YORK, Maine — Just last year, Rev. Wilbert Gough retired from active ministry, as pastor of the First Christian Church of Kittery. He was 99 years old, and his congregation did not want him to leave. He ministers still to people in the senior living community Sentry Hill at York Harbor, where he lives independently, and holds weekly Bible study groups at First Parish Church.
In his long tenure as a minister, he served congregations in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa and West Virginia before arriving in the Seacoast 20 years ago, where his work continued in Hampton, Brentwood and Seabrook, New Hampshire, and in two churches in Kittery. And he shows no sign of slowing down as continues to lead “the most wonderful life devoted to His grace and goodness.”
On June 13, he turned 100, as sturdy, sharp and focused as someone half his age. He has smiles for everyone, a gentleman’s demeanor and a twinkle in his eye that he would no doubt say is heaven sent. He has shared his prayers and his grace with generations of people, who flocked to First Parish Church to share his birthday with him.
“He is without a doubt the most wonderful person I have ever met,” said Rosemarie Smith of Seabrook, New Hampshire. “He makes everyone feel like they are the most important person in the world. Believe me, he is going to sit on the right hand of God when his time comes.”
Nancy Shatto, another member of Trinity United Church in Seabrook where Gough was once pastor, said simply, “He is the closest thing to God on earth I have ever met.”
It is an accolade that might turn Gough’s head, but he would be the first to say that early in his life he knew his path and has followed it “with joy.”
He grew up in Graham, Texas, so poor that, as his brother often remarked, “we couldn’t afford to pay attention,” he said with a laugh. “My mother would make sandwiches for us kids and she would go without. But we would have Bible readings every night and we’d pray together.”
His grandfather, who lived in Davidson, Oklahoma, was a lay pastor and a pivotal person in Gough’s life, he said. “His spirituality, his knowledge of the Bible, his character… oh, what a joy he was. He really enjoyed life.” Every summer, the family would travel to Oklahoma for a visit, and it was there that Gough made a choice that set his path for life.
“I was converted when I was 12 years old at a summer tent meeting, those old-fashioned tent meetings you’d read about with sawdust on the ground,” he said. “I converted to a faith commitment to follow the Lord Jesus as my model, my savior, my friend.”
Next to the tent was a pond for baptism and it was his grandfather who dipped him in the water, he said with a wistful look in his eyes. “He laid his hand upon my head and offered a special prayer. At that point, I committed my life and let God lead me where he wanted me to go.”
As one of the outcomes of a hot Texas childhood living and working outside, Gough suffered as an adult from “a lot of skin cancers” that required dozens of surgeries on his face, leaving it looking like the patchwork of pigment it actually is. But he has hardly let this stop him from a fully productive life.
After serving churches throughout the country, including Michigan where he spent 36 years, he and his wife, Florence, moved to Sentry Hill in 2008 to be close his their son, Donald, who lives in New Castle, New Hampshire. He credits his wife, who passed in 2009, for being a true helpmate during their “66 and a half” years of marriage.
“She was an ideal supporter and an outstanding Christian,” he said. “My one and only.”
Once in the Seacoast, he said, he was “sort of retired” at age 80, but clearly not quite yet. Soon after arriving, he was “feeling the call to pastor” at the First Baptist Church of Hampton,New Hampshire, which had a small congregation he said he wanted to grow. So he came up with an idea that earned him a spot in Ripley’s Believe It or Not.
“Church attendance was nothing to brag about, so I said to the church board, ’I’d like to put in $100 and get some crisp new $1 bills to give out to everyone who comes to church this Sunday,” he said. It was publicized in the Hampton Union and Portsmouth Herald in advance, which “helped a little bit. We had 88 people that Sunday. But at least we were on the map,” he said with a smile. Ripley’s heard about it — a pastor paying people to come to church — and put him in its syndicated column.
When he ended his tenure at First Christian Church in Kittery, said church member Randy Lawson of Kittery Point, he was immediately named an emeritus minister. People simply did not want to see him go.
“I wish I’d known him sooner. He was a powerhouse,” Lawson said. “He can still get up there and give you a good sermon — and do it impromptu. No person I know comes close to emulating the image and attitude of Jesus than he does.”
Every Randy Lawson and Rosemarie Smith is important to him, said Gough. He receives more Christmas cards than he can almost count, and still sends out about 160 of his own. No birthday goes unnoticed by the people he has served, either.
“They’re all precious to me,” he said. “I have a genuine love and concern for people — hurting people, needy people, and I try to give them a little cheer and lift their load a bit. I’m just an old country boy who loves everyone and who loves God.”
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