Famed atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair sashayed into the Express and News city room like she owned the place. It was summer time and I will swear that I could smell her body odor.
I had been assigned the job of interviewing the most hated woman in America, who a few years earlier had filed the suit in a Baltimore federal court that resulted in prayer being banned from American public schools.
To this day, I cannot recall much about the gist of that interview. What always stuck in my memory was Madalyn’s foul mouth and her hairy armpits. She was wearing some sort of flip-flop sandals and one of those frowsy house dresses of a gauzy material that was almost semi-transparent. It was transparent enough to make you look in another direction to avoid Madalyn’s folds of flab.
That was in the late 1960s and most of us were getting accustomed to the Austin-area snuff queens who were expressing their independence by refusing to shave their legs and armpits. Madalyn, however, was an extreme example of the female liberation movement.
When she reached up to scratch her head, I was repulsed by a mass of armpit hair that reminded me of a black wasp nest, one of those big nasty masses of crawling insects that I used to see on the clay bluffs of the Main Llano River in Kimble County. I shied back as if recoiling from a coiled rattlesnake.
We were in the Express-News city room, a large area dotted with desks and open to other departments. My desk was in the wide open, and I recall Madalyn’s presence drawing a small gathering of onlookers. I believe that sports editor Dan Cook was looking on as was company artist Bob Dale and there were a few others. None of us were shy or sensitive to salty talk, and I was prone to use more cuss words than my mother would have sanctioned, but Madalyn Murray O’Hair delighted in the shock effect produced by her toilet mouth.
When I asked about her new husband, Richard O’Hair, who was not present for the interview, Madalyn rocked us back on our heels when she described Richard. “He’s an ex-Marine with a hot pair of balls and a prick that stays harder than a fireplace poker,” Madalyn said with a leer. “My kind of man. Always ready for action.”
I will be damned but I believe that Dan Cook and I both blushed red. We were not prepared for anything like the world famous atheist. She delighted in shocking and embarrassing the shrinking violets and square Johns of this world, and she knew how to do it.
I was never to see O’Hair after that meeting, but I followed her exploits on print, radio, and TV, and this included some of the 38 television debates in 38 cities she had with Rev. Bob Harrington, the flamboyant preacher from New Orleans who was then known all over the country as the Bourbon Street Chaplain.
Never did I dream at the time that Harrington would work his way into San Antonio and the St. Mary’s Street strip joint where we would meet for the first time, or that we would forge a friendship that would last until Harrington’s death on July 4, 2017 in Stigler Oklahoma where he had been living with daughter Mitzi. Bob died at age 89.
Harrington and O’Hair were polar opposites, but they formed an unlikely duo as they debated the existence of God on the Phil Donahue show. Madalyn was as sharp as she was profane, and the big boisterous preacher was the showman’s showman–200 pounds and then some with a curly mane of graying locks and sequined suits with Bourbon Street lamp poles on the coats. He was a handsome speciman with a glib tongue and an eye for the spectacular.
I recall one episode where O’Hair asked Harrington: “Do you mean to tell us that you actually believe all of the dead people are going to come up out of the ground on some kind of judgement day and walk around stinking up the whole country? We’ve already got a population explosion. What are we going to do with them all?”
Harrington had a comeback for anything O’Hair tossed at him. When she asked him why he believed inGod, Harrington said, “I believe in God because I want to.”
Of O’Hair, he said: “Madalyn O’Hair knows the Bible. She has studied it page by page, and I will concede that she knows the scriptures better than I ever have or ever will. But there is one great difference–I know the author.”
By the late 1960s, I was drinking nightly in downtown after-hours clubs, the Commanders Room on Main Avenue and the Navy Club on Pecan Street. Phil Sfair owned and operated the Navy Club, while his younger brothers, Mike and George Sfair, held forth in the Commanders Room. Both clubs managed to stay open after the legal closing deadlines, strictly because of the political connections enjoyed by the owners. Police officials and members of the judiciary who frequented both drinkeries ranged from police lieutenants to federal judges. I was to become a close personal friend of Mike Sfair.
Another downtown club operator who seemed to enjoy a measure of immunity from the law was Guy Linton, who with wife Evelyn owned and operated the first real strip joint on the San Antonio scene. When she was younger, Evelyn taught the girls how to dance. This club was known all over the state as The Green Gate, a burlesque club or cabaret. The Green Gate dancers showed everything but vaginas and nipples, the coverings being pasties and skimpy G-srings. That was tantamount to buck naked in 1968. A sizeable number of us who drank regularly in the Sfair clubs paid occasional visits to the Green Gate, a fact that was known by the Lintons.
Never in a million years would I have dreamed of meeting a New Orleans preacher on the Green Gate stage, but that is where I met the Bourbon Street Chaplain. The year was 1968. Guy and Evelyn Linton publicly announced that they were closing the Green Gate forever, and Bob delivered a hell fire and brimstone sermon that traumatized the lead dancer, a busty little blonde who danced under the pseudonym Candy Cane. As Reverend Bob’s voice thundered on the failings of the flesh, I will swear that poor little Candy was trying to cover her tits with a bar towel.
A small part of San Antonio history was made that night, and the entire show was set up from start to finish.
I was writing a daily column for the San Antonio Express when Evelyn Linton called me to announce that she and Guy had found Jesus Christ through a New Orleans preacher by the name of Bob Harrington. They were turning their lives over to the Lord, and the official announcement would be made directly after a Bob Harrington sermon that would follow the final dance show at the Green Gate.
History verified that the Lintons were serious about their conversion to Christianity, but Guy and Evelyn were lifetime show people, and with the flashiest preacher on the planet, they wanted San Antonio and the world to know that they were officially going out of the skin and sin trade.
The Lintons met Bob Harrington when he preached a revival sermon at the Castle Hills Baptist Church. Castle Hills is an independent municipality completely surrounded by the City of San Antonio. The Lintons said that Harrington led them to the Lord, and Evelyn said they all wanted me to write an article about their conversion to Christianity and their decision to shut down the Green Gate forever.
I meant it when I told her that I would not cover Harrington’s sermon without a beer. She and Guy really wanted the publicity.
“Okay,” she said with reluctance, “but your beer will be the last one we will ever serve at the Green Gate. And it will be free.”
She was true to her word. I drank the last beer ever consumed at the Green Gate. It was a Lone Star. And let the record reflect that Guy and Evelyn Linton remained loyal Christians and faithful members of the Castle Hills Baptist Church until their deaths. When they closed the Green Gate, the Lintons left a sign on the door which read: “Closed Forever, See You In Church.”
Unfortunately, my world renown minister friend had a major slip on life’s slippery and temptation fraught highway in later years, but he had found his way back to the Lord before his death in Oklahoma.
To my knowledge, Bob had no contact with Madalyn Murray O’Hair after their ballyhooed series of television debates. Madalyn, who founded American Atheists, was murdered in Austin along with one of her two sons, Jon Garth Murray, and granddaughter Robin Murray O’Hair, by ex-con David Waters, a former employee of American Atheists.
After his arrest, conviction, and confession, Waters led authorities to the shallow grave in Real County where he had stacked the dismembered and partially-burned bodies like cord wood. He told authorities he chopped up the bodies with an electric circular hand saw.
O’Hair’s elder son, William J. Murray, disavowed his mother as evil, and became a Baptist preacher.
Larry Flynt, founder and publisher of Hustler Magazine, was at one time a big contributor to O’Hair’s organization American Atheists. And I can recall Bob Harrington telling me at one point in time that he was working to convert Flynt to Christianity. “I’ve got him just about ready to take the leap,” Harrington said. “He is almost ready to turn his life over to Jesus Christ. You will really have a big story to write when this happens.”
But that is all I could recall on the subject of Flynt. Harrington never mentioned him to me again.
In later years after I had left the Express and News and established Action Magazine, and after a World Championship Menudo Cookoff I promoted with Willie Nelson and some 30 other bands, I had Harrington preach what we called Sam Kindrick’s Outdoor Revival and Music Extravaganza.
Bob and I had become friends after the Green Gate closing, and he jumped at my suggestion for the preaching and music show which was held on the San Antonio River south of San Antonio on private ranch land.
Gary P. Nunn and the Lost Gonzo Band headlined this one with stellar performances by Dub Robinson and the Drug Store Cowboys, including Randy Toman and Robert (Cotton) Payne. Jerry Jeff Walker was supposed to play with Nunn and the Lost Gonzos, but he failed to show.
“I can recall that we had some electrical problems with the equipment,” Robinson said. “But we wound up having a hell of a show. I will never forget the great time we had.”
Harrington became a well-known evangelist during the 1960s and 1970s following his conversion to Christianity at age 30 in his hometown of Sweet Water, Alabama. He was a popular guest on national television shows including Phil Donahue, Merv Griffin and The Tonight Show due to his one-liners and unconventional religious wit. Bob met Madalyn Murray O’Hair in the early 1970s. He also had a picture of himself with famed evangelist Billy Graham.
In 1960, after only a few years of preaching throughout the South on flatbed trailers and in tents, Harrington moved to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary with his wife Joyce, and daughters, Rhonda and Mitzi.
During his time in seminary, Harrington served as assistant pastor of First Baptist Church of New Orleans with J.D. Grey and continued his ministry as an itinerant evangelist. In a chapel service, NOBTS President Leo Edleman said, “Wherever there is a pocket of sin, there is a mission field, and the nearest Christian to it is a missionary.” According to Harrington, “the nearest pocket of sin was Bourbon Street.”
