My friend Gary Thomas Smalley died last night. He was surrounded by his family, including his son and my Focus colleague, Greg, who had just returned hours earlier from a speaking engagement about marriage.
How fitting, I thought, that on the very day Gary was to receive his eternal reward, his son was picking up where his father had left off, loving and ministering to Christian couples by helping to enrich their marital relationships.
It’s impossible to sum up 75 years’ worth of living into a few words, but let me tell you just a little bit about the man I knew and loved – and the author and personality so many of you appreciated from afar.
Gary was a best-selling author of more than 60 books, a world-renowned marriage and relationship expert, and a sought-after speaker with more than 40 years of experience. He regularly appeared on national programs including Fox and Friends, Oprah Winfrey and NBC’s Today show. Over his extraordinary career in ministry, he helped hundreds of thousands of couples through his books, films and conferences.
Gary was also a trusted counselor in whom people confided their deepest longings, hurts, hopes and dreams. The practical advice and coaching he gave helped countless husbands and wives stave off divorce. How many children grew up with both their mom and their dad because God used Gary to repair and restore their marriages? More than you would imagine.
A Friend of the Family
To us at Focus on the Family, Gary was also a friend. We partnered with him in developing marriage resources and welcomed him on our broadcast more than 50 times. I always enjoyed recording programs with Gary. As staff members share their behind-the-scenes experiences with Gary today, I can’t help but nod in agreement: Gary was as gracious and witty in person as he was in his professional capacity.
I especially loved Gary’s sense of humor. He took the subject of marriage and family seriously, but he didn’t take himself too seriously. As my role within Focus expanded to include hosting the daily radio broadcast, Gary’s encouragement and comedic relief helped me slip more comfortably into the assignment.
Gary was also part of our Focus family in an even more direct way. As I alluded to earlier, his son, Greg, serves as our Vice President of Marriage Ministries. For almost five years now, Greg and his wife Erin have helped Focus enrich marriages via programs like The Date Night Challenge, Focus Marriage Mentors, and this February’s Honoring Marriage event. These initiatives put into play many of the principles Gary taught.
Perhaps none of Focus’ efforts exemplify Gary’s passion for marriage as much as what is now known as the Focus on the Family Marriage Institute. Founded by Gary and Greg in 2003, the organization specializes in multiple-day marriage intensives at its Branson Retreat Center. Couples in crisis are able to get away from daily life and concentrate on their relationship in the first-class accommodations nestled in the heart of the Ozark Mountains. An astounding 84 percent of the more than 3,000 couples who have participated in a marriage intensive report that they have remained married when surveyed two years later.
The Smalley Legacy
Gary’s work will live on in his children. In addition to Greg’s work at Focus, Gary’s other two children, Kari and Michael, have also dedicated their lives to helping marriages through publishing and counseling careers.
“I loved my dad’s authenticity and transparency,” Greg wrote me earlier today. “He made a living telling people how he messed up as a husband and father. He was humble enough to admit he made mistakes and driven to learn how to grow as a follower of Christ, husband and father.”
“He was passionately committed to living out the greatest commandment: to love God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength and to love others as himself. He built his ministry on the concept of honor—treating others as priceless treasures. His favorite verse was Romans 12:10, ‘Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor’ (ESV). What I loved best is that who my dad was up on stage was exactly who he was at home. He spent his life honoring his wife and family and helping others have an intimate relationship with the Lord and a thriving marriage and family.”
That all three of his children have also become marriage champions is a testament to the relationship Gary nurtured with his wife of 52 years, Norma. The Smalley children grew up watching Gary and Norma put into practice the same biblical principles they taught.
When the news reached me last evening that Gary had died, I was reminded of that famous observation from another beloved figure in Christendom, the evangelist D.L. Moody, who once noted:
“Some day you will read in the papers, ‘D. L. Moody of East Northfield is dead,’” he said. “Don’t you believe a word of it! At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now; I shall have gone up higher, that is all, out of this old clay tenement into a house that is immortal — a body that death cannot touch, that sin cannot taint; a body fashioned like unto His glorious body. That which is born of the flesh may die. That which is born of the Spirit will live forever.”
Indeed, those of us who are followers of Jesus we will see Gary again. But for now, we grieve while at the same time thanking God for his life and work. We also pray for the Smalley family. While I know they are comforted by the hope of heaven today, the earthly separation is painful. They would appreciate your prayers for divine strength and comfort.
I learned earlier this afternoon that in Gary’s final moments his wife Norma kissed his forehead gently and sang to him. Then, just moments before he breathed his last, these words were spoken over him:
“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you” (Numbers 6:24-25).
Isn’t that beautiful?
How has Gary’s ministry helped your marriage? Please share your memories and stories in the comments section below. I know the Smalley family will appreciate reading your thoughts.
Listen to John Fuller and I reminisce about Gary Smalley: