The dreaded question: I think that I heard this in a sermon at my former church. It is attributed to Dr. Fred Craddock (Cherry Log Christian Church, Cherry Log, Ga.) who is said to have told of the time he and his wife slipped away to the mountains for a few days of relaxation. As they sat in a little restaurant, they saw a man going from table to table greeting diners. Eventually he made his way to their table and, learning that Fred was a pastor, he insisted on telling this story. He said he had been born a few miles from that spot, across the mountain. His mother had not been married when he was born, and the criticism directed at her also hit him. He'd learned to stay to himself at school, lest the insults of his classmates strike too hard. When he was twelve, a new pastor came to the little community church. People talked about that pastor's skill as a preacher, and the boy began to go hear for himself. The preacher fascinated him; but he was always careful to slip in late, sit in the back, and leave early.
One Sunday he was so caught up in the service that he forgot to slip out early. Suddenly he felt a big hand on his shoulder; and, as he whipped around, he saw the face of the pastor. The preacher said, "Who are you, son? Whose boy are you?" His heart sank at the dreaded question; but then the preacher went on: "Wait a minute. I know who you are. The family resemblance is unmistakable. You are a child of God!" With that he patted the boy on the back and added, "That's quite an inheritance, son. Go and claim it!"
The man in the diner with the story then said to Dr. Craddock and his wife, "That one statement literally changed my life." He explained that his name was Ben Hooper (1870-1957) and that he had become a lawyer and had been elected to two consecutive terms (1911-1915) as governor of the state of Tennessee. His had been a responsible and respected life made possible by a person who cared enough to encourage a little boy.
Whoops! On 4/4/2004, an e-mail came to me from James Bell asking for verification. I found some interesting info on an "urban legends" site, "snopes.com". Gov. Hooper was born illegitimate 13 October 1870 to Sarah Wade in Newport, Tenn....the father being Dr. L. W. Hooper who wouldn't marry Sarah because he was already engaged to another. In several years, after Sarah's father died (her support), Ben wound up in an orphanage in Knoxville. When Ben was about 9, Dr. Hooper learned of the situation; he and Mrs. Hooper having lost one child at a very young age, they adopted Ben. Unlike the above story, Ben tended to answer insults with his fists. It is said (I haven't actually read it) that his autobiography never mentions anything like the above story. Ben was baptized into the faith at age 15 and remained a staunch Baptist throughout his life.
From his autobiography (I think that is the quote source), Gov. Hooper said, "Instead of my supposed handicap generating an inferiority complex, it motivated a spirit of ambition and determination that furnished the impetus to carry me over many a hill in my young days. I began to understand that sensible people might appraise a man upon his character and attainments rather than upon the accident of birth or the merits of his antecedents. This possibility furnished a great incentive to effort."