Eugene B. Potoka was born on August 9, 1925 and died on January 22, 2018. He married Janice Morgan on September 5, 1947. They were married for 67 years before Janice preceded Gene in death in 2014. Over the course of their marriage, they raised six children – with each named “G-” or “J-.” (Gene, Gerry, Jim, Joy, Jeff and Jon.) As they aged, their family grew with many grandchildren and great-grandchildren added to the fold.
But, to encapsulate his life by mere date bookends would fail to capture his character. Gene Potoka was a sarcastic jokester. When he was in high school, he went to Jefferson Hospital to find out why his kidneys were not functioning normally. His mother said, “Now don’t have any operation without telling us.” He returned home to tell his mother, “Mom, I came home with only one kidney.” This sent his mother to tears. His joke? He was born with only one kidney.
Pastor Potoka was also competitive and determined. His autobiography details that when he met Janice Morgan (his future wife), he immediately got better in his classes – especially those he shared with her. He couldn’t let her beat him. His competitiveness was on display into his 80s as well, as he dove for the volleyball at Locktown Church’s picnic. He emerged wearing grass, a smile, and maybe a few bruises, but his determination won the point. In his 80s, Pastor Potoka also showed determination by re-flooring his family room. He converted his carpeted room to hardwood – even working on his hands and knees to get the job done.
This man was a pastor who really loved the Lord first and cared for His people. The service he offered to God was through the passion he had for the Lord. Pastor Potoka was uniquely gifted in that he could tell you how you needed to change, but he would still show loving support if you disagreed. A congregant from Covenant (Cherry Hill) had been infrequently visiting the church when Pastor Potoka called him into his office. “Mr. B…,” Potoka said, “you have to get serious about coming to church for you family’s sake. Either come or don’t come. Your family needs you to commit to loving and serving God or stopping pulling them around.” That man eventually became a member and later served as a deacon. At Locktown, Pastor Potoka stood at the pulpit and said, “We all have sins in our lives. Some of us are struggling with them. Some of us aren’t struggling with them, but should be. If you don’t know where you fall or what sins are, I’ll be glad to tell you.”
At Locktown, he considered it a miracle that in 2006 that at nearly 83 years-old, he was able to mentor his first protege. Later that Summer, he rejoiced in another miracle. Two members of Locktown and the summer intern were joining Covenant Presbyterian Church (Cherry Hill) in their mission to New Orleans to clean up the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “Even Locktown is sending missionaries! It’s a miracle!”
Gene Potoka served as a pastor for seven different churches in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. By my count, he retired three times. Over the course of his ministry, Pastor Potoka earned the name “pastor.” He loved the Lord first and God’s people second. Ever the true pastor, Gene Potoka knew the taste of his congregants’ food. He knew the feel of their furniture. He knew not just the names of their kids, but their pets as well. Gene Potoka knew what it was to invest in the lives of those in his care.
When I went to visit him in his retirement home in Quarryville, PA, he told me about all the amenities the place had. It had great food, he gushed. Quarryville had the facilities to care for your whole spectrum of needs. “And,” he said, as he pointed out his window, “when I’m done with this place, I’ll be there.” Sure enough, there was a cemetery within view.
Even more than the family he formed, his own personal character, and his career, I know that he would want me to stand up here and tell you about Jesus. As he told me often, “As a pastor, you have to be prepared to pray, preach, or die.”
A passage that reminds me of Pastor Potoka is Philippians 1:21. “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Pastor Potoka lived for the Lord. He relished opportunities to share about Him. He delighted in the fact that he was reunited with so many people from his earlier years – including his college professor – in his retirement home. He would often call me during and even after my ministry at Locktown in order to encourage me and let me know that he was praying for me. He lived his life in a caring and compassionate way that showed the love that he had received from God through Jesus Christ. Gene Potoka knew that he was a sinner. Gene Potoka also knew that every person with whom he came into contact was a sinner. But, Gene Potoka also knew the love of God offered to him and to every other person he met. Whether or not those people did what Pastor Potoka thought was right, Gene loved them anyway.
As I consider the life and legacy of Gene Potoka, I consider a man who befriended and encouraged people. He did so because of the great love that God had shown him and the great love God had given him to show others. I think of a fellow sinner who marvelled at the miracles at God’s handiwork. I think of the joy he had in living here in this world, but the great expectant anticipation he had to be reunited with God in glory. It is here that we honor this man who is a saint and a father in the faith.