“Praise him with the blast of the horn” (Ps. 150:3).
Chaplain Bill Bryan retires in May 2015 after 30 years of faithful ministry to the DTS family. His decades of service have been marked by a joyful spirit, a compassionate heart, and an unquenchable love for the Lord. Share your Chaplain Bill stories on our tribute page.
Scars Turned into Ministry
Just before glass shattered and his mother screamed, four-year-old Gary “Bill” Bryan heard the words, “I love you, son.” His father had bolted through a plate glass window at the end of a hospital corridor and plunged to his death. That horrifying escape must have seemed better than confinement in a 1940s-era insane asylum for treatment of depression. Bryan would later remember that heart-shattering moment frozen in time whenever he walked the corridors of Baylor hospital, serving as Dallas Theological Seminary’s chaplain.
Bryan’s early loss made him sensitive to the tribulations of others. He has never minimized another person’s pain, but he also refuses to let folks wallow in hopeless grief. The reality of Jesus Christ and the promise of eternal life are too real to allow cancer, injury, or death to conquer his heavenly perspective.
During Bryan's three decades of service as Seminary chaplain, hundreds of members of the DTS family have experienced Bryan’s winsome bedside manner. He made it a point to visit each person in the hospital as soon as possible. But his visits were more than an official duty to execute, a box to check, or a ministry of presence. They were mini church services with a one-man preacher, counselor, and choir. In a world of sterile surfaces and neutral colors, Chaplain Bill brought red gusts of life into every hospital room he entered. He prayed for each patient. More often than not he also led the sick person and his or her visitors in rousing hymns, his arms pumping to the beat, his cheeks red, and his white hair shining. It was that shock of platinum hair which caused his wife Shirley to affectionately nickname him “the Silver Fox.”
A Moving Barrel of Sermons
But the Silver Fox had no golden youth. As if the loss of his father weren’t difficult enough, for the next eight years, Bill’s mother struggled with her grief. So his preacher-grandfather and loving grandmother reared the boy and led him to love Jesus. They moved him to Kansas (where he would later meet his wife), influenced his path into vocational ministry, and bought him his first trumpet. To distinguish himself from a multitude of Gary Cooper namesakes, Bryan chose to use his middle name, Bill, from the time he was eight.
Bill lived with his maternal grandparents until he was twelve, even though his mother remarried. Bill’s grandfather “went through his barrel of sermons and then moved on,” Bryan remembered. So the family found new homes often, from Missouri to Oklahoma to Kansas.
The “barrel of sermons” was not without effect on little Bill. At six, after listening to one of his grandfather’s hellfire-and-brimstone talks, Bryan felt convicted. His teacher asked him, “Where would you go if you died tonight? Heaven or hell?” Bill didn’t know. He prayed to receive Christ that very moment. Bill’s grandfather also influenced him in other ways. He passed on a robust appetite for ministry and an easy style of relating to people that would later become Bill’s trademark.
A Stupid Little Church Party
When Bill turned twelve, his stepfather took him to live with him and his mother in Wichita, Kansas. There he started junior high and styled himself a “rebellious teenager.” Nevertheless, his parents attended Wichita Bible Church and took Bill with them. Bill felt nonplussed, until he saw the pastor’s daughter at the piano. He still remembers every detail: “I saw this chick sitting on the piano bench. She was cute, played piano well, and I thought to myself, ‘I’ve seen her at East High. Matter of fact, I’ve seen her in my home room.’”
The plot thickened. The church youth group was about to conduct a week of meetings. To kick it all off, they wanted to throw a party after the Friday night football game. Without Bill’s knowledge, his mother called the piano girl’s mother and said, “We’ve been coming to your church. We have a son we’re worried about. He’s not walking with the Lord. I wonder if your daughter could invite him to the party.’”
Young Shirley called Bill—reluctantly—because in those days girls did not call boys. “Bill,” she said, “this is Shirley Clinton. I’d like to invite you to our party tomorrow night.”
“I’ve got other plans after the game,” Bill said. But an hour later, he thought, “I lied to that girl.” So he called her back and said, “I don’t really have anything to do. I just don’t want to come to your stupid little church party.”
