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ONE OF OUR Esto neighbors is the choir director of a nearby church. For Easter this year, she decided to add some extra drama by re-creating the empty tomb from which Jesus arose. She got a big cardboard box used to ship a piano, painted on rocks, and added a few sprigs of ivy. Before the choir began its Easter alleluias, a young boy she recruited was to look into the empty tomb and announce, “He is not here. He is risen.”

The moment came on Easter morning. The little boy ran up the aisle, looked into the empty box, turned and announced to the congregation: “Jesus ain’t here.”

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ESTO’S OWN Sybil Taylor, a longtime supporter of Faulkner University in Montgomery, Alabama, was honored in the school’s chapel on January 30, 2014, her 90th birthday. She received a proclamation from President Billy D. Hilyer proclaiming it Sybil Taylor Day on all four Faulkner campuses. “Thank you, Mrs. Taylor, for your unwavering support of Christian higher education and Faulkner University,” he said.

Sybil Miller Taylor was born near Esto and lived on Highway 79 just south of Miller’s Crossroads, which was named for her family. She was active all her life in the Esto Church of Christ. In recent years she moved from Esto to a new house built for her on Alabama Christian Drive on the main Faulkner University campus in Montgomery.

EASTER WAS ALWAYS a happy time in Esto. Families gathered, and those who’d moved away came home. We hid and hunted eggs after a picnic at T’s pond. Azaleas and dogwoods blossomed.

This year we’d hoped to make it home for Easter. But it didn’t work out. I was doubly disappointed when my sister-in-law called to say we’d be having a special guest at Esto Baptist Church to deliver the Easter sermon: Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden. Holy Moses! Saint Bobby himself!

A visit to Esto by a celebrity of Bobby Bowden’s stature was big news. And it was a special celebration for our little country church.

Bobby Bowden at the Esto Baptist Church

In recent years, the church had dwindled down to just a handful of members. Even the few still active grumbled about this and that. Many locals had given up on the Esto church and joined more vibrant churches nearby. Finally those remaining asked for help. Mighty First Baptist Church in Bonifay, the county seat, agreed to take Esto’s church under its wing and try to rebuild it.

They called a new young preacher from Jacksonville. He arrived on the scene full of ideas and enthusiasm and began visiting around the town, asking people to come back to church. He invited musicians and other special guests. He organized outings for the young people and birthday parties for the seniors.

To celebrate the rebirth of the church, he invited Bobby Bowden, the legendary FSU football coach, to speak on Easter. And he kept inviting until Bowden finally said yes — and there he was on Easter Sunday morning, having driven the two hours from Tallahassee.

Bowden told them he often spends Sunday mornings speaking in country churches. Usually his wife Ann drives, he said, but today he’d come alone. And maybe he hadn’t taken the full two hours to get to Esto, since a state trooper had pulled him over on his way. (No, he didn’t get a ticket.)

Bowden told the story of his own faith, and how it helps him shape young football players into national champions. The church was full — including some people who hadn’t seen the inside of a church in quite a few years, in a church that hadn’t been full in quite a few years.

Proving himself a good Baptist, Bowden kept his talk short, finishing about 15 minutes before noon. They like to finish a little early at his church, he said, so they can beat the Methodists to the all-you-can-eat buffet.

He stuck around for a few minutes afterward, shaking hands and signing autographs and the occasional football. My sister-in-law went up and told him one FSU graduate in California was two-times sad he hadn’t made it home for Easter this year.

He took her copy of the church bulletin and wrote: “Missed you! Bobby Bowden.”

JOE BOB CLARK is one of Esto’s most successful sons, having moved all the way down to Bonifay, the county seat, and become a prosperous insurance and real estate agent.

Even as a kid I was aware that Joe Bob was an important man. People from Esto who had a problem went to Joe to get it solved. Several times when I was in school in Bonifay he helped and encouraged me — especially the day I turned 16 and thought I just had to have my driver’s license that day. When I was a senior in high school, few things seemed bigger than getting invited to the weekly lunch of the Kiwanis Club, to which all of the businessmen belonged. A boy from Esto could feel way out of his league at the Kiwanis lunch, but Joe was always there, welcoming me in, introducing me around. We kept in touch through the years.

In retirement, Joe has come full circle. He still lives on a hilltop just north of Bonifay, but he returns often to Esto, just 12 miles up the road. He also has taken on the role of caretaker of our neighbors who have gone on to the great beyond. He makes it his personal mission to keep the grass cut and the graves tidy in the Esto cemetery.

My mother is buried in that cemetery. And my grandmother and Uncle John, too. So is nearly everyone else I grew up loving in our little town.

But not my father. Cottontop, as they called him, lived hard and died young, when I had just turned 4. He was buried up the road at Lee’s Chapel, where many people from Esto had been buried before we had a cemetery of our own. The cemetery at Lee’s Chapel didn’t get the care that Joe lavished on Esto’s dead, though, and my father’s grave was in bad shape. I’d found through the years that the best way to deal with the absence of my father was not to think about it too much, and that was how I dealt with his grave, too.

One day I raised the subject with Joe Bob. What did he think about moving my father’s grave to Esto?

“Well, I sure wouldn’t want my people buried up there,” he said. And then he went out and found a local funeral home that would dig up my father’s grave and rebury his casket in Esto.

In the end, I couldn’t do it. I found the prospect unearthed too many memories I’d learned to forget. It’s enough for me to have Joe Bob in the Esto cemetery, cutting the grass, taking care of people in Esto, just as he’s always done.