The start of a new year is old hat when you’ve already got a century under your belt.
Richard Tottress of College Park celebrated his 100th birthday on Nov. 25, and he shows few signs of slowing down. The Seventh-day Adventist pastor, author, broadcaster and educator has written more than 6,000 sermons and poems in addition to several books. He earned a bachelor’s degree in theology in 1943, a time when many African Americans had limited access to higher education.
A dapper dresser with bright eyes and a warm smile, Tottress doesn’t look a day over 75. He uses a cane to get around, but there’s clearly a stronger force propelling him forward in life.
His midwife grandmother delivered him into the world in Newby, Oklahoma, where his grandfather and father were farmers. The eldest of 18 children, he had to travel nine miles away to attend high school. But after graduating in 1937, he moved to northern California where he enrolled at Pacific Union College to study religion.
Raised devoutly Baptist, Tottress says he took naturally to preaching, even as a child in his family’s barnyard. But while in San Francisco he was baptized into the Philadelphian Seventh-day Adventist Church. After interning in Texas, he became ordained and served in SDA churches throughout the state before becoming a chaplain at Camp Barkeley during World War II.
In 1946 he married Margarreau Norton, an elementary school teacher; they were together for 52 years before her death in 1999. Tottress published his first book, Heaven’s Entrance Requirements for the Races, in 1957, and started a weekly radio show called “Your Bible Speaks” while serving as a pastor in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1963 he became the first pastor of the Oakwood College Church in Huntsville, Alabama, also serving as a dean and professor. He transferred to Atlanta in 1979 to become co-pastor of Berean Church, and earned his master’s and doctorate from Beverly Hills University in 1981.
The paneled walls of Tottress’s home are lined with dozens of plaques and awards commemorating his many years of service to the church and the community. Though retired, he still accepts offers to preach “whenever I’m asked, anywhere, anytime.” Oh, and he’s writing his autobiography.
“If it’s in your soul, mind and body, you keep on going with it,” he says, ever smiling.
He still drives and volunteers at the Berean food bank. He credits his vegetarian diet — a tenet of the SDA — for his longevity.
His enduring philosophy is that “a human is a human: treat him like that.” He supported the civil rights movement, and knew Thurgood Marshall, Langston Hughes and Martin Luther King Jr. (and his parents).
He and his current wife, Mattie Duncan Tottress, an educator and former high school principal, have no children of their own, but Mattie’s daughter lives in Jonesboro and helps them out. Mattie calls him “a truly remarkable man.”
Tottress notes with a chuckle that his driver’s license is valid until 2020. Good thing, because he plans to outrun Father Time awhile longer.