People may face adversity in their lives, but therapist Chris Kidwell learned early that the adversities in his life bequeathed an earnest compassion for people.
Born in Chattanooga, Chris was raised in a single parent home by his mother Theda until he was seven years old. “She was, in my opinion, an Annie Oakley,” Chris shares. “My natural father left when I was born and I didn’t learn until 20 years later that a woman just did not take a man to court for child support. But not only did she do that, she also had garnished his wages in order to take care of me. Not many women had a business degree either and my mother did … she rose above all that.”
For over a decade, Theda was executive secretary for Jack Harkin of the Coca-Cola Bottling Company and later worked at the Power Equipment Company. Chris remembers in the early years, having a nanny named Dolly Mae Cook who cared for him as her own while his mother worked to make ends meet.
“When I was seven, she remarried Red Kidwell and that was where my love for trains came in. Red shoveled coal and then worked his way up to be an engineer on the trains. My grandfather, a well-educated man, was a teacher and he also worked for the railway mail service. I was on the trains sitting on the mail bags and getting dirty. I had a good life and I had a ball,” Chris says.
“I loved the trains because of all the noise and the massive engine. I would go with granddaddy on the mail car and traveled out of Chattanooga to Alabama. I watched him drop the mail as we would approach this drop spot and he’d throw a bag out – and there was an arm that would grab the mail bag. I also had an uncle who was a switchman that worked on trains,” Chris recalls.
Playing sports and hanging out with his friends, Chris led a fairly ordinary life as any young man growing up in Stuart Heights, and, even though his step-father was a good man, Red had a drinking problem which made life a little difficult for Chris. He watched his mother go through an abusive situation that made Chris feel protective toward his mother and others who dealt with distresses.
Chris also stayed busy and, like his mother, was a hard worker. However, while shoveling gravel during a summer job, Chris decided that he did not want to be a laborer.
But more than that, the desire to help people overcome undesirable difficulties pressed Chris to move beyond working with his hands and eventually he would work from his heart.
Chris attended Wesleyan College, but with studying calculus and chemistry right off the bat, it cramped Chris’ partying lifestyle. Feeling overwhelmed Chris had lost interest.
His compassion for others was deep and unsettled as he led an empty life of drinking and decadence. As a young man finding his way, Chris joined the Navy and spent two and a half years aboard a destroyer in Vietnam.
Chris later continued his education at UTC and felt a push away from his wild, careless days. “I was ready to settle down. I had to pay bills and needed to be responsible. I was with a date at the old Maclellan Gym at a concert and this evening changed my life,” Chris insists. “I was raised in church, but I had never heard the message that was being preached that night and I thought, ‘if this is for real, I don’t want to miss it’ and that was my prayer. I didn’t tell anybody but in the next few weeks my life slowly began to change.”
Chris met a civil engineer by the name of Frank Merry who would be instrumental in his walk of faith.
“Frank took me under his wing – he could tell I was a wild buck. He began sharing the truth with me and became a mentor. He was one of my heroes.”
Chris began attending Sunday school at First Presbyterian Church and, during a Wednesday night supper, he had spotted a good-looking girl named Carlene.
“I married over my head – she is a wonderful woman. I tricked her into getting engaged to me,” Chris laughs. “I thought in those days that everybody knew what it meant to ‘get pinned’. My life was changing and I didn’t want to be a ladies man anymore. I didn’t want to make a mistake with Carlene and I wanted to treat her with high respect,” Chris declares.
“I tried to put my pin on her and I didn’t want to offend her by getting too close, so I just handed it to her. I asked her, ‘Will you wear this and …do you know what this means?’ She said that she did so I thought, ‘Well, cool’. She went home and asked her mother what it meant to get pinned and she told her that it meant she was engaged and she said ‘What?!’ …but I guess she got comfortable with it, cause I married her a few months later,” Chris says.
After transferring to Columbia Seminary in South Carolina to finish his undergraduate degree, Chris accumulated his board certifications over the years to become an experienced and credentialed therapist. During his senior year he had to interview prisoners and he gained much experience as his compassion to help others emerged fully.
At that time therapists were not sought after unless they were psychiatrists and Chris took on various jobs with insurance companies for additional income.
Having gone to seminary to learn theology for his own personal knowledge of the Bible, Chris pastored New Life Bible Fellowship part time for a year and a half. He got into a catalogue fulfillment company as a counselor and was booking about 70 hours per week, which gave him a good start to build a practice.
“I was on my own and started a 20-year run with several companies seeing their employees,” Chris says.
He decided to finish his degree in theology and was ordained as a minister in 1993.
“Ben Haden was the head of my ordination. I was Ben’s first summer intern in 1975 and we have been in touch all these years,” Chris says. He recalls a funny, but pivotal moment in which pastor Haden imparted wisdom to a newly married Chris.
“Carlene and I had been married three months and Ben called me in his office. He loved my wife and admired her. He would always say that she led people to Christ just with her smile. I wasn’t in his office but two or three minutes, but I remember him saying to me, ‘You have taken the smile off of her face and the joy out of her heart and you better put it back.’ That is what he told me verbatim,” Chris relays. “I didn’t even argue with him. I just said, ‘Where do I start?’ He said, ‘You need to have somebody teach you to be a husband.’ Now, I never raised a hand to her or called her names or cursed, but what I had done was gone from one extreme to the other.”
After he left his partying lifestyle, Chris nearly became a fundamentalist in his way of thinking. He had to learn a healthy balance and that was the message that Ben Haden was trying to convey to him.
“Carlene was part of the Singing Mocs and they were about to go on a European tour with the Air Force. They had these little short pants as outfits and I said to her, ‘You ain’t wearing that.’ She told Glenn that I said she couldn’t wear the outfit and apparently Glenn had told Ben - that is probably what Ben was talking about that day. I appreciate Glenn and have stayed in touch with him over the years. He is my only remaining father figure,” Chris vows.
In the many years that Chris counseled people, he never let hearing their problems get to him or bring him down. His jovial personality shows that he took the lessons of his mentors to heart and learned that balance of having his faith and keeping it real.
Reaching people is a natural fit with his compassion for the hurting. With Chris’ background, being mentored by caring Christian leaders, and his faith, he has a shepherding heart and genuinely seeks to help people overcome difficulties life had apportioned them.
With his background of being raised by blue-collar workers and his experience working with prisoners, Chris was comfortable with people of all walks of life and enjoyed helping them. He has volunteered his services in Grundy County once a week for over 13 years.
Chris vows, “I can’t not do it. Those people can’t afford counseling and they have stuff on the table just like the rest of us. This is my calling and I love the people. I considered quitting, but even when I couldn’t afford much gas, I still went. It gave me a purpose. I am meant to help people.”
His supportive wife Carlene has been in church music all of her years. She took the Chattanooga Christian School choir to state and was at Hixson Presbyterian Church for 25 years and Signal Mountain Presbyterian for 12 years. Carlene had gone back to school for her nursing degree and is now working at Memorial Hospital. The couple has four grown children and Chris is still involved with Grundy County and helping prisoners reconnect with their family after they are released.
When asked what rewards he gains from helping others, Chris simply says, “I have been blessed. You have to get beyond your ego - Ben Haden told me this asking, ’What is your purpose?’ and my purpose is this… this is what I was meant to do.”