Some very sad news this week in the death of Wells and Mary Behee, lifelong Universalists and church servants. I never met them, but knew much about them from Derek Parker, a friend and ministerial colleague (and successor) to the couple. I asked him to share his remembrances — lest this long-serving couple’s contribution be forgotten — and he’s graciously agreed.
Mary grew up in the Universalist Church of Lynn, Massachusetts. She was the daughter of a long standing Universalist family in that community. Following World War II she enrolled at Saint Lawrence College, to study religious education with Angus MacLean. It was in theological school that she met Wells.
Wells grew up in Medina, New York. His family attended the First Universalist Church of Middleport, New York. During World War II, Wells served in the Navy. His military service included both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of combat, including the Battle of Iwo Jima. Later in life Wells would frequently comment that the only thing which kept his sanity at Iwo Jima were his repeated praying of the Washington Avowal of Faith. Following World War II, the First Universalist Church of Middleport sponsored Wells to study for the ministry at Saint Lawrence College.
Mary and Wells served together in ministry. While Mary was never ordained, she was sometimes licensed to preach. This was a ministry she seldom exercised, preferring to work with young people in classroom settings. Together they served the Universalist Church, Dexter, New York; the Universalist Church, Woodstock, Ohio; the Universalist Church, Eldorado, Ohio; and the First Universalist Church, New Madison, Ohio. Aside from her work in Universalist religious education, Mary also worked as an elementary school teacher in different rural Ohio school systems. Wells also enjoyed an additional career as a high school instructor of public speaking, Shakespeare and English composition.
Both Wells and Mary were gadfly critics about the Unitarian and Universalist merger. While their opinions were sometimes abrasive to colleagues, the core of their criticism rested on three points:
- That post-merger redefinitions of Universalist theology and traditions were not faithful to the evolving traditions and spirit of Universalism,
- The post-merger closure of Universalist institutions like the Jordan School, and the theological schools at Tufts and Saint Lawrence. Mary and Wells were of the opinion that the Tufts and Saint Lawrence theological schools should have merged.
- They expressed concerns about the lack of support for rural churches, and about the post-merger preparation of ministers to do relevant liberal ministry in rural settings.
In retirement Mary became involved in causes related to the humane treatment of dogs. Wells also dedicated himself to a late life ministry of advocacy on behalf of combat veterans. Following the beginning of the Iraq War, he would volunteer his time to provide a pastoral ear to young combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. He would also preach on issues related to the extreme psychological cost combat service takes on armed service members. One of his sermons, “War Never Ends,” was given to a Dayton, Ohio gathering of the American Friends Service Committee.
In retirement Mary and Wells also nurtured the religious vocations of a number of Earlham School of Religion students with Unitarian Universalist, Quaker and Brethren backgrounds. The mentoring was not always requested, and sometimes made friendships difficult. But the offer to buy seminarians dress shoes were real and sincere.
Noted advice to seminarians included:
- “When you are preaching in many churches, your feet are at eye level with the congregation. Invest in professional looking shoes. Anything else is a distraction to the congregation.”
- “A good sermon is like a good play. It has a beginning, middle, climax, and an end. If you give people anything less than this, it is like giving somebody a hot dog, no bun, and a cheese danish; and then calling it a balanced meal.”
- “Let me show you how to preach without a microphone and amplification. Seminaries don’t teach that any more. But how do you think we preached in those big buildings after World War II. Without a microphone! If the power goes out, or the sound system blows a fuse, you will need to know this.”
Mary Behee died Tuesday, December 13, 2011 from an automobile accident on a rural Ohio county road. Her husband, the Rev. Wells Behee, was a passenger and sustained less serious injuries. He died in his sleep at Heartland Eldercare of Eaton, Ohio on Thursday, December 15, 2011. Mary was 85 and Wells was 86.
At their own instruction, Wells and Mary chose for the cremation of their remains. The family will hold a private internment of Wells’s ashes in his boyhood town of Medina, New York. Mary’s ashes will be scattered on coastal Cape Cod. A public memorial gathering is tentatively scheduled for summer of 2012, in rural western Ohio. Wells and Mary are survived by their children Kris, Cathy, Carol and Emerson and a number of grandchildren.