John Collins has fought, taught and preached his way through a good 90 years.
By Brandon HENSLEY
They say you never stop learning, and John Collins knows this more than anyone. One of the biggest lessons he learned happened one day in the early 1960s in Phoenix, Ariz.
He had always fancied himself a lover of history – he used to teach the subject in high school – so when he caught a glimpse of a black slave working in a field portrayed on a $500 dollar bill, he knew he had to find out more.
What he stumbled upon was Confederate States of America currency. The paper money depicted slaves doing various work and Collins, who is black, had his interest piqued. He started going to paper money shows all over the country to collect the bills, but he had to play it cool when bargaining.
“I had to sneak around to it because the only people who were selling it were white,” he said. “They were very cautious because they didn’t know whether I was hostile or I was going to get angry. So I had to play my role and stay calm and collect it.”
Collins has several books full of the money, which the Confederacy started before the Civil War in hopes they could make it a legitimate currency should the South emerge victorious. Spoiler alert: The North won, and today the money is sold and collected at shows only. Collins, though, stopped collecting in 1991.
He said he used to pay $150 to $200 for a bill, but he never minded doing so.
“Didn’t make no difference because to me it was history,” he said. “I wanted to have that history. Being a historian … if I wanted it, I had to pay for it.”
Collins is 90 years old and lives with his wife of 60 years, Gwendolyn, at Scholl Canyon Estates in Glendale. They have a son, Jonathan, and no grandchildren, “just grand dogs,” joked Gwendolyn of the couple’s two pets.
Collins moves around just fine. His voice is deep and his eyes light up when he talks about his time in the U.S. Ninth Cavalry Regiment during World War II.
“Horse Cavalry,” he’ll say in emphatically, in a classic deep southern tone (he’s from Biloxi, Miss.).
His time in the army allowed him to travel to Africa and Europe, and it was around that time he heard God calling him.
“God didn’t mean anything to me,” he said of when he was younger. But one day on the USS General Anderson, he heard a voice tell him, “You serve me the way I want you to or not at all.”
He ignored the calling for a year, but the voice came back around. So Collins enrolled in school and eventually became a pastor for the Seventh Day Adventist Church and traveled the country doing sermons for 50 years.
“Wouldn’t exchange it for anything else,” he said of the experience. “[I] affected a lot of people.”
It was hard at first because not only was the country divided racially, but also within the church, Collins said. After the Civil Rights movement, things eased up a bit, and Collins preached to many white people during his time.
“Both sides wanted to be integrated,” he said of the church. “Basically. Not everybody. But basically, so it made it easy.”
Collins said his style on stage is more toned-down than that of a more boisterous pastor people might see on TV.
“You don’t get [people’s attention] shouting,” he said. “You get it with a conversation style. They listen better and they retain better when you don’t get overly excited about it.”
His favorite place he visited?
“Newark, New Jersey. That’s my favorite city.”
These days, Collins doesn’t spend much time outside of Scholl Canyon, but life is good for him.
“I don’t have any pains,” said Collins. “No headaches, no toothaches. I never had a toothache.”