The Rev. Ryan Eklund had always wowed his congregation with his wide-ranging intellect and his ability to quote scripture and poetry from memory mid-sermon.

Sunday evening, more than 20 years after his retirement, Eklund showed a crowd gathered at South Main Baptist Church that he hadn’t lost that gift as he received the Order of the Silver Crescent.

It is South Carolina’s “highest civilian award for significant contributions, leadership, volunteerism, and lifelong influence within a region or community,” according to the website of the governor’s office.

State Rep. John McCravy presented the award after a tearful presentation.

“He baptized me,” McCravy said, pausing to gather himself. “And my whole family.”

In letters to the governor supporting Eklund’s candidacy for the honor, McCravy called him “The Billy Graham of the Lakelands.”

Eleanor and Dixon Teal, members of South Main Baptist for 54 years, detailed Eklund’s accomplishments and leadership of the church.

Eklund began at the South Main Baptist in 1966 but left for Columbia two years later. He kept in touch with the couple and, in 1979, returned to South Main where he served as pastor until his retirement in 1995.

“Ryan’s leadership skills, and his desire to make difference in the lives of others — spiritually and educationally — had monumental positive influence on thousands of individuals and on many communities in South Carolina,” Eleanor said.

Under his leadership, the church grew significantly and added and renovated facilities, Dixon added.

The Rev. David Evans, senior pastor at Calvary Chapel Greenwood, called Eklund “the finest example of a true minister of the Gospel.”

Evans grew up in and was married at South Main Baptist. He, too, was baptized by Eklund.

“The Lord has greatly gifted Ryan with skill and passion to preach his word,” he said. “He is so well-read, and that is evident by the stories, and the poems and yes even the jokes he would tell.”

But it was Eklund’s generosity with his own time that distinguished his service as pastor, said Bubba Culbertson.

Bubba and his wife Margie joined the church in the early 1980s.

“Ryan and Betty” — his wife, who died in 2013 — “just loved us, made us feel comfortable,” Margie said. “When they knew we had a need, they were at our door.”

“A pastor or preacher, to me that’s someone in the pulpit,” Bubba said.

But a minister, Margie continued, “that’s someone who goes and makes a difference in people’s lives.”

Eklund made a difference in theirs. In addition to his unwavering support, he inspired their two sons to go into the ministry.

“A lot of pastors come out of this church,” Wally Russ, his secretary for two years in the 1980s, said. “It’s unreal.”

Russ said that Eklund would write his sermons, but never reference them when he took the pulpit.

“This man, his mind, even today — it’s exceptional,” she said.

When it was Eklund’s turn to speak, he did not disappoint, seldom referencing his notes and weaving in several poems from memory.

He recalled an encounter with the newly elected president of Connie Maxwell Children’s Home, who asked him to define his years of ministry in one word.

The request caught Eklund by surprise. He took a moment to think.

“Persistence,” he finally said. “The ability to hold on when it gets tough. The ability to fight your way through adversity and to learn the lessons that adversity has to teach.”

Sunday night, he added two more words: simplicity and purpose.

Contact staff writer Aleks Gilbert at 864-943-5644.