Those who have heard my story know that the short version starts out, "I was born in Louisiana, raised in Arkansas, and polluted in California."
If you're reading this, I assume you want more of the details - so here goes -
I was born in Rayville, Louisiana, in 1948, the son of Bernard Hope Rolfe and Leveda Mae Parker (she was in her mid-forties when I was born). I know almost nothing about their lives together because they didn’t stay together long at all.
The Rolfe side of the family was apparently well-to-do, with a long and honorable heritage, I was told, and were huge property owners, growing cotton in Mer Rouge Louisiana. (Most of you who know me also know that I've had no substantial personal information about my Dad's side of the family. That all changed in October of 2008. For those who are interested I've included some snippets in a separate tab, elsewhere on the website).
If my Dad’s side of the family was famous, my Mom’s side was infamous. One of her first cousins was Bonnie Parker of Bonnie and Clyde notoriety. They had quite a deal going with bank robberies and shoot-outs before they ran out of time.
My Mom lived on a 40-acre farm outside of Rayville where they grew cotton too. I have 9 brothers and sisters from my Mom’s previous husbands. Those husbands expired due to wounds suffered in WWII. My Mom worked hard to take care of all those children on her own, and I'm told it was very hard. My brothers and sisters last name was Freeland. My brothers names were George Washington Freeland, Thomas Jefferson (TJ) Freeland, Robert E. Lee (Robert Earl) Freeland, Joel Freeland and Lester E. Freeland. My sisters’ names were Opal, Eddie Rae, Orleans and Jeannie Ruth.
After my folks divorce, she moved to Camden, Arkansas, taking all the kids, including me with her. I remember the place in Camden a bit. She had these huge vegetable gardens and had planted fruit trees (pear and plum). The gardens yielded very good crops and she “canned” a lot of preserves - a lot of tomatoes and pears. Though we were not well off, we always had food. I remember almost every morning before going to school, she would make a batch of hot tomato gravy and fresh bisquits. At the time I just got used to it, but with all the vitamin C I was getting in the tomato gravy, I was almost never sick.
With all the brothers and sisters, I have a lot of nieces and nephews. The ages range from a few years older than me to several younger than me. I enjoyed a lot of good times with them while growing up.
When I was growing up, I remember spending a lot of time exploring the rivers and ravines around where we lived in Camden. I went to Center Street Elementary School. As I grew, my Mom didn’t want any of us involved in what she called dangerous sports (like Football) so I just had to find other things to do. I had a best friend who lived down the street and summers were spent just hanging out.
One summer, after my sixth grade year, my Mom enrolled me in a 2 week long music seminar that was being held in a Baptist Church across the street from my elementary school. After the two weeks, the Director was wrapping things up and then said “I want to introduce you to the best soprano in this entire church – Bernie Rolfe!”. Though I didn’t know what a soprano was, he stood me in front of the church and had me take a bow and lead a couple of the songs we’d learned that week.
My second brush with "fame" came when I was in the seventh grade in the music class when the teacher asked each of us to sing a verse of the song “Casey Jones”. After listening to the others sing, (frankly, they sounded kind of tepid), I jumped into it and sang the last verse "harder" (apparently, unbeknownst to me, up an octave as well). After singing my verse, the kids in the class applauded me. The teacher remarked what an awesome job I did. I was surprised. At a special end of the year assembly in front of the whole Fred Whiteside Junior High School we did that song. I did the same thing and got a standing ovation from teachers and my peers. The Principal, after making a couple of announcements, asked us to do an encore, singing that song with my verse again – more applause – I was a star!
That summer, my Mom said we were moving to California. She had been writing to a man whose grandchildren were three of my nieces and nephews and they hit it off and were getting married. His name was Roy Barrett. He lived in the San Fernando Valley in California. So my brush with stardom was very brief. All of my older brothers and sisters had joined some branch of the military and had moved out by this time. My Mom, my brother Lester and I were the only ones who would be going there. I was so disappointed and angry that we were moving. Some of it was because I was leaving my new-found stardom, but it was also a bit scary.
