Between the music building and Teter quad, I discovered two things about this tall, quiet man. He was confident. He had the deliberate stride of a person who knew where he was going and why. And he was ‘other oriented.’ He listened more than he talked. His probing questions, rather than being intrusive showed his interest in you. And so began my journey with Bob Neff. In the fall of 1963 our first date was an afternoon hike in Brown County. We climbed a fire tower and looked out over the incredible colors of autumn in Southern Indiana. Blazing maples, soft neutral oaks, pines and sycamores were the back drop of our conversation. He asked me what I wanted to do with my life. Graduate from IU and travel the world was my vision. He stated that he planned to work at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago as a broadcaster. I had neither been to Chicago nor heard of Moody Bible Institute. There were no broadcasters in the farm country I came from so I knew nothing of that profession. But this would soon change.
Our journey together lasted 41 years, 2 months, and 21 days. We were married three semesters later, semester break of my sophomore year and one semester before his graduation. We were snowed into our little apartment on our wedding night—which was more than quite nice. We both treasured those days of quiet seclusion. The years to come were anything but quiet and we would be blessed with lots of friends. With his vocal major and broadcasting minor Bob was ready to pursue his calling with his 19 year old bride. We arrived at our Chicago studio apartment in a blue and white 1956 Chevy trailering an Uhaul with our few possessions. Our journey included finishing degrees, moving six times, having children, adopting children, church choirs, lots of hospitality where ever we lived, and traveling to 40 countries together. I was to become an educator—a teacher and counselor in public high schools for 26 years. Yes, a full time working mom. He would simply follow his calling to Moody Bible Institute. But that was not so simple. Bob uniquely combined high passion and high productivity and the vision, intelligence and stamina to make things happen. His career path moved from tape editor to Vice President of Moody Broadcasting—a large calling to be sure.
But let me step back into that first year. While Bob had accepted a full time position with Moody radio, our costs with city living and my full time status as a student at Northwestern University were beyond his income. Northwestern had not yet granted me scholarships so Bob worked part time construction, directed a church choir, and cleaned the apartment building we lived in. “Debt” was not a word in our vocabulary, nor was “vacation.” These characteristics of our early marriage at times served us well, but not always.
We made a key decision together on a rare get-away weekend we enjoyed. I had been reading Dale Evans’ book about their adopted children. Bob and I both shared a belief in the value of life. It seemed like a common sense conclusion that if God granted us health to parent and jobs to provide for children, we would both have and adopt children. We prayed in that tiny lakeside cottage committing our family to God and went back to the city.
As a result of that decision, our only daughter Valerie was born to us, followed by our adoption of John (read the story here), then the birth of Charles and our adoption of Rob (read the story here). This changed the course of our parenting and the course of the third generation of our family as well. Adoption often brings unique challenges to a family and ours was no exception. However, Bob and I had an unwavering assurance from day one of our adoptions that the precise individual who came into the Neff family was selected by his Creator and ours and was intentionally placed in our family.
The ‘small children’ stage of our lives together found the six Neff’s traveling the United States in a conversion van seeing the sights of our country as well as making multiple stops at many small radio stations. Bob would put on his suit to visit the station. The children and I would hopefully find a nearby park not inhabited by unhappy dogs or mosquitoes. It amazes me that our children remember these van trips as fun and adventuresome. I believe they all suffer from amnesia. Did they forget the intimidating bison standing at the front door of our cottage in Yellowstone? Did they forget our driving off and leaving one child at a roadside fruit stand in Canada? Did they forget the 26 hour almost nonstop trip to get back to Chicago for school’s opening day? Our family snapshots show mostly energetic and smiling children and a thin Mom with dark circles under her eyes. But today I treasure every adventure of those days. I especially treasure the presence of the confident, handsome, gentleman with whom I shared the journey.
The ‘growing children’ season found Bob taking on a new role of soccer coach. Any dad that shows up consistently with two fast sons is quickly drafted into service. I had my first few books published and Bob initiated the satellite initiative in broadcasting and engaged the Federal Communications Commission in rules changes that positively impacted Christian broadcasting.
And a more rocky stage began. We moved and our adolescent children did not adjust positively to the new school and neighborhood. One decided he did not want to be a Neff. Parenting was hard. I cannot honestly describe our life without including this fact. Bob and I struggled to agree on how to parent in difficult circumstances. We both would later speak of our regrets of that season and decisions we wish we had made differently. It has been said that out of misery comes ministry. We developed compassion for parents whose children were struggling. We developed understanding of the morass of the court system. We ached for the incarcerated and those trying to move forward after foolish decisions with the weight of consequences multiplied by hard knocks of life and injustice.
We would have closed memories doors on that season of our life had not good things come out of the painful journey. Bob, an already humble man became marked by a rare humility for a man in his position. While Moody Broadcasting was literally exploding, he deflected any personal credit to his team. He listened intently to his coworkers, prayed for their children. No personal problem was too small or too dirty. It was evident to all who knew him that he had become a humble servant.
In my career as a counselor in a public high school, I offered coffee and sympathy rather than judgment to the exhausted parent whose teen had run away. I started a Hispanic girls group to offer support to an unnoticed and struggling population in our school. Bob was eventually instrumental in the founding of the first Moody affiliate station in Angola, a prison with 85% ‘lifers’ in Louisiana. We began to pass on the comfort we had received in hard times to others on the journey.
Our nest began to empty, but our lives were filled with new things. Looking back on the separate paths our careers often took us, Bob made the decision (with which I fully concurred) that his international trips would be made with me. He had been receiving and accepting invitations to visit fledgling radio stations typically in countries with few resources. His heart thumped with passion to help, so he traveled, accessed, and acted. It was impossible to come home and describe to me these adventures. It was important for our marriage that these be shared experiences.
This began a season on our journey valuable beyond measure. I began to travel with him. Russia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Africa, South America. Our adventures could fill a book. We connected with the incredible folks at HCJB (Heralding Christ Jesus’ Birth) an international broadcasting group on whose board Bob would serve. We stayed with believers in small Romanian apartments built by the communist model. We stayed in converted cow barns. In one apartment we could look down on a street that just a decade before had seen blood shed and bodies that could not be removed as the people fought for freedom from oppression.
We met Christians who I am humbled to have shaken their hand. Their dedication to the cause of Christ is pursued relentlessly with small means and little encouragement. And I came to see the largeness of my husband’s vision in a way that would be impossible if I had stayed home.
How do you measure the value of the shared experience of swatting mosquitoes during the night with a towel in the converted cow barn and waking up to see that your faces looked like you had the measles? Obviously, we did not swat them all! We could only look at each other and laugh.
How do you measure the value of the shared experience of being invited into a refugee tent in Macedonia for coffee? It is 104 F outside where there is a tiny breeze. We attempted to decline the offer of entering the sweltering tent. Our guide says, “Accept.” And we do. The gracious couple had fled their restaurant in Kosovo for survival. Extracting a Bunsen burner type contraption, they prepared strong, hot coffee that caused us to sweat even more profusely. But we heard their incredible story and were humbled to have been invited in. They introduced us to their children and other relatives in the camp. We exited the tent having been exposed to a man and woman who had almost nothing—except courage. Their future was blank and yet full of hope. We did not even notice that our clothes were soaked and clung to our bodies like shrink wrap.
I thought this stage would last a long time. My retirement from public education was nearing and I would have more time to travel with Bob. The little vision I shared with Bob in the fall of 1963 to travel the world was happening. And I loved it.