When Bill High graduated from college a semester early, he opted to teach for a bit in Independence before going to law school.
He describes his semester of teaching at Bridger Middle School as “a meaningful experience,” especially when it came to helping one student who came from a tough background. At the end of the semester, the student wrote during a free-writing exercise in High’s class, “Mr. High, I know that I am failing your class, but your class was my favorite one. ... You talked to me.”
Perhaps High opened his message to 400 attendees Thursday morning at the 38th annual Independence Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast because he, too, grew up in poverty and tough times. Now the chief executive officer of the Olathe, Kan.-based National Christian Foundation Heartland, High was a partner with Blackwell Sanders LLP, a national and international law firm, prior to joining National Christian Foundation Heartland in 2000.
For 30 minutes, High metaphorically stripped away his lawyer-like business clothing, saying the image of having it all put together isn’t reflective of his early life.
High’s father, too, was the product of a tough childhood, his family relying on newspapers to insulate the walls of a 3-room log cabin that housed eight children. High’s father joined the Army as a means out, and overseas, he met his future wife in Japan.
They had six children, the fifth one named Bill. Out of the service, High’s father joined the blue-collar workforce. He wasn’t a talker, High said, and he opted to ease his stress with alcohol.
“I don’t remember having a single significant conversation with my dad,” High said.
By age 5, High knew his life was one of poverty, remembering looks of scorn from the mailman. His family’s home had no indoor plumbing. They used an outhouse, and the children took a bath once a week. Ice formed on the inside of the windows during the winter.
In first grade, High’s home caught fire as the family was burning its trash in the backyard. That same night, one of High’s brothers accidentally stepped into a barb wire fence and cut his eye.
“Something broke in my day that day,” High said. “That night, my dad says, ‘I think my luck has turned.’”
The year was 1969. High’s father started hitting the bottle “harder than ever,” his son remembers. Although he’d lost his job, High’s father gets new employment in the quarries. The family moves into a house even worse than the previous one, infested with bugs and with no working toilet.
While his father’s life continues spiraling downward, Bill High said his life turned around. A group of four families near the unincorporated town of Waldron, Mo., decided to start a church, taking on the High family “as a project,” High said.
Page 2 of 2 - The church members loan High’s family a Bible storybook, and High instantly takes to reading the stories of Moses, Joshua and others. While he had yet to set foot in a church, High said reading the stories assured him that his life consisted of more than the struggles and poverty he’d experienced.
“I had life. I had hope,” High said.
That feeling was briefly crushed when High, in the sixth grade, is called out of the classroom. His family burns trash in the backyard that day as his father is dying of cancer. High calls out, “Why, God?”
For years, High filled journals with his thoughts and feelings, asking every year on Dec. 18 the same question: “Why, God?” Then, at 18, the answer came to him: “I took your Earthly father so you could know your Heavenly father.”
“By all means, my story should be the same as my father’s,” he said. “(Some of my cousins and I) should be the ones who should still be struggling with alcohol or drugs ... but God, in his grace, visited us and said, ‘I choose to rescue you, if you’ll come join me.’”