My Life So Far
I grew up the second of two sons, in a three-generational dairy farming family just outside of Madison, Wisconsin, where my parents and grandparents were long-standing pillars of an Independent Assemblies of God Pentecostal church. My first four years of school I thrived in the intimacy of a one-room school, one of the last which then survived in Wisconsin. I found the conditions in our school ideal for exploring the world around me on my own terms. Each student had responsibility for some part of the functioning of the school as a monitor of something ranging from sweeping the basement to raising and lowering the flag each day. My favorite monitor assignment was caring for our tiny library, where I got to explore Treasure Island and Carl Sandburg and endless books by Dr. Seuss. It was in first grade that I discovered that left-handedness was unusual – a revelation to me since everyone in my family except my brother was left-handed. I learned that I must translate instructions to pick up my scissors with my right hand to mean that I should do so with my left hand. Years later, the translation had become so automatic that at the end of my first driving test the instructor asked with some concern whether I was aware that each time he’d asked me to turn left I had turned right and vice-versa. I was completely unconscious of having done so.
My experience in my family’s church was mixed. I felt very much a part of a family in our little community, surrounded by caring and even admiring adults. I loved the way my grandmother, who was the Sunday School superintendent, told Bible stories using her felt animals and people and I occasionally practiced telling the stories myself. I recall giving sermons of my own while I was walking through the corn fields when I was seven or eight. I loved memorizing verses from the Bible and once won a Bible at summer camp for memorizing Ecclesiastes 12, a somewhat doleful chapter which depicts life after youth as a steady decline into decrepitude and death. At the same time I found the emotionalism of the services problematic, particularly when people would speak in other tongues and I was perplexed by the notion that our tiny church and the few who agreed with us somehow had the one unique version of the truth which alone could save from eternal damnation. Looking back, I find that I was an unconscious Universalist even then.
When I was ten, we moved to a new farm, affording my father his first opportunity to live independently from his father; and all of us benefited by having more distance from my grandparents, attached though we all remained to them. I recall my father telling my great grandmother on our last visit as she lay dying when I was thirteen that he expected my brother would follow him into farming and I would become a preacher.
By 16, I felt deeply hypocritical continuing to participate in my family’s church when I no longer found their beliefs plausible. I had been reading the work of a number of skeptics and atheists, putting together 3x5 cards with quotations from Clarence Darrow, Bertrand Russell, Robert Ingersoll and the like. I had become a very active member of the debate team in high school, so it seemed natural to me to accumulate evidence for my beliefs as I would in preparation for any other debate. To accommodate my debating schedule, I was by then working every Sunday morning, so I avoided a big argument with my parents about taking some time off from church to think about my own beliefs. I never returned.
School was the place in my life I felt most at home. Because I enjoyed the work, I did well and enjoyed a number of extracurricular activities. I discovered drama (my favorite role: Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons), contributed to the literary magazine, edited the school newspaper (writing the first editorial against the Vietnam War), and participated in debate and speech teams competing on the state and national levels. A debate coach from another school who was a Harvard alumnus persuaded me to apply to there and I did so as something of a lark. By the time I got the acceptance letter, I was taking the idea much more seriously. My parents reluctantly permitted me to go on condition that I meet the bulk of my costs through a combination of scholarships and my own work during the school year and in the summers. As a result, I ended up spending two summers working for Oscar Meyer, whose headquarters were in Madison, and two summers working on the pea and corn harvests. My brief career as a roofer during a break between peas and corn was cut short when I fell off the roof and spent the next six weeks recovering from two broken wrists and a broken right elbow. These injuries resulted in a 4-F medical deferment for service in Viet Nam.
My time at Harvard was deeply stimulating intellectually, politically, and emotionally. Those years were marked by protests against the war, including a building occupation by SDS, an event which radicalized me when I was whacked over the head with a billy club as I stood on the steps of the building in support of those inside. I was active in politics (including leadership of The Cambridge Movement, a moderate anti-war group), and in theater both as an actor and director. My intellectual passions for understanding psychology and religion culminated in a thesis whose advisers came from the School of Education, the Divinity School, and my own Department of Social Relations. I used the opportunity to wrestle with the notion of Salvation, a central concept of the religion in which I had been reared, by studying how the concept was used in the work of C.G. Jung and Emil Brunner, a Swiss theologian of the Neo-Orthodox school. Upon graduating Summa Cum Laude, I was offered a Rockefeller Brothers Fellowship to attend the divinity school of my choice for one year. Lacking a religious home, however, I didn’t see how I could accept. My friends and I were reluctant to enter business or law and my mentor in college dissuaded me from considering an academic career because he felt that academic politics would be stifling. My love of the schools I had attended and the teachers who had nurtured me over the years led me instead to pursue a masters degree in education and then to take up teaching as my first career.
While pursuing an M.S. in education and social science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I found myself somewhat depressed to be living at home again after the stimulation of Harvard. I received just 2 job offers, and despite opposition from my grandfather, chose to accept an offer from The Collegiate School in New York, drawn by the chance to live again in a big, stimulating city. At the time I made the argument to myself that I might not have the opportunity to live in New York when I was older, particularly with a family, and that I should therefore do it early in my life given the opportunity.
The first year at Collegiate was the time for that tricky transition for any student into the new role of being a teacher and learning to accept the authority that goes with and is required of the role. Much as I was tempted to be a buddy to my students, I quickly learned the responsibilities that came with being “the teacher,” and learned to set clear expectations on both sides. My favorite project arose from noticing that the back wall of the school was being repeatedly defaced by graffiti. I challenged my seventh graders to come up with a design for the wall, vote for our favorite design, and then paint the wall together. With a little help from a seal of varnish over the top combined with careful attention from our maintenance engineer, the mural stood up to all assaults for over twenty years and became a symbol of what our students could do for their school.
In my personal life, I found myself somewhat depressed and lonely until I moved into a group apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan all of whose members happened to be in “Sullivanian” therapy. I gradually got more deeply involved, and over time, the Group (as we then called ourselves) established a political theater company, the Fourth Wall Repertory Company. We had a very active music program and I learned to play the guitar and later the bass. I wrote a few satirical songs and participated enthusiastically in several rock bands, as well as acting in a number of plays and satirical revues we mounted in our theater on the Lower East Side, working on the lighting and sound crews, and stage managing. The Fourth Wall also sponsored some groundbreaking research in the dangers of nuclear energy; I participated in gathering data about the patterns of radioactive leakage from the reactors in Three Mile Island as well as other reactors in the area. While much of what we did in the Group was interesting and useful, the leadership gradually increased their control over many aspects of our lives with the result that many choices – like deciding to marry or have children – had to be “cleared” with the leadership. As a result, the Group became increasingly insular and cult-like. Looking back, I can recognize that this group had become our religion, complete with a Marxist/Leninist/Sullivanian body of doctrine, an apocalyptic fear of the extraordinary dangers posed by nuclear energy, and a messianic belief in our role in alerting the world to the danger – and to the salvation we offered. During this time, I cut off contact with my family. I met my wife, Deedee Agee, in the Group in 1980; we married in 1982 and had our son David in 1983.
I had a falling-out with the leadership of the Group and was divorced by Deedee around the time our younger son Sean was born (1985); I ultimately left in April of 1986 having lost faith in the purposes and leadership of the Group. I found myself obligated to bring a custody suit in order to be allowed any child visitation rights at all outside of the Group. This legal conflict went on for three years. In 1989, after a highly publicized 5 week trial focusing on the manipulative and destructive characteristics of the Group, Deedee also left. A year later we were able to reconcile and begin living together, and we remarried in 1994. The fact that we were able to bring our family back together after such an intense struggle bespeaks the degree to which we were able to confine our conflict to the nature and dangers of the group and avoid any personal attacks or in any way involve our children in the conflict. We consider it a miracle that we were able to emerge from that experience with our relationship and our family intact.
After I left the Group, I became involved in the anti-cult movement and met ex-members of a broad variety of high-demand groups. All ex-members, regardless of the particular nature of their groups, shared a number of common experiences. The particular doctrines taught in a group mattered less than the way that they were taught and the fact that the doctrines (but more particularly the leaders) must be believed without question. Most of us ended up on our groups because they opened exciting opportunities to us. None of us could imagine the full dimension of our experience at the time we joined. Sharing my experience with all of these other ex-members helped me to place my time in a high-demand group in the context of a variety of other social arrangements – highly restrictive religious organizations (like the one I grew up in), isolated communities, abusive families. While there were some trying times during my years in the Group and some after I left, I now see the experience as having opened me to more empathy and to more understanding of the life choices people make and their consequences for better or for worse.
Like many others in the group, I had little contact with my family during the time I was a member. My mother never failed to send me a birthday cake during all the years I was at Collegiate and I always kept in touch with her older sister, my beloved Aunt Marion. When I left the group, they were completely accepting and offered no criticism for the times I had failed to get back to them. Deedee and I were finally able to bring our whole family out to visit them in the summer of 1991. While I don’t share my father’s strong belief in providence, he may have had the best verdict on it when he met Deedee. He said, “I know why you had to get into that group; it was so you would meet Deedee, because she’s the one for you!”
I left Collegiate after 10 successful years of teaching 7th and 8th grade boys. Highlights included a series of musicals written and performed by my 8th grade classes, and my leadership in creating a computer lab and curriculum, which paralleled my own increasing facility with computing and developing small business applications. In 1983, finding my salary inadequate to help support our newborn son David, and finding myself growing stale teaching the same subjects year after year, I became an independent consultant creating computer solutions for small businesses. I was later hired for a long-term assignment by the Securities Industry Automation (SIAC), the technology subsidiary of the American and New York Stock Exchanges. After 5 years as a technician, I was drawn to the challenges of management and became a full time employee as a Managing Director and later Vice President of technology services. I always enjoyed technological challenges, but I became increasingly aware that many problems which appear on the surface to be technology problems actually result from conflicts between people, from lack of communication or from dissatisfaction with the job. I found my role changing from that of a director to that of a coach and I found that the job became more satisfying the more I was able to relate to the particular wants and needs of my staff. During my 15 years in management, I earned a reputation as a good strategist and planner and as an accomplished manager of people and projects.
While regularly assigned new challenges and responsibilities, I came to realize that I wanted to eventually find work which had a more positive impact on the world than providing technology to support the work of managing other people’s money. I therefore began carefully planning to make it financially feasible to take early retirement and transition to a new career and was able to accomplish this goal by June, 2005.
In 1992 when we moved to Ridgewood, NJ, we stumbled across the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood almost by accident. Drawn at first by the minister, we soon found ourselves engaged in the Society in many ways, especially through our Men’s and Women’s groups and adult R.E. classes we organized. I felt increasingly drawn to some sort of religious education, taking courses in various schools including Union, and finally discovered New York Theological Seminary, where I enrolled as a full time (night) student in the fall of 1998 and have just graduated in the spring of 2005.
As Sean entered high school, he was becoming increasingly rebellious and depressed, engaging in extensive use of marijuana. After various ineffective interventions, both psychiatric and educational, we felt compelled to take drastic action; we sent him to Peninsula Village, a residential treatment center just outside of Knoxville, TN, for a year’s treatment. We found ourselves working through some of the issues which still remained in our family in light of the period of conflict during our custody case and were glad to be able to put most of them behind us. This healing process was part of what enabled Sean to return drug-averse and enthusiastic for the first time in years. He went to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, living in his own apartment near the school for a year and is now pursuing his passion of making (alternative) music with his band, Fat History Month, and working as a projectionist at The Coolidge Corner Cinema in Brookline, The Brattle in Cambridge and the MFA Film Festivals. David is now living in Chicago pursuing his passion of becoming an independent visual artist.
Immediately after my retirement, we sold our house in Ridgewood and moved to Somerville in preparation for my internship year at CLF/Arlington Street Church. I’ve included some material from this part of my journey in the packet, as well as some recommendations by friends both from those assignments and from the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood as we were making this significant transition in our lives.
I was called to serve as the fortieth minister of Second Parish in Hingham in April of 2006 and chose to be ordained by the congregation itself that October, in the tradition of our New England Parishes.
Deedee and I lived in the parsonage next to Second Parish for the first two years of my ministry there, and then chose to purchase our own home in Scituate, where we love the spaciousness of our West End neighborhood and our proximity to so much public space for ourselves and our dog Annie to walk and bike.
Further details of my ministry at Second Parish are in that section of the packet.