Community gathers to celebrate the life of Carl Erskine

Apr. 23—ANDERSON — People from many different walks of life gathered to remember the impact of Carl Erskine.

About 500 people attended the calling hours Sunday evening and about 500 more came to the 1 p.m. Monday memorial service at Madison Park Church of God to pay respects to Erskine, who died April 16 at the age of 97.

Appropriately, the service concluded with the video screens at the front of the sanctuary showing Erskine and his wife of 76 years, Betty, sitting on the porch of their Anderson home with Erskine playing "Back Home Again in Indiana" on the harmonica.

Erskine playing the harmonica was a familiar sight in Anderson for several decades, particularly at the Little Bit Country Jamboree fundraisers for Special Olympics. Erskine, who was a pitching standout for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1940s and '50s, was a pivotal figure in the growth of the Special Olympics movement.

He was also known as an advocate for social justice, in part through his relationships with two Black men — boyhood and lifelong friend Johnny Wilson and Dodger teammate Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball's color barrier.

The memorial service Monday focused on the faith of Carl and Betty and how that faith inspired others.

"We're here to celebrate a life," said Jeff Hardin, who often played music with Erskine. "I got this banjo from Carl."

Hardin played a tribute to Erskine that was not part of the service's script.

Don Wright followed by playing the hymn "He Walks with Me."

"We all have memories and a deep love for this man and his family," Hardin said of Erskine.

The Rev. Dennis Roberts touched on Erskine's accomplishments as a member of the Dodgers and his involvement with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Special Olympics and the Hopewell Center, a local non-profit that provides opportunities for people with disabilities.

"Heaven is more festive today than yesterday, because Carl is there," Roberts said. "This is not a sad day, but a glorious day."

He said for more than eight decades Carl and Betty Erskine taught the gospel.

"Carl would want us today to praise the name of Jesus," Roberts said.

Bill Gaither, the gospel music icon who lives in Alexandria, recalled his reaction after seeing a public screening of "The Best We've Got: The Carl Erskine Story," Ted Green's 2022 documentary.

'I was never more proud to call myself a Hoosier and a part of Madison County," Gaither said. "We have a role model like Carl Erskine. Carl brought the community together."

He remembered Erskine as a great storyteller who always had perfect timing.

"I'll miss those stories," Gaither said.

His wife, Gloria, said people knew Erskine was a man of faith by the way he lived his life.

"He loved his wife of 76 years, his children and his hometown more than he loved baseball," she said.

Gloria Gaither noted that Erskine referred to himself as "just a skinny kid from Anderson," and she marveled at how much God accomplished through him with just a couple of tools — a baseball and a harmonica.

Roberts said Betty Erskine was always there to support her husband through his many endeavors.

"After baseball, the Special Olympics, the Hopewell Center, she could have said, 'Carl, haven't we done enough?'" he said. "There was a bond and they worked together in all that God called on Carl to do."

Follow Ken de la Bastide on Twitter @KendelaBastide, or call 765-640-4863.