In 1986, with a plate of fish and chips and determination, Rev. Happy Watkins locked himself in the office of a Spokane church and set out to memorize one of the most historic and iconic speeches in the world. Almost 12 hours later, Happy would have every line of “I Have A Dream” by Martin Luther King Jr. firmly imprinted in his mind.
“I never met Dr. King, but I knew his struggle, the hatred, the discrimination,” said Rev. Happy Watkins.
Happy recalls the first time he recited the speech for then, Washington State Governor, Booth Gardner.
“I put my own emotions into the speech. When I finished, it was bedlam, people were crying, tears were coming down Booth Gardner’s eyes, there was a standing ovation. From that day things just took off,” added Happy.
In the past three decades, Happy has recited “I Have A Dream” thousands of times in schools, community centers, hospitals, and in front of large crowds across the region.
“It’s been a beautiful journey. I can feel it when they feel it. I can always look in the crowd and see their facial expressions, their tears, and their smiles.” said Happy.
Happy rarely turns down an opportunity to share “I Have A Dream” and his own message about family, home, and the kitchen table.
“My purpose of talking about love versus hate, be good to another, that will always be appropriate. I tell young people to spend time at the table with mom and dad and ask questions, and hear their story. That love around the table will permeate into the neighborhood, schoolhouse, and church house” added Happy.
Happy was born in the Bronx, but his heart is in Spokane. He moved to the Inland Northwest in 1961 to serve at Fairchild Air Force Base. Once out of the service, he spent years as a grocery clerk, school bus driver, and selling copy machines in North Idaho and Montana. In 1990, he became the pastor of New Hope Baptist Church.
Happy is also a professional greeter. He never passes up the chance to ask a stranger about their day.
“You never know what a smile and a hello will do to somebody,” added Happy.
Happy retired last year and a few months ago suffered a heart attack while standing in line at Fred Meyer. Everyone knows Happy, so when he started sweating and feeling dizzy at the store, there was no delay in getting him help.
“A lady I knew called 9-1-1 and said ‘you get over here, Happy is sick,’” he said.
Two stints in his heart and Happy says he’s feeling much better. At 76 years old, Happy is certainly not slowing down with 16 speeches and events scheduled for this month alone. Every day he gets calls to be by someone’s hospital bedside, officiate a wedding or funeral- he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’m retired from the church, but not the community. As long as I’m needed, I don’t think I could do anything else,” he added.