Song heard 'round the nation

REED CITY – Some say it's the catchy tune that made "The Old Rugged Cross" become one of the most popular hymns of all time. Others credit the meaningful lyrics for striking a heartstring in singers and listeners.

Whether the tune or lyrics gives the song its gusto, churches around the nation are invited to play the song on Aug.12 in celebration of it’s 100th year.

"It's open to all churches and all denominations to recognize the centennial of the song," said Jim Hinkins, great-grand nephew of the song's writer.

The song was written in 1912 by the Rev. George Bennard, who lived out his retired years in Reed City.

Pastor Dawn Pooley, of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Reed City, said her church will sing the song on Aug. 12 because the members love to hear the classic song. The local ties to the area make the song extra popular in the Reed City area.

“If you live here and you’re over 60, it’s like the national anthem,” Pooley said.

Bennard wrote more than 300 songs, both gospel and secular, but none reached the popularity of "The Old Rugged Cross,” which was translated into many different languages and sung around the world.

The Old Rugged Cross Museum opened in his honor in Reed City in 1990 and proudly displays an exhibit devoted to Bennard and his song.

"We have people come here from all over the world,” said museum director Betsy Randall. “We’ve had German groups, French groups...sometimes they have their own worship services (here). We just let them sing.”

Museum guests often play the parlor organ, which was owned by Bennard’s wife, Hannah. The organ sits near many items from Bennard’s house, such as jewlery, glasses, pens and many old newspaper articles.

"He was a travelling evangelist, and he would go around two or three days and stay someplace and hold revival (services),” Randall said. "He was a well-known historical figure and he's probably the most famous person who was ever connected with Reed City."

In celebration of the prominent figure, the Reed City Chamber of Commerce erected a cross in 1954 near Bennard's house on Mackinaw Trail in Reed City.

Bennard was flattered at the construction of the cross. He said the cross being built near his home was one of the two greatest worldly honors of his life - the other was being asked to be the grand marshal of the Rose Parade in 1953. As he looked out his window at the cross, it inspired him to write one of his last songs before he died in 1958, at the age of 85. The song was titled "Light on the Cross."

Along with the request for churches to celebrate the milestone by singing "The Old Rugged Cross," the museum will host a celebration spanning the entire weekend, honoring the song and it's composer with musical renditions, an open house and a ceremony.

"It will be a whole weekend of activity," Hinkins said. "’The Old Rugged Cross’ will be sung a number of times during the two days."

The museum, located at 780 N. Park St., will be open from 1 to 8 p.m. on Aug. 10 and 1 to 4 p.m. on Aug. 11 with refreshments for guests. A gospel music program will be held at 7 p.m. Friday at Rambadt Park in Reed City with The Whitfords, Crossroads Singers and Ridgerunners Band performing. The program will close with a group singing of "The Old Rugged Cross."

A musical program and ceremony will take place at 2 p.m. on Aug. 12 at the United Methodist Church of Reed City. There will be a special presentation by Bennard's great-grand nephews and nieces- his closest known living relatives- who live in the Detroit area.

"We're trying to revive some of his music other than the ‘Old Rugged Cross,’ to play for this program," Hinkins said.

Hinkins' sister will perform a piano rendition of the song she wrote, and the family will talk about Bennard's life. The audience also will be treated to Bennard's own words describing

his inspiration for writing his most popular song.

"We will hear him explain, on a recording from the early ‘50s, how he wrote the song," Hinkins said. "He explains the whole thing on a recording of a radio broadcast called the Gospel Hour."

The planning for the program has been in the works for the past year, Hinkins said.

Museum volunteers have visited sites in Michigan where Bennard lived, gathering family information and history for a special display for the celebration.

Churches in Michigan as well as Kentucky and South Carolina already have committed to singing the song, and invitations to the celebration have been distributed around the state.

For more information on the celebration, call the Reed City Chamber of Commerce at (231) 832-5431.