Anyways, I began the eighth grade at Pacoima Junior High School. What a culture shock for a small town southern boy moving to the big city. My southern accent was quite pronounced, and though not criticized for it (actually people would ask me to say things so they could hear what they would sound like in southern), it made me feel like an outsider, so in short time it was gone. I was good at schoolwork and never missed a day. I started taking French because I thought I might work at the United Nations some day. In the summers I loved reading books about dogs, animals and Indians.
San Fernando High School was a horrid school to go to. People were getting stabbed and shot all the time. My first week of high school, one of my classmates stumbled into history class holding his hand over a stab wound he’d gotten from some kid in shop class who just out of nowhere stabbed him with a screwdriver! There were gangs roaming the campus and it was pure survival mode the entire 3 years I was there. It never occurred to me to do anything but get out of high school alive.
After high school, my Mom and step dad were moving back down south, so I went back with them. I was planning on going into the Air Force after that. On the way from California to Arkansas, we stopped in at one of my brothers, Joel Freeland, who had moved to a home in Mesa, Arizona. He suggested that after I help my folks get settled down that I come back to Arizona and try getting work before joining the Air Force. He said I could stay with them until I decided one way or the other.
After helping my folks get settled down in Mena, Arkansas, and plowing for a few months at the Parker farm in Rayville, I took a bus back to Phoenix. When I opened the door to get off the bus at about 6PM that July evening, it felt like an oven! I hoped it was just a passing thing (it wasn’t, of course).
I tested at a job placement office. The interviewer, after looking at my test scores, advised me that my mechanical comprehension was amazingly high. ( He actually told me the test score, but I prefer to keep it to myself. Though I didn’t think much about it at the time, it’s an aptitude that has helped me tremendously).
I got a job as a machinist trainee at a place called Omnitech, where I ran a mill machine forming parts for jet engine injectors. I met Dean Mowen there – a good friend still for more than 40 years. Later on Dean and I decided to become roommates, so I moved out from Joel’s house and in with Dean and his brother Dave.
I took a job at Nelson Engineering a bit later that paid more and I enjoyed doing a lot of different operations, including mill machining. But it was the night shift and at 18 years old I began to feel a bit like I was in a rut. I began to consider going back to school and finally decided to give it a try.
I remembered when I was in High School, there was a test administered to all of the students that was called a student interest test. The results were interesting. I scored amazingly high in Architecture and Music, even though I’d not pursued those interests. I thought that I’d give music a try, even though I had not a clue what that meant.
I signed up at Phoenix College in the spring semester of 1967 (and who knows why I did this) as a Music Major. When I signed up for choir, the director asked me what part I sang. Reaching back into my days at the seminar at that Baptist Church, I said, “the melody”. The choir director laughed a bit then said – “No – what I mean is – what part do you sing? Tenor ? Bass ?” – and then a shaft of illumination highlighted my memory of what the Baptist Director had called me – best soprano!
“Soprano”, I said.
After a long silence, he suggested that it might be best if I tried out for choir next year.
Anyways, I began the process of becoming a musician, but before a couple of weeks had gone by, I was in deep trouble. I didn’t know the difference between a pickle and a piccollo or a tub and tuba. I spent hour after hour in the library trying to drill info into my brain. It was too much! Though I was doing very well in all my liberal arts classes, I felt like I was drowning in music.
The Big Fish
While I was in the library one day, a couple of guys were quietly whispering about something that they seemed to be quite excited about. As time went on I began to catch snatches of what they were talking about – the Bible. Though they were polite, my frustration with the amount of things I was trying to take in about music was making me irritable.
I looked at them and finally burst out with “Do you guys actually believe all that stuff in the Bible?”.
They looked at one another and then back at me and said “Yes.”
“Even that stuff about the guy being swallowed by the big fish and living to tell about it?”
After staring at them a few seconds, I picked up my books, got up and left. Though they were as polite as could be, I had to get out of there.
Later that night, after my studies, Dave Mowen arrived home after work. He was going to school part time and working part time. He always had a habit of brushing his teeth when he got home. Dave was an interesting guy – maybe a bit religious cause he did go to church – but not weird. While he was brushing his teeth, something prompted me to ask him “Dave, do you believe all the things in the Bible are true?” With toothbrush still in his mouth, he nodded positively. I said “oh” or something like that and went off to get a drink of water in the kitchen before heading off towards the bedroom.
Dave intercepted me in the living room and said, “I’m curious – why did you ask that question?” I told him about the deal at the library and tried to end the conversation without saying anything that might be embarrassing to him.
But Dave kept asking questions. We had a lively conversation that lasted about 4 hours into the wee hours of the morning. We had gone back and forth all that while and I remember finally saying, trying to be as kind as possible, "Dave, if God expects us to be perfect, by trying as hard as we can, so we can get into heaven, then He's really stupid." I was surprised that Dave didn't argue with that statement, but instead said it's getting kind of late and asked me if I’d like to go to a Friday night thing called Co-uni-bus (College – university – business). It was a meeting for college age folks to get together and discuss that kind of thing.
Since I’d heard about that place and was already somewhat interested, I agreed. Dave made arrangements for some folks to give me a ride and I went.
It was not what I’d expected. There were no religious weirdoes there. There were crowds of folks just hanging out and having fun, who seemed genuinely happy. They had a program and did silly skits and talked about God in a way I’d never heard of before – things about having a personal relationship with Him. Though I’d gone to church a time or two when I was younger, I must say I hadn’t listened much.
But that night they were saying things about Jesus, and why he’d come to earth in a way that started me wanting to really understand. To top it all, it was clear beyond all the silliness and stuff that these people loved each other – I could see it in their smiles and how they treated each other – love.
After the meeting, one of the leaders bumped into me and introduced himself. We shared a bit more and he gave me a small pamphlet – The Four Spiritual Laws. I put it in my pocket, said thanks and then loaded up with the people that had brought me and headed back to my apartment.
I remember getting out of the car of the folks who’d given me a ride, saying thanks and heading for the back door of my apartment. What happened next is very difficult to describe.
As I opened the back door of my apartment, I “heard” a voice asking, “What are you going to do with my Son, Jesus?” It was kind of a strong voice, almost terse, asking a strong question – but it was like that voice was actually somehow next to me and somehow in my head. It completely caught me off guard – I was flabbergasted – and a bit afraid. You can imagine that it was with renewed interest in it that I pulled the pamphlet I had been given earlier out of my pocket, sat down at my desk in the living room and this time poured over each word in the Four Spiritual laws. 1 – God Loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life; 2 – Mankind is sinful and separated from God and therefore cannot experience God’s Love and plan; 3 – God made provision to pay for mankind’s sin through Jesus’ sacrifice; 4 – We experience God’s provision by accepting His forgiveness and allowing Jesus to come into our lives.
I closed the pamphlet, placed it on the desk and just stared at it – for a long time. After several minutes, I picked it up again, looking at the last page where it offered simple prayer, offering words to ask Jesus into one’s life. I read it over and over again, not sure exactly what I was going to do. Then, in almost a kind of daze, I went into my bedroom, turned out the light and knelt by the bed. The words that came out were not exactly like the prayer that had been offered in the book, but somehow I knew God was listening.
My best recollection of the words – my first prayer to God – was something like “God, if you’re there, and Jesus is your son, and You want me to do this, I open the door of my heart to receive Jesus.”
Immediately, the room became like static electricity – I sensed something amazing was going on – it seemed like a huge weight had been lifted from me that I didn’t know I was carrying. For a while, I was actually nervous that I'd see something totally strange, like the room would be lit up somehow if I opened my eyes. Words began to pour from me that were expressions of gratitude – Thank you, God – Thank You. In a while, after the sizzle calmed a bit, I opened my eyes and began to smile. I got up, walked into the living room, grabbed the little booklet and walked outside.
The One Who Made the Stars
After walking a block or two, grinning ear to ear, I remember looking up at the bright stars in the night sky and these words came out of my mouth – “The One who made those stars is now My Father.”
I went back to my apartment, sat on the couch and soaked in the love I was beginning to feel. When Dave arrived a while later, he went into the bathroom to brush his teeth as always. When he came back in the living room, I had stood up and he noticed the big smile and just stared. I wasn't sure how it finally came about, because I'd not intended to tell anyone. Anyways, after a brief moment I said, “I did it – I asked Jesus into my heart.” In a single bound, he swooped on me, wrapped his arms around me and began to cry, saying “My friends and I have been praying for you.”
I didn’t know what to say – the sense of the huge change was still overwhelming me. February 23, 1967 – the night I was born into God’s Family.
The Scholarship Audition
In the coming days I grew hungrier and hungrier to know this God who’d adopted me. I found a Bible – Good News for Modern Man – and read it cover to cover, over and over again. My life was one huge smile – except for the music.
It occurred to me that I needed to know if I was to stay in music or not, and I wanted to get God’s thoughts on this. So I did some praying. Sometime in the process of the prayers, it occurred to me to ask God for a “sign”. Since music was the topic, I believed that the answer might come from that area. There happened to be a Scholarship Audition coming up in a week or so, sponsored by the Musician’s Club of Phoenix. I had no clue what it all meant, but I asked God, if He wanted me to stay in music, to allow me to win the Scholarship.
I remember the day of the audition. I wasn’t nervous or afraid. It seemed to me that I’d find out that day what God wanted for me. All kinds of talented people were singing - some of the songs were in other languages (even the English sounded a bit weird the way they were singing it) - a lot of some classical stuff – things I'd never heard before –
I sang “I Dream of Jeannie with the light Brown Hair” –
Well - I won the scholarship!
As days went by, music theory began to come easy. I began to love music. In my first year piano class I played a piece by Claude Debussy called “Clair de Lune” (it was a pretty impressive piece – I can’t even play it now, but I could play it then).
I remember being at a Bible study at Wayne Shuarts's house, along with Herb Selby and Zane Robbins. In the few months after I had won the scholarship, it seemed like nothing was beyond my comprehension musically. Zane was compelled to ask the three leaders to lay hands on me and pray that God would anoint me and use me and my music in His special way.
I have never questioned where the part of my gift that draws people to God comes from. And even though hours and hours of hard work, practice and study were part of my daily routine for years, it never seemed tedious.
And during that time, every chance I had, I would tell fellow students about Jesus. Perhaps some of them would be able to experience the kind of forgiveness and love I found myself enjoying. Music was not just notes and rhythms, it was an expression of deep feelings that God had placed in my heart.
Before long this passion to enjoy music while sharing the Love of Jesus with others became a topic of discussion among some others who had recently asked Jesus into their hearts as well. Jan Treadwell, a sweet shy girl with a beautiful soprano voice, her friend Jan Reed, Dean Mowen and I just hung out and started singing songs about Jesus – mostly songs called “hymns” that I’d come to know, and loved the words.
Heaven came down and glory filled my soul When at the cross, the Saviour made me whole My sins were washed away – and my night was turned to day Heaven came down and glory filled my soul.
I began to really want to write and arrange music, novice that I may
have been. After a while I began to get “inspired” to write some of
my own songs - my first one was this one –
I Know Somebody
I wake up in the morning with a smile on my face Look out the window and see A great big sun smiling down on the earth And a special ray shining down on me Seems like He made it all for me – Yes it seems like He made it all for me – And the river is wide – the mountain is high And I know Somebody bigger than I made that great big beautiful sky.
The New Beginning
In time others joined the group until we had a total of 8 members. I asked Wayne Shuart, one of the leaders of Co-Uni-Bus, if the number 8 meant anything special as far as God was concerned. He had no idea why I was asking, but said, “The number 8 in scripture a lot of times mean “the new beginning”. The first day of the week after the seventh is not only the 8th, but also kind of a new 1st. He didn’t know till later on that in his response he’d given us our name – “The New Beginning” – it was so fitting – everyone in the group immediately felt at home with the name, because it truly identified us – we’d all experienced a New Beginning and were offering it to others.
All through college we sang. Almost every weekend we were being asked to sing all over the state and share our individual stories about how God got through to us. It was an awesome time. We recorded a couple of “albums”. Some members came and went. But it was during those years that I met friends that I still enjoy a great and unusual friendship with to this day.
We prayed with thousands of people about receiving Jesus and were asking God what was going to happen at the end of college.