Two friends whom I’ve enjoyed and admired for decades died within a few days of each other last week, one in the Boston area and one in Mexico. They were in their 90s. More than knowing each other, they shared the essence of Unitarian Universalism.
That is, Virginia Wheelwright and Dan Cheever were not checkbook dogooders. They used their energy, time, best efforts and ideas to make life better for others. For those of us familiar with their good examples and good deeds, they didn’t live long enough.
Even before the two groups joined into the UUA, they shared that pragmatic philanthropy that is social action. Virginia and Dan were relentless practitioners of it. (For some background on UU activism click here.)
I got to know both at the Arlington Street Church. Each in his and her way was a splendid example of how we should live. That does not involve lolling in front of TV or saying, “Too bad for them. Not much to do to help. (Yawn.)”
Both Dan and Virginia made things better for people they knew, for those they hadn’t met yet, and those they’d never come in contact with. They seemed incapable of any other way of living.
Dan (who did not use his PhD “Dr.” or day-job “Professor” titles away from BU) was a high-level secret Santa as well as concerned manager. In his largess distribution at the ASC and beyond, he did not ask for, nor expect, nor want praise or acknowledgment. Perhaps the minister or music director might thank him privately for his sharing of wealth, gifts that often kept programs running or starting.
Moreover, I am sure that the ASC might well have closed shop were it not for his guidance when he chaired the board, with its loaded, old-style name of the Prudential Committee. Along with decades of volunteer work, he had to manage groups and departments as professor at both BU and the University of Pittsburgh. He brought academic and management smarts to bear, along with his considerable personal financial savvy.
Known to many as either the mother church of Unitarianism or the UUA chapel, for the many staff members and ministers from 25 Beacon who attend, the ASC not all that long ago was a physical and financial mess. It could well have gone down. Not even the 999 wood pilings that keep it from sinking in the Back Bay would have been able to keep it figuratively afloat.
After and while reconstituting the church’s personnel committee, I worked closely with Dan as he served two years as Pru chair and still drew on him for the next two years I was chair. I would joke darkly with him and interim minister Farley Wheelwright (Virginia’s husband) that I should come to the building wearing a cowl and carrying an ax. I had the messy job of clearing out the dysfunctional staff, creating workable job descriptions, and helping Dan figure out how we could pay a decent wage. The ASC was so broke that the UUA subsidized the minister’s salary.
In ways, Dan was an anachronism, a true gentleman. In such a trying time and place, and dealing with the frictions and egos of volunteers, Dan was thorough but endlessly patient. In years of dealing with difficult people, he never seemed to yell or even snap.
Our board meetings might run five or six hours. We dealt with big issues, the future of the church paramount. Chair Cheever polled us all around the table on the big issues, he demanded both our best thoughts and our buy-in for the eventual decisions. He of course had done serious research and brought out possibilities that put the overwhelming within reach. He got us thinking and acting right. In the end the ASC was prepared financially and in systems for the new and charismatic new minister, Kim Crawford Harvie. She’s been there and the church has flourished in recent decades in no small part because of the preparation.
Virginia came in and out. She and Farley remained members after his interim ministry. They ended up in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I had a very different, much closer relationship with them. We dined together at our houses and at restaurants. We then always were together when they visited Boston and we kept regular contact by email and phone.
Even before Farley took the spot at the ASC, Virginia had been a social activist. She served on many levels in UU organizations operating internationally, nationally and locally. Yet, the activism that may best define her started in Mexico when they allegedly were retired — neither Farley nor Virginia knew how to do that.
Virginia founded and at various points was president and other officers at Jovenes Adelante, which had drastically improved lives of the young and bright around her. As she noted, it started when she and a friend heard that a lad headed to college did not even have enough money to buy a pair of shoes to attend. Getting him shoes grew into an organization that raises the money to identify promising students, ensure they finish secondary school, and pay for college for them. Hundreds of youth have benefited, and of course, their families and towns have as well.
Virginia too didn’t know how to throw up her hands or just shrug. The impossible took a little longer for both her and Dan.
Tags: harrumph, harrumpher, Boston, Virginia Wheelwright, Dan Cheever, social activism, Arlington Street Church