John Gurdon Brewster
April 11, 1937 - April 07, 2017
Saturday, April 07, 2018 1:12 PM
Three men have significantly changed the course of my life. Two were mentors while I was in seminary. I would not have met them if it wasn’t for Gurdon Brewster. I met Gurdon when I responded to an ad he had placed on a bulletin board in a Cornell building seeking a music leader for folk worship at the Episcopal chapel in Annabel Taylor Hall (it was the 1970s, after all!). It was a big step for me to move from my Lutheran liturgical roots to the more free-wheeling style of Gurdon’s chapel services, but in that space I found love and connection and a deeper understanding of what church community can be about.
We spent many hours in conversation. He pointed out that I had talents in leadership and asked if I had considered going into the ministry. I was studying plant ecology at the time. It was becoming clear to me that I was more interested in people than plants, but only by a slight margin.
Gurdon was very excited about a recruitment and fundraising video that Union Theological Seminary had made. One segment of the video panned over his sculpted bust of Reinhold Niebuhr in the seminary library. He arranged a showing of the video at Annabel Taylor, and I went to the event because it included catering from my favorite Ithaca vegetarian restaurant. While watching the video, I was overcome with emotion upon seeing the images of Rev. Carter Heyward, one of seven women “irregularly ordained”, celebrating communion in the courtyard of Union. I had to go to seminary.
Along the way, Gurdon helped me with employment - babysitting his children, painting the inside of his house – and helped me feel both at home in Ithaca, and in a certain way, at home with myself. When I watch the 1950’s version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, I think of Gurdon when I see the character of Mr. Fezziwig. I went to numerous Messiah sings at Gurdon and Martha’s house. And while hosting the event, Gurdon, festive in his red vest, doling out punch, seeing that every guest was specially received and wedged in somewhere, was a lesson in happiness.
What was remarkable to me, coming from a limited, more structured religious upbringing, was watching how Gurdon accepted the world into his arms and into the faith community at Annabel Taylor Hall. He was open to hearing different points of view, and sought to include, rather than exclude. It did not seem to bother him one wit that I was Lutheran. I will never forget the Sunday that a small child stood in the ring of folks around the altar at Annabel, waiting to receive communion. From my background, children would not have even been a part of that circle. I watched as Gurdon approached him in the circle. He touched the child’s head and then said a blessing. The child then held up his teddy bear. I wondered what Gurdon would do. Without missing a beat, he gently touched the bear’s head and said a blessing. This, to me, revealed love in action. I learned a lot about love and acceptance from Gurdon.
Decades later I returned to Ithaca for a visit and stopped by the farm to visit with Gurdon and Martha. There were scones and jam and a copy of Gurdon’s book for me. I was able to tell Gurdon how grateful I was for the life-changing impact he had on my life, and was surprised when he said he was also grateful for my life-changing impact on his life. He shared that I was instrumental in his quitting pipe smoking decades ago. It turned out that my declining to meet with him when his office was filled with smoke or when he lit up left him weighing his options. He said he decided he preferred our conversations, set the pipe aside, and felt I had added years to his life. I was unaware of this, yet so happy that a man who gave me so much might have received some benefit in return.
In that same trip to Ithaca, I visited his studio, and we discussed Miriam. He was wrestling with whether to sculpt her with clothes (more “acceptable” and marketable, and technically more difficult) or have her dance naked (truer to his vision and perhaps the story). I had memories flood back of conversations more than thirty years earlier when we would discuss the world, and how to navigate the right course. Gurdon did not settle for quick and easy answers. He was determined to follow the Spirit and his heart. He knew what I was only beginning to know so many years ago – that life is a wild dance, and one is better off following the music and where God leads. Gurdon will always dance in my heart.
Rev. Janine Deitz (Brooklyn, NY)
Friday, May 19, 2017 2:23 PM
I am very sorry for your lost. You father was an amazing person. I remember his beautiful smile when you got married. I remember when he send you the poem If from Ruydard Kipling that I love. I am sure he is in heaven watching over you and your family. May GOD comfort you with all the good memories that you share.
Liliana Kayali (Long Beach, NY)
Sunday, April 30, 2017 8:43 AM
I am so very sorry for your loss. I hope you find comfort in these words. "Praised be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of tender mercies and the God of all comfort." 1 Cor. 1:3. He loved life and lived it with great passion. Please continue find joy in the memories that were made with your loved one, Mr. Brewster.
Wednesday, April 12, 2017 10:04 AM
It was my great honor to work with Gurdon to type and edit his memoirs over the past 5+ years. He has yet to publish at least 2 books he had written by hand, and we all will have a sweet gift when they are published.
Gwen Elizabeth Bullock (Ithaca, NY)
Wednesday, April 12, 2017 4:40 AM
I will always remember the warm welcome my friend Marshal and I received from Gurdon and Martie and the Episcopal Church at Cornell in the summer of 1977. We were walking by the clock tower after morning Eucharist and a kind member of ECAC gave us a ride over to Wait Avenue for a barbecue. From that day on, Gurdon and the community he lead challenged and shepherded both of us to make a difference in the world by getting involved with issues that matter and people that need an extra special amount of love and care. I hope we have lived up to that charge - Marshal in his service as a progressive engineer at Cornell and in the Peace Corps after graduation, and me in my efforts as one of Gurdon's many sponsored ordinands in the Episcopal Church and currently serving as an active duty Navy chaplain. Have to share another one of my favorite Gurdon memories: his bringing together of several very homesick freshmen around a crackling fire for a rousing participatory reading of Dickens' A Christmas Carol our first fall/winter in Ithaca. The warmth of Christ, indeed!
Cameron Fish (Currently Yokosuka, Japan, NY)
Tuesday, April 11, 2017 2:50 PM
When thinking of the quintessential Gurdon Brewster memory, for me, it would have to be his firm handshake and warm smile.
Neal Berkey (Binghamton, NY)
Tuesday, April 11, 2017 9:17 AM
I am the lucky owner of one of Gurdon's sculptures - Jesus dancing with Buddha - which my husband David and I bought after one of his exhibits at State of the Art Gallery. I remember how pleased he was to give me the sculpture when it was finished.
The Public Library now has Prophetic Thunder on display, and is proud to be able to take care of this incredible piece of work for as long as necessary, until is has a permanent home.
With love and condolences to the family. Sally Grubb
Sally Grubb (Ithaca, NY)
Tuesday, April 11, 2017 9:16 AM
I have two very special memories of Gurdon. One is when he attended our special service commemorating the ministry or Richard (Ted) Hughes for his years of devoted service to ECC. It meant more than Dick could say that Gurdon would attend that event, choosing it over a high school reunion. What a pastor!
The second is when he preached at Phil Vangeli's funeral. Again, the heart of a pastor shone out like the sun as he preached from that legendary leather book and lifted our hearts to glory and praise of a life of one faithful servant in God's kingdom. A more faithful pastor to Cornell there never was. I will miss him dearly.
The Rev. Clark West (214 Wait Avenue Ithaca, NY)
Tuesday, April 11, 2017 5:43 AM
Gurdon will always have a special place in my heart and memories, for many reasons. I was an active member at the Episcopal Church at Cornell from around 1975 until 1988 when I moved away from the Ithaca area. Gurdon led the ceremony of my marriage in October 1986. I kept in touch recently, sometimes taking my mother, DG, who still lives in Ithaca, to church on Sundays at Trumansburg, and each time, Gurdon and I would hug and laugh and have a great and meaningful conversation about the past and present. I truly believe that he is in heaven now and will be looking down on us with guidance and support. I will miss him.
Robin Gowin (Edison, NJ)
Monday, April 10, 2017 7:56 PM
I have known Gurdon all my life. He's more like family than a friend. He was a kind and gentle person with only good in his heart. He was a great fisherman and was happy when he came to the Palfrey Lake cabins. He always had an encouraging word and an optimistic outlook on life. I will miss him greatly.
Dennis Lounder (Hancock, ME)