Icons Make Heavenly Ascent
Both Rev. Joseph R. Samuels, pastor emeritus of St. Stephen Missionary Baptist Church, and Roland “Sonny” Smith Watts, a well known artist and former chair of the Fine Arts Department at Winston-Salem State University, passed away on Saturday.
Samuels, 87, was installed as pastor at St. Stephen Baptist in 1958, and guided the church for five decades. Under his leadership, St. Stephen underwent many changes, including a relocation from Bowen Boulevard to a $3.7 million facility at 5000 Noble St., which opened on June 23, 1991.
Samuels was also responsible for launching a Sunday afternoon broadcast on WSMX radio and changing the church’s name from St. Stephen Baptist to St. Stephen Missionary Baptist in 2007, according to the church’s Web site.
(Current St. Stephen) Pastor James E. Cook and the St. Stephen Missionary Baptist Church Family celebrate the life, legacy and accomplishments of Dr. J. R. Samuels as a pastor, preacher, teacher, visionary and dynamic leader,” reads a statement from St. Stephen. “Pastor Cook is proud to stand on the shoulders of such a giant man of God. Dr. Samuels’ contributions have left an indelible mark on, not just the community of Winston-Salem, but the State of North Carolina.”
Samuels’ death came just one week before Mount Olive Baptist Church was slated to hold J.R. Samuels Day, an annual program honoring the pastor. Mt. Olive Pastor Dr. Charles Gray attended St. Stephen briefly in the 1970s before becoming a pastor himself.
The Greenville native says he regarded Samuels as both a mentor and a friend. “He was the greatest. I patterned myself and my ministry after his,” declared Gray, who has helmed Mount Olive for 34 years. “He taught me a lot about patience and a lot about people, things you couldn’t learn in the seminary.”
Gray remembers Samuels as a patient, peaceful soul who was soft spoken and slow to anger. He says Samuels had a knack for including people from every generation in the services, and making each feel valued and encouraged. “He had a way of working with the people to keep a balance,” Gray stated. “In the worship service, he had something for the young people and the middle aged, and the seniors.”
Gray founded JR Samuels Day after Samuels’ retirement several years ago, as a way of showing his appreciation for the guidance Samuels extended to him and to many other pastors around the community.
“He’s my father in the gospel,” he stated. “He taught me so much, and I wanted to show him how much I did care for him and love him.”
The retired pastor was so commanding in the pulpit that Gray said he and many of the other pastors Samuels had shepherded nicknamed him “Thunder” and referred to themselves as the “sons of Thunder.”
“We called him Thunder because the way he preaches, he’s so dynamic and so powerful,” he related. “Whenever they (local residents) would have a big event or a retirement party for another minister, they would always call Rev. Samuels. He would just rock the house.”
Watts, 81, a native of Philadephia, was considered one of the best known wood block printers in the Southeast. His work was featured in nearly 40 exhibitions over the course of his lifetime. An alumnus of N.C. A&T State University, Watts was a fixture in the WSSU landscape, where he served as a member of the faculty for 39 years. During that time, Watts made many lasting contributions, including designing the Chancellor’s Mace, which is carried during Commencement and other important school ceremonies.
“Roland ‘Sonny’ Watts gave more than half of his life to Winston-Salem State University. As a professor and as chair of the Fine Arts Department, Sonny put his stamp on what was done then and a great deal of what continues on today,” Chancellor Donald Reaves said in a statement about Watts’ passing. “…Sonny’s contributions to the art world go far beyond our university. He was a prolific, well-respected and highly-regarded artist. His talent was known not only locally, but across this state and this nation … the university will be forever in his debt and his legacy will certainly continue on our campus.”
Watts and his wife, Velma Gibson Watts, celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary just before his passing. His daughter, actress and television personalty Rolanda Watts, described him as an “amazing, adventurous, creative, kind, and funny Daddy.”
“‘Sonny’ – as Daddy was adoringly called – was always the life of the party — with some good jokes, great scotch, and a spirit as jolly as Christmas. He is already sorely missed,” she posted on her Facebook page shortly after his death. “…My father still lives …. in me, in my heart, and through the many wonderful stories of his amazing life from the many who still love him every day. Rest in Peace now, Daddy …. and I’ll do as you always told me: I’ll make even this one a ‘Sonny’ day.”
Watts’ life was celebrated during a memorial service at Mt. Zion Baptist Church Tuesday afternoon. The details of Samuels’ service were not final when The Chronicle went to press.