A long-standing pre-Christmas tradition in Neosho has it roots deep in the community, dating back to the post World War II years.
December 1947 was a season for celebration across the United States as Americans made merry. For the third peacetime Christmas since World War II ended, the national mood was bright. Christmas trees shone and sparkled with bright colors, towns and cities lit up with decorations and pop music released now familiar songs like Gene Autry's "Here Comes Santa Claus" and a re-release of Bing Crosby's "White Christmas". Movies like "A Miracle on 34th Street" had debuted that year.
And in Neosho, Wayne Slankard and two of his friends, Ted Bethea and Charles Ruyle, shared concerns that Christmas was fast becoming too commercialized. All three were attorneys and members of the Presbyterian Men's Club. They wanted to do something to focus on the spiritual aspects of Christmas so they decided to meet at 7:15 a.m. each morning for a half hour's devotion at The First Presbyterian Church, then as now located at 215 South High Street.
They expected that perhaps fifty men would come.
On the first morning, 250 attended. By the end of the week, 350 men packed the pews each morning in business suits and overalls.
Encouraged by the success, Ted Bethea wrote to his friend, Dr. Peter Marshall. At the time, Marshall was a nationally known minister as well as the Chaplain of the United States Senate.
Marshall agreed to come to Neosho the following year and did.
In December 1948, Marshall delivered a sermon "Disciples of Clay" at the Neosho Municipal Auditorium (now The Civic) to a full house - all of the 1500 available seats were filled.
Although Marshall died in January, 1949, his legacy lives on. His wife, author Catherine Marshall, wrote about him in her best selling biography, "A Man Called Peter".
Over the years, most churches of the community have served as host for the Laymen’s League services. Men of the community continue to step forward to provide leadership for the services conducted entirely by laymen. Each year's Laymen's League services follow the time honored format with coffee, donuts and fellowship at 6 a.m. with the service at 6:30 p.m.
Five speakers are selected each year but the topic remains the same - "What Christmas Means To Me."
The men who share their answer to that question have been diverse, representing numerous careers and fields in more than seventy years. Among them are two United States Senators from Missouri, Roy Blunt, who currently serves as Senator and John Ashcroft. Ashcroft also served as United States Attorney General while prior to being elected as Senator in 2011, Blunt served as the 7th District Congressman from Southwest Missouri and as Missouri Attorney General.
This year, the services will be held the week of December 16 through 20 in the new sanctuary at the First Baptist Church, Neosho.
The speakers for the 73nd annual Laymen's League pre-Christmas services are Dr. Joseph Sheppard, a Neosho physician on Monday, Ben Coffee, director of the Freeman Southwest Family YMCA on Tuesday, Terry Cook, Missouri Conservation Commission forestry/wildlife crew leader on Wednesday, James Carter, Neosho High School soccer coach on Thursday, Youth Day and James Whitford, executive director of Watered Gardens, Joplin on Friday.
Special music is also a part of the tradition as well.
Over the past decade, presidents who have served include Steve Briggs, Buzz Ball, Mike Aldrich, Bruce Mahr, Bob Skaggs, Ed Leavitt, Rick Holden, Wayne Wentworth, Allen Beals and Dallas Kelly.
Former Missouri State Representative Kevin Wilson is the current president. In the past half century, three men have served as secretary which are Bill Gray, Robin Montz, and current secretary Roy Shaver. Four men have been treasurer for the League: Bill Henry, Dick Reed, Johnny Brown, and Bruce Mahr.
Last year, one of the Laymen's League speakers was Paul Richardson, who writes a weekly column for both The Neosho Daily News and The Aurora Advertiser as well as In Sane Marketing. He shared what Christmas means to him and said, "The day I recognized who Christ was, that was the day Christmas started for me. I believe in Christ and that's what Christmas means to me, my belief in Christ. Christ is Christmas so I have Christmas every day."
Local men are invited to attend the 73rd annual Laymen's League Pre-Christmas services each morning from Monday, December 16 through Friday, December 20 at the First Baptist Church of Neosho, located at 12325 Highway 86.