Harrington immediately began a street ministry armed with a microphone and a Bible. Several months later deacons at First Baptist New Orleans loaned him enough money for a few months’ rent to open a chapel on Bourbon Street in the heart of the French Quarter. Harrington began witnessing and preaching to whores, bums, and pimps in the bars and strip clubs of Bourbon Street. In 1962, New Orleans Mayor Victor Schiro proclaimed him “The Chaplain of Bourbon Street.”
Harrington’s street ministry message was bold and simple. “God loves you just as you are. He knows you are a sinner and wants to save you. Don’t figure it out. Faith it out!” Before long his unorthodox story reached Doubleday Printing. “The Chaplain of Bourbon Street,” written by Harrington with Walter Wagner, was published in 1969. Harrington went on to publish seven more books and released more than 30 record albums.
The sermon album “Laughter, Truth and Music” was released in 1965 and Harrington was presented with a gold album for more than $1 million in sales worldwide. Later he received a second gold album for “Chaplain of Bourbon Street,” a recording of his first television show.
Prior to our outdoor revival and music extravaganza, Bob told me he was planning a new album titled “Bob Harrington Goes Country.” I never knew what happened to this project.
I had heard that Harrington had gone back to his old wicked ways. I called him at his daughter’s home in Oklahoma shortly before his death and he told me the same thing he had told a writer for SBC Life, official publication for the Southern Baptist Convention.
“The devil threw me a pass and I caught it and ran for defeat,” Bob said. “All of my fame and glory caught up with me.”
In the 2000 November issue of SBC LIFE, Harrington shared about his past struggles in the article entitled, “Chastened Chaplain: A forthright account of failure and renewal.” In the article, he referred to the “pass” that Satan threw the evangelist during the height of his success as “pride, arrogance, self-centeredness and stubbornness.”
His first marriage ended as well as his ministry on Bourbon Street in 1977. He married again and moved to Florida, but later divorced. During the 1980s and 1990s, Harrington was a popular motivational speaker primarily with car dealerships and real estate companies.
One evening in 1995 in his hotel room, he was robbed and nearly beaten to death. Harrington had said it was during that time “the phone rang and it was Rex Humbard (long-time pastor of the Cathedral of Tomorrow in Akron, Ohio, where Harrington had preached many times), my old friend. He said it was time for me to come back to the Lord and I did.”
After divorce and bankruptcy, Harrington recalled being at the bottom, which he said “is right where God can use you!” Harrington began a restoration period and moved back to New Orleans.
In 1998, Bob married Rebecca Harris Birdwell and moved to Mansfield, Texas, where he continued preaching. Rebecca died of a heart attack in 2010. That same year, Bob moved to be near his younger daughter, Mitzi Woodson, and her husband Steve in Stigler, Okla. He faithfully attended the First Baptist Church in Stigler. When I called him at his daughter Mitzi’s home in Stigler, Harrington pretty much reiterated what he had told the Baptist press about his ignominious fall from grace:
“Three things got me: fame, finance, and frolic. I was going strong with my little radio program there. Then after the mayor named me Chaplain of Bourbon Street the Governor of Louisiana named me Ambassador of Goodwill to America.” Bob said “the kingdom of thingdom” started to replace the Kingdon of God.”
His national TV debates with Madalyn Murray O’Hair started his climb to “thingdom.” The money started rolling in, Harrington said, and following the fame and finance came the frolic.
“All those things — fame, finance, and frolic — led me to catch a pass that Satan threw at the peak of my success,” Harrington said. “ And that pass — I caught that sucker, and ran for defeat. When you break that pass down, P. A. S. S., it’s pride, arrogance, self-centeredness, and stubbornness. That stole my first love away from me, and that’s when I fell.”
The frolic, Harrington said, finally finished him off.
“After a while you get those Bathshebas, Delilahs, and Jezebels out there in the church world, not the Bourbon Street world,” Harrington said. “Those in the Bourbon Street world didn’t bother me. I knew about this kind of temptation. It was those sweet little ol’ church members that got to me. They start telling you how nice and neat and handsome you are, how big and strong you are. Your wife isn’t telling you that anymore because she knows what you are turning into.”
When I called him, daughter Mitzi answered the phone. Bob must have mentioned my old drinking problem to her because she asked me about it. She yelled out at Bob: “It’s Sam Kindrick from Texas, Daddy, he has quit drinking.”
I heard Bob call out in the background: “Praise the Lord, it sure is fun being saved!”
Harrington had told his daughters exactly how he wanted his tombstone to read. They followed through upon his death.
The red granite grave marker in Sweet Water Alabama is more than impressive. It featurers a full-length likeness of Bob with Bible in Hand and standing under a Bourbon Street lamp pole.
It reads exactly as he directed: Robert Leonard Harrington Bob Harrington The Chaplain of Bourbon Street Born: September 2, 1927 Born again: August 1, 1958 Died: He Didn’t Transferred to Heaven: July 4, 2017