Shirley said later, “That attracted me. I thought, ‘There’s an honest man.’”
When Bill’s life turned around and he began pursuing God, he and Shirley fell in love, went to Wheaton College, and married one week after graduation. Then they moved to Dallas so Bill could attend seminary.
Fifty-five years later, Bill says that his sweetheart “lets me be me.” He describes her as an ideal mate, serving wherever needed. In the early years, she never taught anybody taller than her waist. When she turned forty, she began to teach the younger women. And after Bill became DTS chaplain, Shirley directed the women’s ministry at Grace Bible Church, a task she relished for thirteen years. Three sons and nine grandchildren later, people still catch sight of the Bryans at DTS events stealing a smooch.
The Golden Horn
Few people think of Chaplain Bill without conjuring at least one image of him standing at the podium in chapel, face full of fire, horn pressed to lips, cheeks puffed, eyes twinkling, his mouth cracking a smile despite holding the necessary pucker. Music fills his pedigree. His late father, Deveroux Bryan, was a guitarist and vocalist with the Singing Troubadours, playing gigs in the Ozarks and on a major radio station.
Bill started on violin and did well, but his true love is the trumpet. His grandfather said, “If I buy you a trumpet and get you lessons, will you practice?” Bill agreed. He still plays trumpet every day, missing only for health or travel restrictions. His longtime friend and colleague, Mike Lawson (now DTS Senior Professor of Educational Ministries and Leadership), says, “When Bill plays, he's playing to God. He loves God. And he plays out of that love. If you took that trumpet away, it would kill him.” Lawson remembers that when Bill had a heart attack and doctors told him not to play, he waited until Shirley went to the store and then went to get his trumpet and played the whole time she was gone.
He owns eight different horns. His favorite is the handmade coronet bought by his grandfather, but one year at Commencement, Bill played a silver trumpet inscribed “LSC”—the initials of its original owner, DTS founder Lewis Sperry Chafer. That horn now rests in the Smithsonian.
During Bill’s seminary training, he and Shirley served at Pantego Bible Church, where Bill led the choir. The church ordered its first choir robes and sang its first Christmas cantata under Bill’s ministry. He later served at Metropolitan Baptist in Oklahoma.
Lawson describes Bill’s joy in worship this way: “If you ask him not to play,” he says, “he can’t do it. When he led choir at Metropolitan, it wasn’t just music. It was a full expression of his worship to God. A lot of people can perform music, but only a handful really minister in music.”
For fun, Bill has played for over thirty-five years with a musical group called the Dixie River Rats. When he became the pastor of Grace Bible Church in 1978, Bill met Dick Burnett, a member of Grace. Dick and his brother Ed, both fabulous musicians, had started a freelance musical group. So Bill joined them and some other friends. He told them, “I’ll play the trumpet. Y’all come along. They’ll pay us, and we’ll have a good time.” They played gigs for Word of Life in Florida, the Dallas Arboretum, and the annual men’s conference at Pine Cove. They also jam each year for the DTS Commencement barbeque.
The Dream Team… and a Dream
After receiving his ThM from DTS in 1962, Bill joined Pastor David Cotton (later DTS Vice President for Student Affairs) as an assistant pastor at Metropolitan. He took responsibility for Christian education, music, and youth. Five years later, they were joined by Michael Lawson, who took on children’s ministry and the adult classes. For the next ten years, the three men enjoyed a growing reputation for their synergy. They were so effective that the late Howard Hendricks brought his DTS students for a weekend every spring to observe this “dream team” at work.
“We didn’t know what we had until later,” Bill says. “We were too busy doing ministry.” In addition to their traditional church activities, the trio started the Oklahoma Institute for Biblical Studies, which invited renowned speakers to lecture on weekends. They also founded the Oklahoma City Christian Counseling Center.
In 1970, Shirley asked Bill what he most wanted to do. He said that he dreamed of only one thing: becoming chaplain at Dallas Seminary. He would wait fifteen years to realize that dream.
