Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Old Rugged Cross

The dedication of The Old Rugged Cross at Lake Park Cemetery on April 5, 1959 (L) Mrs. George Bennard, widow of the composer, with Ted Conner, host of WFMJ’s “Hymn Time” (R). via Google News Archive

As a young boy, I first remember seeing The Old Rugged Cross when I was with my grandparents. I believe we were visiting Lake Park Cemetery where one of my father’s brothers, who died as a child, was buried. My grandmother, a very religious woman, loved the fact that there was this Old Rugged Cross, right by a pond, visible from Midlothian Boulevard. She loved the hymn which inspired this memorial.

In later years, I drove by there many times on the way to my girl friend’s home (she’s now my wife of 43 years) in Brownlee Woods. I remember hearing there was some connection between the hymn and Youngstown but didn’t know the whole story.

Reverend George Bennard. Public Domain.

It turns out that the composer of the hymn, the Reverend George Bennard was born in Youngstown in 1873. Apparently his family didn’t remain there long. He was raised in Iowa. As a young man, he had a conversion experience in the Salvation Army, where he met his wife. He left the Salvation Army to become a traveling evangelist with the Methodist Church. He wrote the first verse of “The Old Rugged Cross” after enduring ridicule at a revival meeting in Albion, Michigan in 1912. This is the first verse and chorus:

On a hill far away, stood an old rugged Cross
The emblem of suff'ring and shame
And I love that old Cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain

So I'll cherish the old rugged Cross
Till my trophies at last I lay down
I will cling to the old rugged Cross
And exchange it some day for a crown

The remaining verses were first sung when Bennard was joined by Ed E. Mieras in a duet on the last night of revival meetings in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin on January 12, 1913. It was first sung by a choir of five at a small church in the southwest Michigan town of Pokagon on June 7, 1913. Charles H. Gabriel, a well-known gospel song composer helped with the harmonies. The song became widely popular when evangelist Billy Sunday began using it in his evangelistic campaigns.

Bennard had a long career as an evangelist, traveling the country with his wife. He not only preached but led singing and wrote 350 hymns in the course of his ministry. But none was as famous as “The Old Rugged Cross.” It was introduced to a new generation in 1952, when country gospel singer Ernest Tubbs recorded it as the title track of a gospel album. Many others followed. Reverend Bennard retired to Reed City, Michigan, where he passed away in 1958.

Youngstown remembered her son. A drive was organized, raising $2500, and a 22 foot cross was erected, using timbers from the Veach Methodist Church established in Hubbard in 1829. William H. Fiest Jr. of Stambaugh Hardwood Co did the mill work on the timbers. On April 5, 1959, a dedication ceremony took place at Lake Park Cemetery drawing 3,000 people. Reverend Paul Gauss, executive secretary of the Youngstown Council of Churches spoke, saying, “We honor a man born in Youngstown who lived a life of devotion, a gifted man who had a song in his heart, which he sent out to touch the hearts of literally millions.

Ted Connor, host of the show “Hymn Time” on WFMJ and chair of The Old Rugged Cross committee, introduced Mrs. George Bennard, Reverend Bennard’s widow. She shared reminiscences of her husband and concluded by pointing to the cross, saying, “Let’s remember the One who hung on the first rugged cross.” Brief speeches from local leaders followed along with a music program. The eight page program for the dedication included messages from President Eisenhower, Norman Vincent Peale, and Billy Graham.

Now you know the story of “The Old Rugged Cross” you see as you drive eastbound on E. Midlothian Boulevard toward the I-680 overpass. And if you are curious what the song sounds like, here is a 2017 performance from Alan Jackson.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!