JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL) — A pillar in the community — that is how others described the late Rev. Vincent Dial, who remained active in both the schools and the church up until his death.
The senior pastor at Bethel Christian Church and chaplain for the East Tennessee State University football team died Monday night following a battle with pancreatic cancer, the church’s Deacon John Russaw confirmed through the family. His legacy, however, continues in the lives of those he impacted from an early age.
Dial graduated from Carson-Newman College in 1974 and signed with the Kansas City Chiefs of the National Football League but suffered a career-ending leg injury the same year. He took a job with the Johnson City schools, where he served for years as a band teacher at Liberty Bell Middle School before becoming North Side Elementary’s principal in 2001.
“One of the most beautiful memories I have is him coming up and playing the piano when the children were in the cafeteria,” North Side first grade teacher Claudette Decker said of Dial, who served as the school’s principal from 2001-2006 and hired her at the school.
“Music was just a commonplace at North Side while he was here, whether he was playing djembe and doing something he had learned in drum circle or whether he was singing — this big, beautiful, powerful voice would come out in the cafeteria or during an assembly or during a PTA meeting.”
Dial’s circle of influence was large, but those who spoke in remembrance of him Tuesday used very similar descriptions. They painted a portrait of a man who embodied the two great commandments — to love God and to love people. They said he held himself and others to a high standard and encouraged and inspired others to want to make him proud of them. And they said Dial was humble, unassuming and ready to lean on others’ expertise and experience even when he was in a leadership role, as he often was.
“It would be a misnomer to think that Reverend Dial was just the pastor of Bethel Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, because he was more than just that,” said Cliff Hudson, an elder at the church. “He was more than just that.
“He was the community pastor. There wasn’t like a building that could hold him, because he was doing God’s will, he was doing God’s work.”
That work seemed endless, from the ministry that began in the mid-1990s when the man who was raised Catholic felt himself being called to minister to years of volunteering at Carver Recreation Center and the Langston Centre, teaching drumming to children.
Honors came, but seemed to be of little importance to Dial.
“He loved people,” Hudson said. “The first and most important about Christianity is love thy God. But the second thing is love thy neighbor. And that was Reverend Dial. He loved God first above all else and then he loved his neighbors.”
Early in his career those neighbors included band students at Liberty Bell. But when he was tapped to take the reins at North Side, the man who had no experience teaching elementary students was up to the task, Decker said.
“When he would be an expert he would stand and rise to his expertise but if he realized you were an expert too he looked to you and said, ‘what should I do, early childhood educator? What should we do here as a counselor,’ or whatever.”
Dial, she said, was “clearly the captain of our but, but he was going to surround himself with people who worked hard and loved children. And he wasn’t intimidated by that.”
The approach was similar at Bethel for the man who didn’t become a pastor until he was in his 40s. Hudson said Dial’s humility made him the kind of leader who set things up for success even after he departed.
“He’s not a perfect man, and he understood that when he started he had a lot to learn,” Hudson said. “There was lessons that he was going to have to learn. We learned together as a church family and him. There was trials, there was tribulation, there was moments of pure joy and we all encompassed all of that.
“The church family, Reverend Dial, the spiritual leaders of the church, his family were all wrapped up in it together.”
Dial had been preaching for about 20 years and retired from being a full-time educator for several when his former Carson-Newman teammate Carl Torbush took the reins as the first head coach of the reconstituted ETSU football program.
It was Torbush who suggested the man he’d known for decades become the team chaplain, ETSU Director of Athletics Scott Carter said.
“Many decades in the making, great respect for one another both centered in their faith and their love for God, and that’s how the genesis of Reverend Dial and our football program began was with Coach Torbush’s invitation,” Carter said. “From that very first day until yesterday, he never missed a beat.
In the seven years he served as chaplain, Dial developed relationships with people throughout the athletic department, Carter said. And while he knew of Dial’s musical talent and athletic background, Carter said he’ll remember Dial most for his faith.
“The way he carried himself every day as just a steadfast presence for young people, a counselor, someone they could talk to they could pray with that was always there and never wavered in their support,” Carter said.
He said Dial was able to relate to players as a former student athlete and do so whether they were having great success or whether they were struggling either on or off the field. Carter called him “this great calming force that just brought love to every occasion.
“I know what my relationship was, and it was special. And I would say special would be a great description everybody would say but it was unique to every person he came in contact with.”
Decker said when she thinks about Dial, “I think about excellence. I think about a great combination of unity and diversity and that he wanted all of us to be the best that we can be.
“He held himself to a high standard, he holds his teachers to a high standard, his students in band to a high standard. I think he enjoyed working hard and celebrating growth and success.”
As a Black man leading a school with a higher-than-average percentage of students of color, Dial allowed students to “see themselves in a leader at North Side,” Decker said.
She said Dial was able to hold in balance an understanding of the difficulties some of the students faced outside the classroom while nurturing accountability.
“We totally understood the challenges of poverty and the challenges of some of the lifestyle that they were living at home, and for these eight hours that they were with us we were still going to hold them accountable and expect the best and tell them that they were headed toward college and graduate school,” Decker said.
“I think that was important to him and it was important to the kids. The kids wanted him to be proud of them. His teachers wanted him to be proud of them.”
Dial’s approach seemed to be universal no matter where he was or who he was with. ETSU’s Carter called him “a bright light in a challenging world.”
“I think we can all look in the mirror every morning and hope to live a life as vibrant and as God like in his faith field as Vincent Dial,” Carter said. “We love him and we miss him and we’re going to do our best to honor him every day.”
Hudson said Dial had missed a few Sundays the last month or so as he battled his illness and that “you could tell he really wanted to be there.”
That was because he loved God, his family, his church family and the community he worked in right up to the end of his life, Hudson said.
“The work involved not just at Bethel. The football program. Carver Rec. The community at large. His hometown, Columbia, South Carolina.”
Hudson said Dial’s character was reflected in the reception he got at church conferences.
“The first time I went with him I was surprised,” he said. “I’m not going to say I was shocked, but I was surprised at how many people knew him and how many people adored him and how many people respected him and how much he was willing to help out and do whenever he was asked.
“He was a man of God.”
In addition to his involvement and leadership in the church and Johnson City Schools system, Dial worked as an advocate for civil rights. He appeared on Daytime Tri-Cities as recently as January to discuss Black History Month.
“One day — one day, we won’t have to have a special month for this group or that group,” he said in the January 2022 interview. “One day, all will come together as Dr. King said as they thank God Almighty that we’re free at last. It’s an exciting time, but we hope that it can be a time that is ongoing not only for the 28 days but the 365 we live and call a year.”
Johnson City Commissioner and fellow pastor Aaron Murphy told News Channel 11 that the community is feeling heavy.
“There is a cloud that wants to find a home here today and rightfully so because we not only lost a brother, we lost a friend, we lost a legend, a mentor, an icon, a pillar in our community,” he said. “He was involved in the lives of people by way of encouraging them, giving them hope, holding them accountable, pushing them forward in their futures and their destinies.”
Funeral and service arrangements for Reverend Vincent Dial have not been announced yet.
He is survived by his wife, Mary, three grown children and several grandchildren.