The Making of a Legend
The real story of the Apollo Prayer League didn’t begin with NASA. It began in rural east Texas in 1926 when Mrs. Jarnigan brought her baby girl, Mary Helen, down a dusty farm road in Handley, TX to visit Mrs. Stout. If you prefer to go directly to the formation of the Apollo Prayer League at NASA, you can jump there now, but you’ll be missing the heart of the story.
The youngster in the house, Johnie Stout was intrigued with the chubby-faced little girl. “I want that,” he told his mother. Johnie had three brothers and had never seen a baby girl before. “Well, what Johnie wants, Johnie usually gets,” his mother smiled. Johnie was three years old. Little Mary Helen Jernigan was two.
And so began their life of 80+ years together.
As youngsters, John and Helen pledged to stay together “forever and ever—and then a little bit more.” To cement their devotion, Helen picked up a sharp rock and cut her hand. Johnie did the same. And they pressed their palms together to seal the vow.
The Sunday walk to church through the cementery caught the Stout brothers throwing rocks at the Jarnigan sisters. In short order, rocks came flying back from the prissy-dressed girls on the other side. John and Helen played along the dusty rural Texas roads traveled by Bonnie and Clyde. It was rumored that the townspeople sheltered the carefree robbers from the law.
As time moved on, the two spent evenings sitting on planks John had laid across a ravine and dangling their feet off “Rot Bridge,” named for the run-off that flowed through the cementery and down under the bridge when it rained.
The truth is, John Maxwell Stout wasn’t supposed to be a boy. His father already had two boys, Jack and Joe, and Johnie’s mother, Stella, had promised him a girl. So sure of this was his father, Joe Sr, that he had the birth certificate made out in advance with a girl’s name: Johnny. When the little girl turned out to be a 13-pound boy, his father was so upset he had the birth certificate certified as-is, packed his bags and left. But seeing the love his wife had for the new baby, he returned to father yet another boy, James, the last of four boys.
But the name Johnny remained on his birth certificate. He was a star football player in high school and badly needed the help of a football scholarship to get him through college. So after graduation, in July 1940, in order to condition his legs for a spot on the Texas A&M football team, he bicycled 1025 miles from Fort Worth, Handley, TX, to Elwood, Indiana with his pet horned frog in a basket to stump for Wendell Willkie in his bid for president against Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was running for a third term. The press followed his route along the way and bikers joined him. As he rode into Elwood, he was greeted by a crowd of cheering townspeople and a band. (The story was covered in Roosevelt’s biography by Herbert Parmet, Never Again: A President Runs for a Third Term.)
Joe Sr. had a passion for the Aggies, so when the school season opened, he drove him to the College Stations campus and parked at the football field where Coach Homer Norton had a practice session was underway.
Not wanting to ruin his only decent pair of shoes, John walked onto the field barefoot. After a plea by his father to convince Norton to let his son try out for the team, Norton finally agreed to watch him field a couple of throws. Norton was impressed. With that, the 6’ 3” Stout was given a meager roll watching the clock during games, for which he received room and board—and a tentative seat on the Aggie bench. The Cotton Bowl lay ahead.
Helen enrolled at Texas A&M and watched from the bleachers as Johnnie Stout, jersey number “80,” suited up as right end on the 1941 winning Cotton Bowl team. With World War II on the horizon and the government looking for recruits, at the half-time ceremony of the 1942 Cotton Bowl Classic hometown game, just six months prior to graduation, all senior players were inducted into the Army.
Not wanting to leave his childhood sweetheart behind, John spent his last $25 for a wedding ring, and on April 25, 1943, John M. Stout and Mary Helen Jernigan were united in holy matrimony at the Baptist Church in College Station, Texas. True to their pledge of “forever and ever and just a little bit more,” they took “till death do us part” out of their wedding vows. The entire football team lined up to kiss the bride—and Johnnie headed off to serve his country.