jim Hunt to establish the N.C. Council on the Holocaust, for which he would wear a yellow armband in remembrance of the Jews who were forced to do so in Nazi Europe.

Not long after he retired from teaching in 1984, he was asked to sign a petition by the seminary saying he believed in ideas that were too patriarchal and fundamental for his liking. He would not sign.

A quiet end

The last few years of his life were quiet. He and Hannah exercised regularly. (He would sign in at the YMCA in Hebrew.)

They read together in the evenings, and enjoyed seeing their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, whenever possible.

Scoggin, who had long battled congenital heart failure, died in his sleep. His wife said a friend told her it was a gift from God, and that has given her much peace.

"He lived a good life, did the things he wanted to do, contributed where he could, and that was it," Hannah said.

Shestak: eshestak@mac.com

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