John Kuhlman was born in Grady County, Oklahoma, just west of Minco, in 1927. In his 91 years of life, he’s lived through the Dust Bowl, served in the Army during World War II, taught himself to farm and to repair airplanes, married twice, and cultivated a deep faith in Jesus Christ that he has worked to share with everyone around him.
Today he lives in Grace Living Centers nursing home in Bethany, where he leads a devotional service twice a week, on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. While other residents enjoy his services, John says they are just as rewarding and valuable for him. “As a Born-Again Believer, I get as much out of it as they do,” he says. “God gives me messages to share: ‘We are all alike. Jesus doesn’t think better of any one man or another. We are all trying for the same things together.’” He speaks through a portable microphone and speaker system so that other residents, some of them hard of hearing, can follow along.
John has lived a long time, but he recalls the major influences and experiences in his life easily. One is growing up poor in a family of nine brothers and sisters.
“I remember the Dust Bowl days and the drought,” he says. “We didn’t have any money and we were starving to death. The WPA and the Democrats came in and we got some food and a horse and some money.”
His parents, both farmers, sold eggs for 3 cents a dozen. The Kuhlmans, including the children, worked when they could, for 25 cents an hour. “If we had a dollar we thought we were rich,” he says.
Like many children growing up a the time, he didn’t complete high school or see a reason to. “We already knew how to farm.”
He did, however, begin to grow spiritually. He considers himself to have been “saved” at age 12, two years before he began beginning to attend church regularly.
In 1946, he was drafted into the Army. Although the Germans had surrendered a year earlier, the US was preparing for a new threat: the Soviet Union. John was sent to Alaska, what the military considered to be a potential ground zero for a soviet invasion.
He served 18 months in the Army, most of it in Anchorage or Fairbanks, where it was often dangerously cold. He injured himself once when his commanding officer drove his tank into a rocky snowbank.
After leaving the army, John came home to Oklahoma, taking classes in agriculture in Minko funded by the GI Bill. The Army later paid him to start farming. He credits the military for allowing him to get educated and get a foothold into professional life, and it his appreciation for the military has made him an outspoken patriot. “America is the greatest country in the world,” he says without hesitation.
Returning to civilian life in Oklahoma, he met Ethel Kirkegard, a nursing student who he fell in love with. John asked her father for her hand in marriage. “It was the biggest ‘NO’ I ever heard in my life,” he says.
They got married anyway and raised four children together.
Despite his initial objections, John and his new father-in-law became close, bonding over their shared Christian faith. “Larry became saved and I was as close to him as I was to my own father,” said John. “Being born-again meant everything to my whole family.”
A growing family meant greater financial pressures, and John decided his farming was not producing enough income to support them. He responded to an ad in the Oklahoman encouraging veterans to apply for jobs at Tinker Air Force Base, which he did. He was hired as a mechanic, which he excelled at.
While working at Tinker, John began to feel that his calling was in ministry and decided to make that his new profession. His first pastorate was at a small rural church in Little, Oklahoma. He presided over two other churches, one in the panhandle and one in El Reno, before being called to the Brookline Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, where he served for 26 years.
After 59 years of marriage, John’s wife Ethel passed away. Years later, he would marry Della Morgan, a widow whose husband had been a close friend and fellow Christian. After eight years of marriage, she passed away as well.
John has experienced his own bout of health problems. At the end of his tenure at Brookline, he would have debilitating spells of dizziness, falling often and sometimes injuring himself.
His condition left him unable to work, so he retired. His frequent falls led to a knee injury and a bad back. “I was living alone and my kids said it was just too dangerous. I sold my house and moved here. When that money was gone, the government took over payments.”
John’s arthritis has gotten severe, and today he struggles to hold eating utensils or to bathe or use the bathroom unassisted. “I am helpless,” he says, with a shrug. “I hate to say that, but in some areas of my life I am totally dependent.”
John says he has enormous appreciation for the CNA’s (certified nursing assistants) who staff Grace Lane, especially those who seem passionate about their work. “It makes a real difference when you know someone wants to be here. You can really tell.”
For John, Grace Living Centers is home. He has a flock of fellow worshippers, some of them military veterans like himself. He is comfortable and cared for in a way he cannot be living by himself.
“I don’t need a thing here,” he says. “I have everything I want and everything I need. I want to stay here until I die unless they run me off.”