ELKHART — The Rev. Theodis Hadley stayed in the race until the end.
One of the best-known pastors in Elkhart’s black community, Hadley gained a reputation as a trailblazer, a calming voice amid racial tensions and a mentor to thousands over his 30 years with Canaan Baptist Church .
He died at home at about 1 a.m. Friday from conditions related to a weakened heart, according to a family member. He was 93.
“His strength of mind and his strength of determination in faith motivated him to serve the Lord in extraordinary ways,” said McNeal Stewart, pastor at Canaan Baptist Church.
Family and friends said Hadley remained mentally sharp until his final hours.
On Tuesday, a Hospice worker asked what the last thing he’d like to do and Hadley replied that he like to see all men find Jesus as their savior, said Clara Hadley, a daughter of Hadley’s.
On Thursday, he was quoting scripture and recalled one of his favorite songs, “Heaven is My Goal” and family members quickly joined in and sang to him:
“Heaven is my goal each and every day
Got to keep on moving … in the right way.”
Hadley, who was honored last year with a lifetime achievement award by the People’s History of Elkhart, is viewed by many as a legend on the city’s south side.
Hadley became “the premier African American pastor” and rose as a community leader during racial tensions of the civil rights era by being the “a calm in the storm,” said Arvis Dawson, the executive assistant to Mayor Dick Moore.
Hadley presided over Dawson’s wedding and baptized his children.
“He was rock solid during the civil rights movement,” Dawson said.
Hadley was born in Walker Springs, Ala., and was one of 14 children in his family. He served at three churches in Michigan before settling in Elkhart where he was pastor at Canaan Baptist Church for more than 30 years. He retired in 2000, but remained closely involved.
He had seven children with his wife, Laverne, who died three years ago.
“My dad was a trailblazer,” Clara Hadley said. “When he came to Elkhart, he came with the mindset to make it better and beautify it and bring salvation to all of those he came in contact with.”
Theodis Hadley became pastor of Canaan Baptist Church when it was still just a small church on Sixth Street.
Church members eventually built a new brick facility at 933 Fieldhouse Avenue, which has been since commemorated in Hadley’s name.
Acquiring the land for the new church, though, became a challenge after a white property owner balked at selling it.
“They didn’t want to sell him the land so he found one of his friends that they would sell it to. They bought it and then quick deeded it over to him,” Clara Hadley recalled.
Theodis Hadley wrote his autobiography with the help of his wife and titled it, “Stay in the Race,” a phrase he used in urging people to persevere and overcome life’s challenges.
He often encouraged people to be penny wise and consider going into business for themselves in ways that would benefit the community, she said.
“He was a real advocate of providing for yourself, taking care of yourself,” Clara Hadley said.
Hadley was a lifetime member of local NAACP and was involved with the old Urban League organization.
At the height of racial tensions, Hadley became the person people looked to serve as a mediator.
He also served on various boards and commissions.
When Mayor Dick Moore was elected twice, it was Hadley who swore him in both times.
Hadley was also known for turning a quick phrase to make a point.
Two of those quotes are taped to a note on Arvis Dawson’s work computer. One was a reply when Dawson asked him about the key to longevity: Just keep breathing.
The other: “I’m in good shape for the shape I’m in.”
The quotes, Dawson said, are a reminder of how simple life can be.
A testament to the success of Hadley’s spiritual work can be found in his family where three of his children — Clara, Ted and Michael, (who died nearly ten years ago) all became ordained ministers or elders.
“When you grow up in a house where you see a great example of God and his life is consistent with what he preaches, you just want to follow after and emulate,” Clara Hadley said.
“He was the greatest example of God that we could ever see.”