(Nee: Charles Francis Ortman, Jr.)
As told at Metro NY Unitarian Universalist Ministers’ Association Annual Chapter Meeting
April 30, 2015
Toward the end of the 19th Century, my paternal great grandfather, Carl Ortman, came to this country from Darmstadt, Germany. He left home with his two brothers in order to avoid the draft of Kaiser Wilhelm. I was given this information by Carl’s son—my grandfather, Charles Antoine Ortman, when, three generations later, I became a Conscientious Objector in order to avoid the draft, myself. My grandfather wanted me to know that he disapproved of my refusal to serve in the military at a time, “…when this country so desperately needed its young men.” He wanted me to know that he couldn’t understand how or why I could make such a choice. “Still,” he added, “I thought you should know how and why the Ortman family came to this country in the first place.” But I get ahead of myself…
Carl Ortman married another émigré, Annie Mahoney, originally of County Clare, Ireland. Carl and Annie bought a farm on the flatlands of Illinois, near Cullom, a very small town by any standard. They were quite an industrious pair and besides farming, they also established a brick factory. Carl died at a young age and his son, my grandfather Charlie, ran the brick factory through his high school years. Then he left for the bright lights of the city, to make his life in the booming metropolis of Kankakee, Illinois – population 13,500.
There, Charlie met Mable Farber, daughter of Peter Farber and Mary Elbert. I don’t know much of anything about the Farber’s, but I have a suspicion of why that might be the case. While my known heritage is 3/4 German, I suspect that the name Farber brings with it a Jewish legacy from the Old Country. The possibility of Jewish ancestry was certainly never mentioned by the older generations of my incredibly Roman Catholic family, and so it may be my own fantasy. It’s interesting to me, though that my brother Bill and I are both married to women from Jewish families. Charlie and Mable had five children, the oldest of which was my father, also named Charles, but who was called by his middle name Francis to alleviate confusion in the precise, orderly and efficiently managed household.
As much as my father’s known lineage comes down through the male lines of the family, my mother’s history travels through the women of her side. My great-great grandmother, Matilda Mathews, a German-Austrian, married Franz Lenz in 1845. Together they produced four boys and a daughter, also named Matilda. They owned a fine restaurant with an outdoor biergarten. I trust that I come by both my love for music and beer quite honestly.
The spunky, younger Matilda married Theadore Sell, and had three children. They came to the US, probably in the late 1870’s, where they made their home in Chicago, a few blocks from the south shore of Lake Michigan and where they had nine more children. They did not have an easy life; six of the children died from the black diphtheria and other diseases.
Her daughter, Lena, married August Homan. They had three children and owned a bakery on the Southside. Their youngest, a girl named Ida Rose, was my grandmother. When I was a child, I thought the song, Lida Rose, from, The Music Man, had been written for her. I never heard the “L” on Lida; I could only hear, “Ida Rose, oh won’t you be mine?” Probably the reason I heard it that way is because I heard it sung most often by my grandfather, George Gerhke, an impish, wiry little German with a wonderful tenor voice, who always sang it as, “Ida Rose.” I don’t know much about the Gerhke history, except that George’s father was Henry and that his mother, the former Mary Carr, was the second of my Irish great grandparents. My mother, Doris Marie, was the third child born of seven to Ida and George – six girls and a boy.
A characteristic trait that I attribute to the Ortman family is the northern German ability to take life seriously. Ortman’s are analytical; they look for cause and effect; engineers in search of systems and means of making things work—or making them work better. While the Gerhke’s brought with them some of those same German characteristics, they were also Bavarians, a people who knew how to take life joyously. I have wonderful memories of family get-togethers where the Gerhke sisters’ antics were all very humorous, endearing and entertaining. Maybe the festive spirit of that Austrian beirgarten has survived within the family for all these generations.
I remember once in grade school, we were asked to list our personality traits. The teacher gave us several examples and we were to select the ones that best described us. If one trait was enough, that was fine. If more than one was required, that was fine, too. Right off, I saw the two that I could readily identify with. Then the teacher went on to explain that if we used more than one trait, we shouldn’t select ones contradictory to each other. She used my two traits, serious and happy-go-lucky, as an example of contradictory. Perhaps she didn’t understand what it was like to be a Gerhke-Ortman.
Doris Gerhke’s life, which began with a considerable amount of affluence, took some difficult turns along with the fall of the stock market in 1929. Her father, George, had supervised the entire pipefitting operation for the construction of the Standard Oil of Indiana refinery plant. He lost everything in the crash, including the family home in Whiting, Indiana. They moved to a cottage that had been the family’s summer lodge on the banks of the Kankakee River in Aroma Park, Illinois, 10 miles downstream from Kankakee. Doris was allowed to stay on with neighbors in Whiting for the few months it took her to finish high school. She’d been a promising student, who was accepted into college, but now couldn’t go. Even when a favorite teacher found a full scholarship for her, her parents’ pride would not accept this act of charity.
Fran Ortman had no need of college. He wanted to take on the world, and business was the way he knew that the world worked. Fran followed in his father Charlie’s footsteps and became an insurance man. Always a salesman, he followed Charlie through the ranks of management of a small Midwestern life insurance company.
Fran and Doris met on a blind date. It was also a double date but they weren’t the couple originally paired. By the end of the evening though, they had reconstituted whose date was whose so that they could be together. From that point on, they were a couple, and were married a little more than a year later, in October, 1940. The Gerhke’s didn’t like Fran, and the Ortman’s weren’t particularly fond of Doris. For a time, it was as though neither of them was good enough for the parents’ child. After a while that all calmed down. All I never noticed of it was that our visits with the Gerhke’s were always significantly shorter than with the Ortman’s.
I was born ten years into the marriage, on September 3, 1950, at St. Mary’s Hospital in Kankakee. My later love for rhythm and music might have been a result of the waves of the Kankakee River actually lapping up against the stones of the hospital’s foundation. I was the fifth born child, third and final son. I was preceded by Dick, Mary Kay, Marge and Bill, and followed by five sisters – Susie, Sally, Ann, Kathy and Linda. Yes, that is a whole lot of kids! You might think there was a shortage of names the way they were parsed out. Charles Francis Ortman sired three sons: Richard Francis, William Charles and Charles Francis, Jr. Doris Marie Ortman mothered seven daughters: three that included the name Mary or Marie; one named Marjory Ann and another Ann Margaret. We were the ten who’d survived pregnancy; five more had not.
My sister Susie was the last of us to be born in Kankakee. Then we pulled up stakes and moved to Rock Island, Illinois. When I think of “back home” This is where my heart takes me. Years ago I wrote this song: (Performed with guitar and vocal)
Song at 13:50 in the video above
Mississippi River Song
I was born on the Kankakee River,
But by the age of three,
With my mother and father,
All my sisters and brothers,
We moved on to
The Father of Waters.
Mississippi, Mississippi River
Muddy water home to me.
I can always hear you callin’
Callin’ after me.
Spent my childhood
Where the Rock runs in there,
Way up above the Illinois.
Bare footed summers
With fishin’ and swimmin’
No better place to be a boy.
Big schemin’ and
‘Bout rafting down
The Gulf of Mexico.
Tall stories all full of glories
Never die, they grow,
Mississippi, Mississippi River
Muddy water home to me.
I can always hear you callin’
Callin’ after me.
Been out on deserts,
And high up on mountains,
And even crossed
Over the sea.
It’ll broaden your horizons,
But there’s still one place
I long to be.
Now I dream of those waters
Flowin’ towards New Orleans,
And that same current’s
The time may come
Again to roam.
But for now
I’m heading home.
Mississippi, Mississippi River
Muddy water home to me.
I can always hear you callin’
Callin’ after me.
Did I mention that I grew up in a German Roman Catholic family? It was very German and very Catholic. We said the Mysteries of the Rosary on our knees in the living room most evenings during Lent. I had twelve years of parochial education.
My father ruled. It was hardly a benevolent dictatorship. Rules were abundant. Crossing the lines was not responded to lightly. While others in the family would occasionally wander beyond accepted frontiers, I was a frequent drifter. Though my crimes were fairly petty in the annals of delinquency, the punishment was often corporal. There were many trips to the basement, where—bare-assed—I’d receive a blistering for telling a lie, or for sassing, or sometimes for more serious high jinks. Blistering is a literal term; in later years it became even more physically punishing.
There was a very obvious structure of favorites and unfavorites among the kids and, obvious to all, I was the most un-favorite of my father’s. My brother Bill was eighteen months older, though only one grade higher in school. He was a good athlete—baseball, basketball and speed skating (by the way all 10 of us were speed skaters) —and Bill made few waves at home. He was the favorite. I on the other hand questioned almost everything, was lousy at baseball, basketball and was only a fair skater. I was a thorn in my father’s side. I think I scared him. (By the fifth grade he recognized that my growing interest in politics provided me with a very different perspective of the world than that of his conservative Republicanism. He forbade me at that early age to discuss politics with anyone outside of the family.) Bill represented the part of Fran that Fran liked. I represented the part which he feared might lead to chaos. In order to provide for a family of ten, I think, he feared he could not entertain many gray areas.
While not a favorite of my father’s, I had a closer relationship with my mother than did many of my siblings. Doris would never question my father’s rulings or actions. (Certainly not in front of the kids.) But at least when Fran was out of the house, which sparingly, was fairly often, she and I might talk about all kinds of things that had nothing to do with being in trouble. Even though her temperament was sometimes unpredictable and even erratic, I enjoyed those closer times and felt appreciated by her. I think I gained much of my love for the world from my mother, and a lot of my ability to put up with things from my father.
In a family of our size, while the parents may have the last word, they didn’t have the only word. Often times information never got to them. Relationships among the kids were very strong. We had a code that rarely allowed for tattling. We all understood that the stakes were too high and so we often took care of things among ourselves.
An exception to this sibling conspiracy was my oldest brother, Dick. He was always fairly aloof from the rest of us. This was a pattern he maintained later in his own marriage which, after producing five children, ended in divorce. After a pretty rough life Dick would eventually die of cancer at the age of 51, with lots of complications from diabetes and several strokes.
Through the 50s and 60s my mother would typically care for the newest infant, while the oldest girls, May Kay and Margie, did a lot of the mothering for the other kids. Mary Kay was a favorite. Margie was not; she and I had a very special bond. My closest sibling was Bill; we were thick, usually inseparable, except when he was performing on the athletic field. It’s interesting and important to recognize that Fran’s system of favorites did not create a parallel pecking order among the kids. It was as though we all recognized the injustice of it and so were more caring with each other in response. In later years factions did developed, especially among my sisters, but they didn’t seem to be born out of our father’s divisions.
The idea that we were poor never occurred to us. We didn’t look poor. We didn’t act poor. We didn’t feel poor. It seemed perfectly natural at the time, for me to begin working when I was in the second grade. From that time on, I earned my own spending money and clothes money, paid for my own parochial school tuition, as well as contributed to the household. It wasn’t about being poor; it was about being responsible. It was quite a shock, when my father died in 1987, to go through his papers and discover that the most he’d ever reported earning in any one year of his life was $10,000.
I was a pretty religious kid early on, and was one of the first in my fourth grade class to memorize enough Latin to become an altar boy at St Pious X Grade School. (The feast day of St. Pious, by the way, happens to be on my birthday, Sept. 3rd, a fact that always made me feel rather special.) Part of the regimen at St Pious was going to mass every Tuesday and Friday morning at 11:15. Being the shortest kid in my class, I spent most of my time at mass praying that I would grow taller. I began to think that being short was the cross I’d been given to carry through life, because my prayers went unanswered. Through the eighth grade I, never quite managed to hit the 5 foot tall Mark and had to lead the boys line in every processional.
So far I’ve laid out the background within which my life began. It’s difficult to know just what events to include about one’s childhood and youth in an odyssey. There are so many stories. Do I tell about how, in kindergarten I had the first mad crush on a girl – a state in which I found myself often for the next several decades? Do I tell about the day I was sure the world was going to end because the air-raid siren went off at an unprescribed time? Do I report how wonderful it was to sit out on the porch-swing, overlooking the river with my Grandpa Gerhke – both of us singing our hearts out? Do I mention how I was often a challenge for my teachers, and how coincidentally I was even more of a challenge, the more authoritarian the teacher’s style? Do I mention Sunday evening family car rides, listening to Boston Blackie and the Green Hornet on the car radio – rides through and around Rock Island that invariably led down to the levee down on the river, where we squealed with delight as Fran would drive the front wheels of his Oldsmobile right into the muddy waters of the Mississippi?
Should I tell you that Doris was a dreadful cook whose brick-like hamburgers were dangerous when used as an offensive projectile (which rarely, though, sometimes happened outside of parental view.)? Or that her liver was more suitable for resoling shoes than it was for consumption?
Should I talk about how I struggled socially at school, much more often than not, feeling like an outsider without close friendships? Or about our neighborhood, which was full of kids who were somehow more accepting, always ready to play or to go off on an adventure in the vast wooded ravine that the neighborhood encircled?
Should I confess that in grade school, I was one of four students in a class of 50 who was identified as a non-singer, banned from participating in the choir, all the way through the 8th grade? And then I’d have to mention Sister Madeliene, the high school music nun, who took me in because choir wasn’t so popular among the boys at Alleman High. She worked with me individually day after day on her lunch hour, until I could hear and finally carry a tune.
Do I explain that I became a high school wrestler because no one else in my family had ever wrestled and I wouldn’t have to worry about comparisons? That, despite my continuous relationships with girlfriends, as a teen, I never really found a comfortable social niche until, midway through senior year, I discovered my new group of closest friends to be members of the National Honor Society and class officers? That came as a big surprise to me; I’d spent a lot of years thinking my friends were supposed to be jocks.
There are so many directions I could turn in sharing this odyssey. I guess I’d do well to choose a limited number of key events that later proved to have been the milestones that have led to now.
I connected with several teachers through my school years, but as I mentioned, a number of those connections were pretty negative. My job, after all, was to take a pretty dry situation and liven it up. My role as an entertainer was established pretty early on in life.
The first teacher willing to see beyond the challenge that I presented in order to recognize my potential promise, was my sixth grade teacher, Betty Nelson. I learned from Betty that I was more than a challenge, that I had a mind that could be engaged, and that my energy could have a positive impact on people around me. Betty loved history; I began a love of history. Betty loved the theater and invited me to participate in an amateur community theater that she was part of.
My childhood was set in an atmosphere of repression. Both home and school were rich with expectations of compliance to rules that were set to promote the orderly conduct of large numbers of kids. A lot of my acting out was an effort to establish an identity as an individual. Making people laugh or see something from a different perspective became almost as natural as breathing. Betty Nelson’s willingness to connect with this emerging child was an incredible and possibly life saving occurrence. A lot of class clowns weren’t that lucky. After losing track of Betty for several years, I found her again about 15 years ago. We’ve resumed a wonderful relationship and I see her nearly every summer when I’m back home in Rock Island.
There was also a priest in our parish who took special interest in me. Father George Wullner was a kind, loving man who showed me that male authority figures didn’t have to be ogres.
It was somewhere in my junior high years that the shell of my rather fragile religious framework was fractured. My family traveled to Michigan one weekend to visit Doris’ sister, Georjean and her family. Among the Rohwedder’s there were two boy cousins the same ages as Bill and me. The four of us took off to walk to mass on Sunday morning, and instead of making to church – we made it to the laundromat. At first I thought all hell would break loose, or that we’d at least be dispatched by a thunder bolt. But nothing happened! I couldn’t believe it! Not even our parents guessed that that’s what we had done. That was the beginning of my not believing the orthodoxy that had been handed down to me.
First I began to question the authority of the church. It had lost its hold on me. After all, I could skip mass and go to the laundromat on Sunday morning and nothing would happen. Then I began having theological questions. Little by little I began to believe that there could be no substantial difference between Jesus and me, or Jesus and any other human being. Maybe he was a special human, but not more than that. I was a teenage, Arian heretic, but I didn’t even know what that was then.
By high school, I’d gotten to the point where I couldn’t believe many of the teachings of the church. I went through the motions when I had to, and ducked out whenever I could get away with it. This charade continued until my junior year when something had to give.
I made an appointment to see Fr. Tom Kimball, a priest whom I liked and respected. We got together one morning for what seemed like a couple of hours. Fr. Tom listened patiently as I spilled it all out. It wasn’t working for me, and I guess that secretly I hoped he could fix it. Instead, he gave me one of the greatest gifts he could possibly have given. “Maybe you need to consider the possibility, Charlie,” he said, “…the possibility that you’re just not a Catholic.”
That was it. The door was open. Fr. Tom had just given me permission to figure out who I was and I didn’t have to pretend or try to fit into anyone else’s mold. I was free, and I took that freedom very seriously.
It became increasingly difficult for me to envision an anthropomorphized God who knew and directed all things. Increasingly my religious sensibilities and expression came to be more humanistic. Because my emerging spirituality didn’t look anything like what I had been taught was godly and religious, I assumed that I was an atheist. That seemed to fit just fine.
By the time I graduated from high school in 1968 the country was well into the Vietnam War. The same fall I started junior college, my brother Bill was drafted into the Army and left home for basic training. I was politically active in the protest movement as well as other local issues. I felt sorry for Bill and was deeply afraid for him that year he was in Vietnam.
It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I discovered I really could be a good student. I certainly hadn’t been one in high school, which is why I was in junior college. I found that I enjoyed learning, and surprising to me, I enjoyed the attention I received for being a top student. I liked many of my instructors and they liked me. There was a special camaraderie that existed between some of the faculty members and the students of the late sixties.
In the summer following my freshman year my parents and I reached an impasse. That wasn’t unusual, but by now I’d had enough; from my perspective now, I suspect they’d had enough too. A lot of our relationship was centered in anger. I was working at the local Firestone Tire store and one day after work I brought a company truck home, filled it with all my worldly belongings, and moved into an apartment with some friends.
Doris was home when I left so I told her I was going. She didn’t have much to say. Fran wasn’t home so I made an appointment to see him at his downtown office a few days later. We talked for a long time and it was clear, probably to both of us, that I’d made the right choice.
The apartment where I lived was across the river in Davenport. I was an Iowan now, a fate I couldn’t have imagined at a younger age. Iowans are farmers, you know! Anyway, I lived with my two closest friends who I’d connected with during my senior year of high school – Gene Mizeur and Bob Cowden. There were several other people who lived there, but we were the ones who paid the rent. The three of us also managed to get parts in a regional cast of the singing group, “Up With People.”
Jean, Bob and I were on similar journeys, but were coming to a juncture that would take us in different directions. The war was on and we each had to choose an honorable response to it. Gene became a Conscientious Objector and moved to Chicago to do his alternative service. Bob went into the Navy as a Hospital Corpsman. I was the last to decide, but finally compromised with myself by enlisting in the Naval Reserve, also as a Hospital Corpsman. I wasn’t willing to kill, but felt compelled to serve. The two and half years of active duty as a corpsman in the reserves seemed like it would be service enough. (My number in the first lottery was 49 and I’d have been drafted into the Army by February with no choices.)
I took my basic training at Great Lakes Naval Base in North Chicago. After hospital training I was sent back to my local unit in Davenport to await notice of my two year tour of duty. What I’d learned in training though, was that my first duty, as a corpsman, was to return men to the front lines so they could fight. I couldn’t do that. When I got back to Davenport, I filed for a discharge as a Conscientious Objector.
After going through dozens of interviews and hearings, and writing volumes of documents, my case was sent off to the Pentagon for adjudication. Two weeks before I was scheduled to start my two years active duty, and less than one month after the Supreme Court ruled that pacifism need not be dependent on formal religious background, I received my C.O. discharge. I’d made it.
You could say there was a mixed response from among my family. Bill was proud. Dick was absent. My sisters didn’t really understand. My father, in what was becoming an increasing pattern, was speechless. And Doris said she’d rather see me dead in my uniform then for me to do what I was doing. Years later that was a statement that took considerable work in therapy for me to let go of..
Because I hadn’t served enough active duty time, I was still subject to alternative service. I took off for Chicago to find a job, but only after taking a three-month hitchhiking tour of the States, mostly down south. On that trip I stayed for a couple of weeks with a bunch of musicians who lived together in downstate Illinois. I swore that when I got settled I’d get a guitar and learn to play. They also introduced me to some of the more interesting drugs that were a hallmark of that era. The universe began to expand for me…
I landed in Chicago, reconnecting with my friend Gene Mizeur. I would live in the city for the next five years. They were some of the best and some of the worst years of my life. In the first two, I completed my alternative service working for the Jewish Children’s Bureau with “emotionally disturbed” adolescent boys in a residential treatment center. It was a fantastic and demanding job. The supervisory structure was excellent, including a weekly staff consultation with one of the finest children’s psychiatrists in Chicago, Sidney Eisen. I learned so much.
The staff worked together in teams, where I learned a lot about group process with a great deal of individual and group responsibility. Even though I was the youngest member of my team, my nickname was often Mr. Structure because of my (Germanic) emphasis on creating clear and concise boundaries and frameworks for the kids and staff to operate within. Not only did we work well together, but we played well – we had great parties. And, by the way, soon after I landed, I did buy a guitar, I started learning to play and began to write songs.
Also, not long after arriving in Chicago, I met a woman, Sherry Finneran. Actually I re-met her. She was the daughter of my mom’s closest childhood friend back in Indiana. Our families had visited back and forth when I was a kid, but I hadn’t seen Sherry in years.
We fell in love quickly, and passionately. Within a year we were married. Within two more years we were divorced. It was a torrid affair, one I think we were both lucky to emerge from alive. While I did survive it, my world was shattered. I was a structuralist, and the way I had conceived and structured the world and the universe did not include divorce.
Off and on for my last few years in Chicago, I was a student or sometimes a social worker. Occasionally I was engaged for special jobs with the Jewish Children’s Bureau. For two years I worked for Uptown Center, Jane Adams Hull House. (I still have many friends from those years.) I even began to perform music professionally in the Chicago area.
Mostly though, I was broken. I spent a couple of years in therapy, but that was never enough. I didn’t know how to put my world back together. It would only be much later, in retrospect, that I would recognize that one of the things that I was most lacking during that time, was a religious community in which I might feel connected and held.
When I left Chicago, it was with Betsy’s Zumbahlen, a woman I’d met on a camping trip, high in the Rocky Mountains. We were a musical duet as well as a couple. We left Chicago for a year of travelling through Europe. Living in a van we bought in Amsterdam, we took our music wherever it would take us. Everywhere we went we were invited to stay in people’s homes. Everybody loves a musician!
It was an incredible year filled with exotic people, and places, and opportunities for adventure. Slowly I began to heal, but my healing informed me that Betsy would not be a life-partner. When we got back to the States, settled in Champaign/Urbana, where Betsy returned to school as a voice major studying under William Warfield. (I’ve always considered that Warfield was my voice instructor – one generation removed.) Shortly after our return, Betsy and I parted ways.
A couple months later my housemates we’re heading out for a dinner party at the home of their friend – Judy Blustein. They asked if I wanted to go along. “No.” I said, “You go ahead, I’m not up for a party.” I was deep into the Tolkien trilogy at the time. Then, just as they were going out the door I changed my mind and decided to go along.
I fell in love with Judy that same evening as the two of us went to fetch an extra chair for her uninvited guest. The rest is a 38 year history. We have our passions and our fights, but they’re never all consuming. Our relationship is based in friendship, trust, caring and commitment. She keeps me grounded and reminds me to have high expectations of myself.
Judy and I traveled through the States for a year after getting married and then settled in the beautiful hills of northwestern Illinois. We bought a place in the country with ten acres of land. There we had our three children. There I recorded my first and only record album. This song was on it. (Performed with guitar and vocal)
Song at 44:30 in video above
Snow blowing cold,
out the window,
Through the trees to the ground
Gone from brown
In the pale winter’s light.
Thoughts running free,
Out the window,
Through the trees on the hill
Where they will,
Come upon a place to be.
And the child is gonna come
Love running free,
Through you and me
We look ahead
Now in time
Where things are fine.
Our thoughts and dreams
Have found a place to be.
And the child is gonna come
When the warm wind blows this year,
When the warm wind blows this year,
When the robin sings a happy song
And summer time is here.
When the warm sunshine spreads its rays
In a welcome cheer.
The child is gonna come
When the warm wind blows this year.
Snow blowin’ cold,
Out the window,
But, I feel warm here with you.
Things to do
So much to say about
The joy along the way.
When the robin sings a happy song
And summer time is here.
When the warm sunshine spreads its rays
In a welcome cheer.
The child is gonna come
When the warm wind blows this year.
And I’ll love you through the winter.
When the north wind blows its chill.
I’ll love you through the spring,
And when the new life makes us sing.
I sort of enjoyed the status of a local folk hero in Stockton, Illinois. Restaurants and clubs were eager to have me perform and I had a decent following. We also started a business selling and servicing farm tires, which never really amounted to a whole lot. My tenure as an elected township official – Road Commissioner – was a short lived one. It became apparent that I really didn’t know much about roads, so I resigned.
Judy and I were invited to a wedding at the Unitarian Church in Stockton in 1980. My mouth dropped open midway through the ceremony. It was a CHURCH that had religious beliefs like my own – A CHURCH! I realized in an instant how much I needed to be a part of a religious community, and nearly the same moment I realized that I had just found my religious community.
Two weeks later, Judy and I sat with Rev. Harold Paterson, whose memorial service I would conduct in 1999, 19 years later. I talked with Harold about the then recent and tragic death of my close friend, Gene Mizeur, who’d died in an automobile accident on his way to visit me from his home in Arkansas. And we talked about our first baby, who was soon to be born.
Will was our first child; his name was the result of a variation on the time-honored method of using well-used names. At the same time, Judy and I started a new naming tradition. We both took the name Blustein for a middle name and Ortman for our last. The children would also carry both family names. Laura was born two years after Will, and Shana two years after Laura.
I don’t think any other single event has changed my life so profoundly as did parenthood. I’ve been around babies, literally all my life; I could always take care of babies. But nothing prepared me for how it would feel to be a father. I loved it. I remember swearing to myself as I drove home from the hospital on the day Will was born, that I would be the best father I could be, and that my kids would always know that I loved them. I’m sure my kids would attest to the fact that I haven’t achieved the ranks of ideal, but they do know that they are loved, that I am incredibly proud of them, and that I’m capable of apologizing when I’ve blown it with them.
I was a stay at home dad, in those days. I did a little social work on the side, sang most weekends. Other wise I was at home with the kids. We owned and lived on ten acres of land that was surrounded by 1,000 acres of state owned forest. It was so ideal.
Every day the kids and I would do our housework and we would do our exercises. We would do flash cards—I made lots of flash cards—and we read lots of stories. In the late afternoon we’d start supper. Once a week we’d make bread; Shana was four before any of them had eaten store bought bread.
I remember making a play area for the kids out in the yard —sandbox, swing set and jungle gym. The only thing is that I built it in our backyard, under a stand of walnut trees. During the months of August and September each year, when they would go out to play, I had to make the kids wear hard hats so they wouldn’t get hurt from falling walnuts.
I often consider those years in the country in idyllic terms. We had wonderful friends; I wrote and performed lots of music; our home was a wonderful place to be. The culture wasn’t particularly ready for me to be a stay at home dad and I had a few adjustment issues that I had to grow through around that, but I loved it.
Several years after joining the Stockton Church, I took my turn driving Harold Paterson, who had recently been diagnosed with cancer of the tongue, up to the University of Wisconsin Hospitals in Madison for radiation treatment, he asked me if I’d ever considered the U.U. ministry. After about a half-hour of silence, I finally was able to say, “No Harold, I sure haven’t.” “Oh,” he said, “I think you’d make a good one.”
I considered the possibility for a few weeks and decided it wasn’t possible. I had three small kids to raise, and seminary didn’t fit into that picture.
Judy and I recognized that we’d have to leave Stockton when a school tax referendum failed miserably. We weren’t going to put our kids through a small town school system that didn’t have adequate support from the community.
We ended up back in the Quad Cities, in Davenport, again this time. We would live there for the next eight years. They too, were wonderful years. We became involved in the UU church immediately, and we fell in with a group of folks who would become very close lifetime friends. Alan Egly was the minister in Davenport when we arrived. He and I didn’t have a particularly close relationship at that time, but we worked together on some TV and radio pieces for the church. Alan resigned after our first year in Davenport.
After a couple of years in our new home, I began to recognize that some kind of career change was coming down the pike. Music had been very good for me, but I knew I couldn’t do it forever. Social work had been good too, but it wasn’t enough. Shana would be in kindergarten soon, and I was getting older too.
In the middle of a worship service, led by Pete Peterson, two years after Alan Egly had left, I recognized my call to ministry. It hit me much like a bolt of lightning. Two hours after that service ended when Judy and I were walking out to the parking lot when we had our first chance to talk, (and I had said nothing yet) she asked, “So, what are you going to do about it?” In the next couple of weeks several friends approached me saying that they’d been thinking, or even dreaming about me being in the ministry. You can run but you can’t hide, I suppose.
That fall I began studies at the University of Dubuque Presbyterian Seminary and then transferred into Meadville/Lombard after my second year. The Presbyterians picked up the tab for those first two years because their mission was to prepare individuals for the ministry. UU ministry was not discredited.
Close to the end of my first year, I called Alan Egly and asked to see him. I was going to ask if I might preach one Sunday in Burlington, Iowa where he had taken on the position of Sunday minister. He invited me to his downtown office in Rock Island where, in his day-job, he administered the Doris and Victor Day Foundation.
When I arrived, I recognized the building. It was the same building where my father’s office had been. When I got off the elevator on the fourth floor and recognized the office number, I was quite startled to realize that Alan was in the very same offices my father had occupied years earlier. The same room where we’d had that conversation shortly after I’d left home.
Alan and I talked about that for a few minutes, and then I told him why I’d come. He calmly walked to a cabinet, took a file out of a drawer, laid the contents out on the table and presented an extended student ministry program that he’d already prepared. He’d only been waiting for me to ask.
I received a phone call early that same evening to learn that my father, Fran, had just died.
I served the Burlington UU Congregation as a student minister for three years. Along with the Davenport congregation and several members of the Stockton Church, the folks at Burlington ordained me in the spring of 1992. I’ll be forever grateful to the people of that little river town church for putting up with me through my transition into the ministry. It’s sometimes with a combination of embarrassment and horror that I remember some of my earliest sermons, and they loved me through it all, just the same.
I cannot say enough about my experience with Alan Egly, I have never known a person to be more loving and giving as he was to me. He was an outstanding teacher who always knew, it seemed, what the situation called for, and always knew how to approach me about it. Alan generously provided me with his Burlington congregation so that I could learn how to be a minister. He allowed me to minister but was there whenever I needed him. I don’t know how he kept his ego intact through all of that, but he did it graciously.
A seminal experience in my ministerial development occurred while I was a student, attending an annual retreat of the Prairie Star Chapter of the UUMA. Much the same as this evening, the ministers and students had gathered around for the presentation of the Odyssey to be told by one of the colleagues. When we arrived at the designated time and place, the room was all arranged and everything was set for Carolyn, who would be our presenter. When she arrived, Carolyn explained that she would not be able to give her Odyssey that evening. She said that she felt disconnected from the group and that, with the groups permission, she would like to spend the next hour and a half to two hours talking about that disconnection and the possibility of reconnecting.
I was not the only one in the room who gasped. I had been looking forward to hearing her story. Carolyn was for me a model minister, one who was very well connected, who had an incredibly insightful perspective, and who I found to be so artfully articulate. My experience of that event provided me with a profound understanding of the fragmentation that is ever inherent in the human experience. If Carolyn did not feel connected, I had to doubt if anyone ever really did. Within that understanding, I came to realize that my call to ministry was and is a call to promote connection, on a deep and meaningful level, between and among people, a call to assure others of the unqualified significance of their being. This has been a central part of my underlying philosophy and motivation for nearly everything I have done in my ministry and in my life since that evening.
After ordination and graduation, I was called to the First Parish Church, Fitchburg Massachusetts, where I would serve for three years. Leaving Davenport was a tough move for our family. The kids were unhappy for many valid reasons; Judy wasn’t thrilled either. The Fitchburg church had been a tired little congregation for a long time, and it was hoping to wake itself up. We were able to revive quite a bit of energy and achieved some substantial growth, but even by the beginning of the third year I could see that the potential for growth would never be as big as the appetite.
Bob Karnan served as my mentor for those three years. It was a very different kind of relationship than the one I had with Alan. I learned a great deal from Bob, who was also quite generous. I think Alan taught me how to be a minister, and Bob taught me how to be a minister in whatever congregation, whatever its size that I might land in.
The Fitchburg congregation was a good group of people. They were willing to spend down its endowment in order to keep me, but I couldn’t live with that. Massachusetts is a wonderful place to visit, but it wasn’t a good place for us to live. A three-year visit was long enough.
The search process that followed was quite a remarkable one. I was blessed with several possibilities, and we landed in Montclair. As I now draw within a few short weeks of ending my 20 year tenure with the Unitarian Universalist Congregation Montclair, I find myself too much in a whirl of experience and emotion to provide any kind of adequate summary of my time here. In so many ways, these past 20 years have been a life within a life. It has been a very good life, one that I could have never imagined and yet one in which I’ve been so blessed to live.
About our children. In anger my mother used to say, “I hope you have kids just like you!” Well that didn’t happen. Our kids grew up here. They were each honor students in high school and again in college. They’ve each found meaningful and fulfilling work and loving partners to share their lives with. And now there are grandchildren! There’s a beautiful infant boy named Rowan who was born in February out in Oakland California. And just this past Sunday evening, our second grandson, Max, was born up in Beverly Massachusetts. I got to meet him on Monday before he was one whole day old! It’s too early to say, but maybe grand parenthood will change me as much as profoundly as parenthood did. All I can say for now though, is that I already like it a whole lot!
About my marriage. I’m not sure I emphasized enough earlier in this narrative, how it has been my relationship with Judy Blustein Ortman that has provided the greatest redemption in my life. She helped me to find the strength to heal where I had been so badly damaged. She helped me to find a vision of what a purposeful future might look like. And since then, she has been my steadfast partner in living into that vision. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that she doesn’t piss me off and regularly, or that I don’t do the same for her. It’s that, at the end of the day, we know that we will be there, standing with and for one another, preparing to take whatever next steps await us.
About my ministry. The last 20 years have allowed me to grow into someone that I don’t mind being. The largest single event during this time was of course September 11, 2001. I had a very similar experience of “call” during that event as the one I’d experienced back in Davenport. It came as a thunderbolt. In it, I recognized who I was and what I was here to do. I was here to be the best self I was capable of being so that others might find their best selves too. So that together, we could find our way through that experience.
There have been so many other issues that have called us to be and do our best over these years. The work of antiracism and anti-oppression, marriage equality, gun control and environmental sustainability have been central among them. These issues have taught me how to be spiritual and religious in ways that have connected me deeply to the community and to the world.
Any telling of my Odyssey would be incomplete without at least a brief mention of bicycling. Many of you are aware of the bicycle trip that I took across the country about five years ago, and maybe with the memoir that I wrote about that journey. But much more than that, bicycling has become a primary vehicle for me for spiritual discipline. Lucky me that it’s such an enjoyable discipline. The experience and the metaphors drawn from my time spent on my bike, especially out in the country – in the mountains and along riversides – regularly feeds my soul and my spirit in ways that nothing else can. Riding along on my bicycle and the very physical experience of wholeness that comes with it gives me hope in the possibilities of wholeness for our wildly spinning world.
My theology has grown in both depth and breadth during my ministry here. Over the years, I have found time and again how insignificant are the things that I don’t believe. And I have found time and again that what I do believe calls me to attention and intention, as well as into right relationship with the world and all that’s in it. I have found that the experience of my life demands of me my awe, that it encourages my gratitude and that promotes my calling to service to that which is larger, to that which is beautiful. It has been my strong belief in the possibilities of goodness that has provided me with the energy and motivation for trying always to be about building the kind of community that I want to be a part of, that I want my children and my grandchildren to enjoy, that I hope might approach something that could be called the beloved community.
A word about the congregation itself. I came to Montclair back in 1995 because it was obvious to me from the Congregation’s packet and from my earliest conversations with the Search Committee that this Congregation was very serious about two things, which I also found – and still find – at the core of my own sense of ministry in a congregation: that inspirational and transformational worship is essential in feeding the soul and fueling the life of the congregation and the lives of its members; that the work of social justice is an essential expression of religious impulse and essential to the well-being of the congregation. It has been my experience that these key characteristics have been at the core of our shared ministry in Montclair throughout our time together. I could never have hoped to find a congregation as fine as the one that I have had the great privilege, the joy and the honor of serving for these past two decades.
About the future. While leaving Montclair gives my heart pause with great pangs of loss, it also feels right – this is a good time to go. It is been a 20 year ministry and I am 65 years old this year. I have for some time felt that my call to ministry would lead to interim ministry and I’m ready for that now. I feel that I have something to offer congregations in transition as they go about trying to figure out what’s next for them. That I don’t know where or with whom that ministry will occur, suits me just fine. Truth is… I’m a vagabond at heart, so is Judy. So we’re excited to learn where our next chapter will be written and we’re eager to get it underway.
Ministry holds many challenges for me. Among the most awesome of those challenges is the ongoing question – can what I do really make a significant difference? I’ve experienced enough brokenness in my own life to recognize that injury and isolation are a part of all lives. Ministry has taught me a great deal about how we can help to keep those broken pieces held together for and with one another. I am incredibly fortunate to be in a position where my life’s work is about holding those pieces, with and for others. This gives me hope that what I do – what we do – matters.
The strength of my relationship and marriage with Judy is what gives me the grounding and the support that I need in order to do what I do. My community provides me with an environment in which to do that work. My faith, that brokenness can be transcended, provides me with the vision. I am so very grateful that I have been called to a life of meaning through ministry.
Once upon a time I said, “Church, you’ve gotta be kidding. I’ll never go to church.” Years later, I said, “Ministry, you’ve gotta be kidding. I’ll never be a minister.” And later still, “Massachusetts, you’ve gotta be kidding. I’m never gonna live near Boston and UUA headquarters.” And finally, “The New York metropolitan area, you’ve gotta be kidding. I’m never gonna live near that big of a city.”
One of the things I’ve learned in my life is that it’s very dangerous to say never. I don’t know just where I’m headed now or how long I’ll be wherever I might land. I’m very careful now a days though, when I find myself thinking that I’m never going to do something, whatever that something may be. Nowadays I say, bring it on. I’m looking forward to figuring the new things out when I get there, and I’m looking forward to having a good time doing it too!