Today, Jan. 20, 1986, marks the first official nationwide observance of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Like on other federal holidays, city hall, schools, the library, banks and other local public institutions are closed in its honor.

However, the man whose birthday the nation commemorates lived a relatively short time ago. Rev. King was 39 years old on April 4, 1968 when he was assassinated while standing on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.

This past weekend the News-Palladium talked with a Pana minister, the Rev. Loren A. Windhorst of St. Johns United Church of Christ, who recalls a brief encounter he had with Dr. King on the late 1950s, a time just prior to King’s emergence on the national scene as the leader in the Civil Rights movement.

Then a 23-year-old student at Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, Missouri, a St. Louis suburb, Windhorst heard Dr. King as a guest speaker during a daily chapel service in the spring of either 1958 or 1959.

“I’m not sure (of the date). Like I said I was a student at seminary. We had many guest speakers that came to our chapel services.”

Windhorst was one of fifty students in the graduating class of 1960.

“(Dr. King’s appearance) was publicized so there were quite a few people from the community who were also present on that particular occasion. Anyone was invited to come and listen to Dr. King speak.

“He just was a very dynamic person who seemed to certainly know what he was talking about. He told about some of the injustices in the South, specifically. And how the blacks were being mistreated.”

The incidents Windhorst remembered Dr. King speak of were many of the same stories so often told of the pre-Civil Rights black experience.

“Where they were forced to sit at the back of the bus. He told about how blacks could not get in a car and go from Alabama to Chicago without taking (food) with them.”

“If (blacks) were traveling in those days you just took a sack lunch with you or some food in the car because you couldn’t be assured of stopping at a restaurant and being served. That was also true of motels. Sometimes you would have to drive overnight because you were refused a motel room. That was part of the situation.

“Because (King) felt this was unfair and because he did not feel this was what Christ intended the way our society was to be, he himself intended to do something about it and change it.”

During his speech, did Dr. King give any indications as to what he intended to do in the future?

“I don’t think he knew at that time what he was going to do. I think because of his courage and because of his conviction, I think he knew he was going to do something.

“Any of us who were there and heard him speak at that time knew he was going to do something about the situation.

“He was a very dynamic speaker and spoke with courage and conviction.”

After the chapel service, Windhorst was able to briefly meet and shake hands with Dr. King.

“He stood in the hallway and greeted anybody…who came out of chapel that morning. I didn’t have a chance to talk with him on a one-to-one basis, but I’m glad about meeting him and hearing him speak like that.”

Windhorst said he had heard “very little” of Dr. King before the speaking engagement. However, Dr. King already enjoyed a somewhat national prominence or otherwise he would not have been invited to speak, Windhorst noted.

“The United Church of Christ has a good reputation of trying to be aware of what’s going on in the world. Our professor said, ‘You should read with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other’ kind of thing. ‘Try to make the Bible, Biblical truths, applicable to the society in which you live.’ ”

Did he think Dr. King would go on to the future stature he achieved?

“No. No. I was pleased later when, of course, he did become famous that I had had the opportunity to hear him speak and to at least shake his hand.”

Growing up in the southern Illinois town of Metropolis, Windhorst said his first experiences with blacks came during his high school years with black students when the local high school for blacks closed. Later, he lived in college dormitories that admitted blacks at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. They were also in his seminary class.

“I can understand why somebody could get some strong courageous feelings like this and want to do something.

“In fact, I have said from the pulpit here in Pana, I have told the story when I was a student at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.”

Deciding they wanted something other than student food at the campus cafeteria, Windhorst and three friends, one white and two black, went to three restaurants in Carbondale in 1956. None would serve the entire group.

At one, they were met at the door and told that they would not be served because of the two blacks. At the next, the owner said he would serve the two whites and put the food for the blacks outside the back door.

“Then we went at a third restaurant and we sat and sat and nobody would come and wait on us. It was obvious the waitresses had time to wait on us but they wouldn’t. So we all four got up and went to our car. We were going to go back to the campus and eat at the dining hall there so we could eat together.

“I still remember to this day the waitress coming out to our car. She put her hands on the car door. With tears in her eyes she said, ‘I really wanted to serve you guys your meals. But my boss told me that if I waited on you — specifically the Negroes — that I was to come and pick up my check and go home. I just wanted you to know that I don’t like it, but that’s the way it is.’ ”

Appeared in the Pana-News Palladium (Pana, IL), Jan. 20, 1986.