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Hendersonville church's need for cash inspired veteran to reveal his 'secret' talent

Samuel Elliott says God spoke to him when his church needed 600-thousand dollars to leave the Presbyterian Church USA denomination and also get the deed to the property. (Photo credit: John Le, WLOS)

A crisis inspired News 13's Person of the Week to reveal a side of himself that shocked most people at his church.

For years, Sam Elliott earned recognition working under his middle name -- Joseph.

Sam finally confessed he was a professional artist until retiring 10 years ago, giving Hendersonville Presbyterian a flicker of hope.

"I can't believe how much money we've raised," he said of the church's capital campaign. "It's a miracle."

The church recently opted to leave the Presbyterian Church USA denomination. That's when the congregation kicked into fundraising mode. They needed $600,000 to get the deed to the property, so a bake sale wouldn't cut it.

Elliot stepped up and gave the church the right to produce prints of three paintings to be given to those who make big contributions to the cause. The act was surprising when you consider the congregation had no idea of his artistic prowess.

"Most of his work previously was signed as Joseph Elliott," treasurer Larry Mobley said. "So, people here did not realize the talent in our midst."

So far, they've raised almost $430,000 thanks in huge part to Sam's artistry.

But this is not the first time he's used his talents to benefit others.

"Sam has done this in towns before he moved to Hendersonville," Mobley said, "and has letters attesting to how successful it was in their campaigns, as well."

Whether you call him Sam, Joseph, or Samuel J. Elliott, some see the gift as a godsend.

"I think the main thing we need to do is glorify God in it," Elliott said recently at his home.

For him, Sundays are a source of identity. Almost everyone at church knew the man Sam wanted them to know.

"I'm just Sam," he explained, "and that's what I wanted to be."

"Sam, I would say, went under the radar," said Mobley, who only accounted for Sam the deacon.

Long ago, Elliott retired his artistic alter ego.

"I sort of kept it quiet," he said with humility. "I don't know. I just didn't feel like it was important."

But when word spread that the church needed a huge windfall of cash, he said he was compelled to make a difference.

"I felt the Lord wake me up in the middle of the night with this burden," Elliott recalled. "He said it was time, and I knew what he meant."

"I was stunned," Mobley said. "Probably the best word for it."

"It shows the meticulous nature of this craftsman working on the details," he said, describing Elliott's paintings. "He is nationally and internationally known for his works."

"You can get so involved in painting, and there's a spiritual aspect to it," Sam told News 13 while touching up an old portrait of his brother.

Decades before he was Hendersonville Presbyterian's saving grace, he was an unsung hero in the Vietnam.

"I'm the second man out. I'm this one right here," he said pointing to a picture of him getting out of a helicopter.

In the depths of PTSD, creativity gave him an outlet.

"It was therapeutic to me," he said. "Relaxation that takes place in your spirit and in your soul.

One of his busts portraying the angst of a veteran is on display at the National Vietnam Veterans Museum.

His colonel was among the casualties of the Tet Offensive in 1968. Just talking about him brought back emotions for Sam.

"In the hospital, they told me it was like a psychological attachment. He became a father figure to me. I looked up to him and admired him," he said on the verge of tears. "It still bothers me."

A combination of art, faith, and time has healed many wounds. While he gained fame with his middle name, today he finds solace in his first name.

"I just wanted to be Sam," he said.

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