In 1977, when Dr. J. Dwight Pentecost vacated the pulpit of Grace Bible Church in North Dallas to concentrate on teaching, Bill served there as senior pastor for the next seven years. When he left that position to become DTS’s chaplain, the church board and his successor, Mike Fisher, asked him and his family to continue worshiping weekly with the congregation. Bill taught an adult Sunday school class at Grace for years after he left that pastorate, and he and Shirley are still active members of the Grace congregation. He said later, “Mike Fisher is a big-spirited man. He is not threatened, and I was not ambitious. I have another congregation here at the seminary. But I needed a place to worship where my family worships and where I could also minister a little.”
Chaplain Bill and the Crumpled Wads
Chaplain Bill lives and loves with unique vigor. And that love spills over in contagious laughter. And fun. Students once saved their newspapers for an entire semester to fill his office with crumpled wads. Bill thought it was a hoot. At other times, startled students visiting Student Services for the first time thought the Rapture was at hand when the trumpet sounded from the corner office.
Since taking up the post in 1985, Bryan has often been called the perfect DTS Chaplain. According to Mike Lawson, “A chaplain has got to be the commensurate people person. On a scale of 1 to 10, Bill is probably a 12. He remembers people’s names. He is deeply devotional himself. His love for God is very intense and very transparent. He prays for people. If you're experiencing grief, he knows what grief feels like. He knows when to be quiet. He knows when to speak. There is no malice in this man. No false motive.”
Allegra Fisher, who has served as Chaplain Bill's assistant since 2010, adds, “Chap has the most genuine, unpretentious love for the Lord and people, especially Shirley, that I’ve ever encountered. I love watching the parade of students, faculty, staff, and alumni stopping by his office and seeing the lives he has impacted. He always greets each person by name, even if he hasn’t seen them in decades, and makes them feel like there’s nothing he’d rather do than hear whatever’s on their heart.”
Over and over, friends and colleagues cite Bill’s marriage to Shirley as a touching example of selflessness and service. Their partnership in ministry and their care for each other, in sickness and in health, have made an indelible impression on those who know him.
DTS President Mark Bailey says, “It has been my privilege to team in ministry with Bill and Shirley Bryan, on campus, at donor weekend events, and at annual DTS Bible conferences at Word of Life and Mt. Hermon. When I think of this talented and godly couple, words like faithful, joyful, and resourceful come to mind. Barby and I love Shirley and Bill Bryan.”
DTS's "Boisterous Mascot"
Asked what made the DTS chaplaincy his perfect job, Bill says, “I love variety. With a musical background, an extra degree in counseling, having done youth ministry, music ministry, and a lot of pastoral counseling and pastoral ministry—I like it all.”
Eva Bleeker, who served as Chaplain Bill’s assistant in the mid-2000s, moved into a career in hospital chaplaincy herself. She recalls the magnetism of Bryan and the effect he has had at the seminary. “Every student who attends classes at the Dallas campus experiences the mascot-like boisterousness of Chaplain Bill. In chapel he wants you to sing loud and in parts. You might catch him dancing the can-can or pretending to ice skate. If you tell him where you're from, you get a restaurant review of all the places in your town where he's eaten, followed by driving directions.”
Like all of Bryan's students and colleagues, Bleeker loves that side of Chaplain Bill. She says, “Chaplain Bill was glad, I think, that I could perform the administrative tasks required to run our office, but he was positively elated that I knew the alto lines to the old hymns. Sometimes he would start singing from his desk in his office. I would add a harmony from my desk in my office. Pretty soon the whole third floor of Walvoord Student Center became a choir.”
Working closely by his side during his last years at DTS, his current assistant Allegra Fisher has learned quieter things about Chaplain Bill, too. “Chap has a gift for reading people’s souls, past the projected layers of motive and pretension we like to put up.’”
Fisher summed up the impact Chaplain Bill has had on all who have been touched by his ministry: “Bottom line: I love the Lord and people better because of Chaplain’s presence in my life.”
Editorial assistance from Sandra Glahn, Steven Smith, and Emma Finley.