Culture and Trends ›

Hold the Possum, Pass the Sweet Potatoes: The Wisdom of Dr. John H. Hayes

iStock / galinast

"Don't spend your days setting yourself up as a target on other people's firing ranges."

Anyone who has written a book called "If You Don't Like the Possum, Enjoy the Sweet Potatoes" should be paid attention to. And author Dr. John Harrelson Hayes was.

As an internationally known scholar and professor of theology at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, he had generations of students listening to and reading his wisdom. He earned his BD and PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary and studied at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland as a Fulbright Scholar. But it seems much of his life's wisdom was learned growing up in the small town of Abanda, Alabama.

"Don't spend your days setting yourself up as a target on other people's firing ranges."

Dr. Hayes wrote 40 or so books, on topics including the Old Testament, the prophet Amos, and scholarly interpretations of the Bible. But it was "If You Don't Like the Possum, Enjoy the Sweet Potatoes: Some Principles for Travel along the Road of Life" – a slim volume of 52 pieces of wisdom, advice, maxims, musings, and philosophical observations – that caught the eye of journalist Bill Moyers. Said Moyers, “There's more wisdom in these pages than in an airlift or convoy of Chinese fortune cookies. John's take on late-night comedians and the news is alone worth the modest price he's charging for opening our eyes and ears to some good 'ol truths from the school of hard knocks.”

"Give people enough rope and they will hang you."

Image via Amazon.com

And Barbara Brown Taylor, Biblical scholar and author of "Leaving Church," said this: “If you have ever worried about the way your toenails look as you get older – or about how to live with integrity in a world full of scoundrels and a few good friends – you will find companionship in this volume. … Every page of this book is as tart as a pickle.”

"Life often serves us with a dish of possum.... Alongside the main dish, however, we're bound to find enjoyable tidbits in life...."

Dr. Hayes died July 11, 2013, on his beloved farm in Abanda, where he entertained and educated generations of students alongside a fishing pond, hay barn, and petting zoo of assorted dogs, cats, and cows. He was a world traveler, fluent in several languages, and a frequent preacher. Most recently, he wrote a semi-autobiographical novel titled "Abanda: A Novel," and in his final essay, he wrote these lovely lines about one’s final day on this earth.

"And when on our day the sun has set, let us pray that the darkness be not long delayed, that short will be that evening journey into night. And may that night kiss us softly on the cheek, and embrace us tenderly in its keep."


Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief."