Rev. Dr. Randolph W.B. Becker Remembers 57th & Woodlawn

My first attempt to get to 57th and Woodlawn was an abortive one.  I decided to visit the school on my January break in 1967, as I was examining options for a September 1968 start to my theological education.  I headed west from Boston on January 27 on the New England States Limited.  We were running well until about Toledo where a great mob boarded the train with stories of the Interstate closed, no buses, no flights, etc.  By the time we reached the Englewood Station (where I was de-training for the crosstown 63rd Street bus) we were in the midst of the record 23″ blizzard.  Not only did I de-train but so did everyone else.  The tracks downtown were fouled with a derailment.  Soon, about 1500 people jammed the little station, and we found that the El had quit, that buses were all stuck (800+ in total), and no one was going anywhere.  I called Meadville Lombard and reached a janitor who said that no one else was there and to not even try coming over.  So much for my interview.  I caught the first eastbound train to come through, and headed out of snow country.

I did meet up with President Sutherland for an admission interview in Boston later that year, was admitted to both Meadville Lombard and the University of Chicago, and returned to campus in early summer 1968 to look for housing. The virtually empty, hot, and stuffy building at 57th and Woodlawn looked like something out of another era to me, a graduate of 20 year old Brandeis University which was filled with modern architecture.

Meadville Lombard President Sutherland speaks on the phone in his office, c. 1960.

I decided to share the upper apartment in the carriage house at 1214 East 57th Street, opposite the main door to the main building.  My move into that apartment became the summer equivalent of my initial Meadville Lombard journey.  I arrived at LaSalle Street Station on the opening day of the 1968 Democratic National Convention . . . long-haired, carrying a backpack and a bedroll (I was continuing on to the SRL Continental Conference) . . . and upon coming out the door of LaSalle Street Station I was asked where I thought I was going by a National Guardsman.  I said I was headed to the Illinois Central to go down to the UofC, and I was escorted to the IC station by a contingent of Guardsmen and told not to even think about coming back up into the city if I knew what was good for me.  That night, with the windows all opened to catch any breeze in the summer air, I could hear relentless sirens back toward the Loop.

By the September 1968 start of orientation, the Police Riot was history and we were ready to start. 17 of us.  Reduced to 16 by the end of orientation, with a theological career and a new marriage a casualty of orientation.  Some of the class had only set foot in a Unitarian Universalist congregation less than a dozen times. Others of us were lifers.  It was a mix of those who were there for careers and those who were there to avoid the draft.  Anger at the system, at the administration (US and Meadville Lombard), at life in general was in the air.

The library seemed archaic compared to what I had experienced as an undergrad.  The main building seemed more suited to a bygone era than the present, much less the future.  My D.Min. curriculum included all mandated classes for two years (8 quarters including Clinical Pastoral Education) and then two years of all electives, split between Meadville Lombard and the University of Chicago.  The main events of community life were weekly Chapel and community dinners, which underwent drastic curtailment by my second year.  With a majority of the students living on the north side, and an almost-majority not thoroughly committed to Unitarian Universalism, community was a elusive entity.

I said good-bye to 57th and Woodlawn midway through my second year, heading off to do Clinical Pastoral Education in Minnesota, get married, and complete a quarter at a Minnesota State University.  I then settled in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, while serving the Unitarian Church North in Mequon, Wisconsin “part-time” (part-time meaning preaching only 3 Sundays a month and being responsible for all other aspects of ministry).

In late Spring of 1970, I returned to Meadville Lombard, to the second flood classroom, to meet with the UUA Ministerial Fellowship Committee.  An hour later I had my “1″ from them, which left only my completion of the equivalent courses for an M. Div. to allow me to enter search and the completion of my D. Min. to obtain preliminary Fellowship.  (My Meadville Lombard program offered only the completed Doctor of Ministry . . . it was all or nothing.)   Later that day in Wisconsin my wife of two months was offered a teaching job in a district close to Mequon.

I commuted to 57th and Woodlawn two or three days a week for the next two years for courses in the main season and took graduate courses at University of Wisconsin Milwaukee in the summer.  By June 1972, my class had been winnowed to three of us: Bart Gould, Don Marshall, and myself.  Graduation at First Unitarian Church was a moving event for us survivors, of whom only I am left in the Unitarian Universalist Ministry, Don having died long ago and Bart having chosen to follow his own ethical path not consistent with our Guidelines.

Over the years I have felt that the education I received at Meadville Lombard prepared me well not only to do ministry but to be open to continuing education.  But, the education was not about the physical plant.  When I arrived the buildings were already middle aged, too-well-worn, not really suitable to the tasks of the future.  Mircea Eliade could lurk in his upper floor office, library keys could be lowered by string to those on the sidewalk, formal teas and receptions could be held in the Curtis Room, and chapel held in a formal Hull Chapel.  But, as much as I enjoyed all this quirky reality, Unitarian Universalism was more my home than any Meadville building could be.

The main building of Meadville Lombard, c. 1970.

57th and Woodlawn was an address where the really important activity could happen, but that activity also happened at addresses worldwide as graduates went forth to embody and express what was envisioned there.

Now I know I will stop by the new location of Meadville Lombard for various reasons into the future, but I am not sure I will make a pilgrimage to 57th and Woodlawn except maybe to show my grandchildren where I studied as a benchmark to tell them about all that happened in 1968.

Saying goodbye to the corner, on the eve of my 40th reunion year of graduation from there, seems much less important to me than to wonder on what corner the future of Unitarian Universalism will find its inspiration and its education and its encouragement.

You see, it never was about an address, it was about an attitude.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s