I was saddened by the email that Gerald Boutin passed away “at 0508 hours, Sunday, 24 May.” Mr. Boutin – who everyone knew as “Ol’ Hook” – remains one of my favorite story subjects over the years and an example that God’s grace can forgive more than man ever could. In Hook’s case the man he had to forgive was himself.
Hook had a hard upbringing that prepared him for military service. As a kid he borrowed a rifle from a WWI veteran and, to feed his family, learned to wait until two fish swam close together in a nearby river so he could stun both with a single shot between them. Beginning before his 17th birthday, he’d go on to serve in the Army in Europe during WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. Hook rose to the rank of Master Sergeant and was credited for modifying the MI Garand and M14 rifles – both were standard issue for servicemen at the time – and thus revolutionizing their capability in conflict. Even up to the time of his death Hook’s handiwork was talked about on Internet message boards and his place in history told through a PBS special.
As you’d guess of someone who saw so much war, Hook had trouble coming to grips with a God who could allow so much suffering and dying. It wasn’t just what he’d seen, but what was necessary to do in order to stay alive in war. He hadn’t stepped into a church in 70 years before attending First Baptist Buchanan in 2013. Pastor Allen Wilburn could tell Hook was listening intently to the sermons – “He was a sponge soaking in what I had to say,” said Wilburn.
Hook needed to see flesh-and-blood examples of those words preached by Wilburn, though. He got them in several members of the community with a common background. Steve Edwards and his wife Robbie became Hook’s caretakers, with Steve and Hook bonding over their military service (Steve spent 25 years in Special Forces) and Robbie earning Hook’s respect through her ability to hit a target from a mile away with a long-range rifle. She’d serve an even greater role later, reading Scripture to Hook for the final 90 minutes of his life.
Steve was just one of several military men who told Hook the story of a Savior who forgives. It took several months of witnessing for Hook to be convinced, but on Nov. 8, 2013 he prayed for the forgiveness only provided through that Savior.
I got the chance to meet Hook and his friends personally at Redmond Regional Medical Center in Rome last fall, where he had a stay following some heart problems. It was an honor, as talking with men of his background is becoming a rarity today. As is the case with many 88-year-olds, he was quick with an opinion yet humble about his exploits. In telling war stories he would get a look in his eye, describing scenes with a clarity that only comes from being a personal witness. I walked out of the hospital with Lyndon Smith, a deacon at First Buchanan and retired Marine with 21 years of service. Smith was one of those guys who’d witnessed to Hook. “We talked to him a long time about Romans 3:23 and that salvation was available to all men,” Smith said.
Hook passed away on a weekend when our country remembers those who fell during military service. He died decades after last seeing active combat, but ask anyone who’s been on a battlefield and they’ll tell you the sights, sounds, and smells don’t leave. The gospel had intrigued him, but Hook needed people who’d been where he’d been to tell him about Jesus. Eventually, he found common bonds to a common Savior.