His 69-year-old body sat on an elevated stool in the Chester pulpit. He wore a suit -- he always dressed sharply -- even when the kidney and lung disease that had plagued his body for three years forced him to sit on that stool, breathing with the help of an oxygen machine.
But there Willie "Billy" Boulware sat just a few weeks ago, telling the people of Mount Olive Baptist Church the gospel he'd given them for 35 years.
"He would still bring the word," said Barbara, his wife of 45 years, mother of his two children and the lady who became a widow Monday afternoon when the longtime preacher died at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte.
That recent Sunday was Boulware's last sermon, the final message from a man who spent his life telling people to strive for something more.
Before he was a preacher, Boulware was a teacher; and before that, a poor black kid from Rock Hill's Boyd Hill neighborhood who saw education as his door to success.
He earned six college degrees, in everything from English literature to education to ministry. A talented musician, he played the saxophone on the college circuit through the 1960s and early 1970s, playing jazz and big band.
During his playing days, he met a teenage bassist and singer named June Barnette.
"He was good, good," Barnette said of the man who would put the sax in his mouth, swing it to his side and blow perfect notes.
When Barnette's bass didn't thump like it should, Boulware told him so, demanding the best sound.
"It had to be right," Barnette said.
But Boulware was more than a musical mentor to a man 10 years younger than him. Like Boulware, Barnette grew up poor, too poor to have the nice shirt and tie to play the places that booked the band.
But Boulware gave those items to him. He took him places. He told him that he could succeed.
"He taught me a lot," Barnette said.
In the early 1970s, Boulware told his wife that he felt God had called him to quit playing the dances and join the ministry. A man who had already spent a dozen years teaching, he decided to focus on inspiring spiritual growth as well as classroom learning.
Before he could even finish his seminary training, he became the pastor at Mount Olive. When he arrived, he found that education wasn't a priority, but he made it one. He helped establish a scholarship fund and pressed young people about where they would go to college.
The attitude became "where you're going," Barbara said, "not if you're going."
As he preached, he continued to work in local schools as a teacher and administrator. He was known to play basketball with his students and help them with their homework. He ended his career in education at Castle Heights Middle School, retiring in 1993.
From a pulpit or the front of a classroom, the message was clear -- learning was the key to a better life. He led by example, devouring books about history, politics and the preacher's favorite, the Bible.
He preached that same message to his two children. His son, Wendell, became an anesthesiologist in Maryland. His daughter, Deidre, is a vice president with Wachovia in Charlotte.
"Do your best, and strive for more," Deidre said her father told them.
Boulware often preached a sermon telling people not to be envious of others' success when they didn't know the troubles those people went through.
"If you don't know my midnight, don't be jealous of my morning," he would say.
Although disease ravaged his body, he masked the pain with his usual good-natured way: Playing a golf video game on the Microsoft Xbox with deacons or brightening at the sight of his preschool grandson that he called "Pa-pa's baby."
"People didn't know about his midnight," Deidre said.
But he did share a glimpse of that darkness during a summer sermon about finishing the work he said God called him to do.
From his stool, he talked about car companies advertising vehicles that were "built for the road." He also spoke of Biblical disciples who were asked to serve.
And he talked about his own struggles and the sickness he'd battled since 2004.
"God had built him for the road," Barbara said her husband told the congregation. "And he would stay on that road as long as he could."