The following are comments of mine upon learning of the death of my longtime friend Ruth Wahtera, a native of Peabody, Massachusetts, who passed away on March 20, 2016:
In my opinion, Ruth was a very strong woman. Ahead of her time that way, but she didn’t seem to think about it. She had a quiet self-confidence, but was not overbearing. She just always seemed to be fully in command of her faculties, never lost her perspective and insight, had a great sense of humor, and could get to the bottom of things before you yourself could.
She did not take herself too seriously, yet at the same time she approached everything she did with great dedication and seriousness. She was very competent, inspired respect, yet at the same time she was approachable and friendly. She was easy to talk with, and you would always get an intelligent response. She was very mature for her age.
She was one year younger and behind me in school, but so smart, capable, mature, and level headed that I looked up to her.
We were fortunate to have been able to have resumed contact in recent years.
I first met Ruth, who was from Peabody, Massachusetts, in 1962 at a Liberal Religious Youth (LRY) conference on Star Island in the early 1960’s.
Ruth succeeded me as Chairman of the New England Regional Committee (NERC) of LRY during the 1964-65 academic year.
During the following year, she was President of Continental LRY.
and there is now a Facebook discussion group, LRY Reunion.
My involvement in LRY owed a lot to my brother’s having become very involved first, though, since my parents were very involved in the Unitarian Church in Canton (my father was church organist and choir director there), I would have gotten involved anyway.
We were raised as Congregationalists (my mother’s religion) and baptized and confirmed in the North Church, Congregational in Cambridge, where we lived until I was around age 12.
Before we moved from Cambridge to Canton, a suburb about 15 miles south of Boston, in the fall of 1958, my father had become organist and choir director at the Canton Unitarian church. He naturally got to know many people there and had piano students in the town as well.
My father had always had a problem with organized religion and Christian dogma. My mother used to go to church with us in Cambridge, but my father didn’t usually attend.
When my father became organist in Canton, he found Unitarianism to be liberating. It was free of dogma. There was no creed, and it was a rational, skeptical approach to religion. He became a very enthusiastic church member (as well as hired organist), and so did my mother, once they had moved to Canton. We all became Unitarians.
My older brother held a couple of positions in LRY and was very active, well thought of. His last position was Treasurer of the New England Regional Committee (NERC). He attended LRY’s Continental Conference in 1961. In part because I was his brother, my participation in LRY was welcomed.
I attended my first LRY conference in 1962 at Proctor Academy in Andover, NH. It was the New England Regional Committee’s Midwinter Conference. I didn’t know anyone and felt kind of lonely and out of it. Well, actually I did know one or two people.
In my junior year in high school, I was elected to be representative to NERC, the New England Regional Committee, of the Norfolk-Suffolk Federation of LRY, to which my local youth group belonged.
In February 1963, during my junior year, to my own very great surprise, I was elected Chairman of NERC, making me the highest ranking LRY officer in New England. New England was a hotbed of Unitarianism and a major area of LRY activity.
The way the election happened was that at the NERC meeting in February, a new chairman had to be chosen for the next year. It was the end of the term for the old chairman, Cal Mosher, who was about to graduate from high school.
Cal was regarded with awe by fellow NERC members. He was a real intellectual. In his first year after high school, where he excelled, he decided to skip college for a year and engage in independent study. A friend and I visited him in his apartment in Boston once. I was very impressed by what he was doing. He said he was studying world history (this included intellectual history) and had only managed so far to get up to the Egyptians so far.
M. Calvin (Cal) Mosher, 1963
Anyway, at the meeting where Cal gave up the gavel, in February 1963, a new Chairman of NERC was to be chosen. There was a leading candidate who aspired to become a Unitarian minister and did in fact become one. There was actually a dearth of candidates, though.
It became time at the meeting, which lasted over a weekend, to choose a new chairman. It looked like the leading candidate would be nominated and elected by default. Then, someone spoke up and said, hold on a minute, aren’t there any other candidates? Someone said what about Roger Smith, and, much to my surprise, I was nominated.
We were the only two nominees. We were asked to both make short speeches. There were 22 delegates in attendance, sitting around a conference table, plus a couple of adult advisors.
I have never been great at speaking, but I am not terrible either. I have almost never spoken with a prepared text, and I had no time in this instance to prepare anyway. It was all extemporaneous. I seem to do best thinking on my feet.
When it was my turn to speak, I was self-abnegating. I basically said that I was not sure myself whether I should be chosen. Apparently, my sincerity was admired.
We were told to leave the room. It was a paper ballot. When we came back, I had been elected. Someone told that the vote was 16-6 in my favor.
I can say without exaggeration that I turned out to be a great NERC Chairman and everyone thought so. I devoted a great deal of time and effort to it. It increased my self-confidence a lot.
I was a little nervous about chairing my first weekend meeting during the fall of 1963, but it went very well. Our Bible was Robert’s Rules of Order.
During the 1963-64 academic year, I was all over New England attending meetings and conferences in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont and met and befriended so many people, fellow adolescents and adult advisors (some lay, many of them ministers), who influenced me greatly.
Roger W. Smith, 1964
There was rancor between the youth members and some adults over who should be in charge — it was supposed to be a youth run organization, and was — and over rules about sexual conduct, but I treated everyone, youth and adults, with the utmost respect, and this won me admiration. Everyone thought well of me.
The adult advisors who most influenced me were Charles McGlynn from Medfield, Rev. William R. (Bill) Moors from Medfield, Eileen Day from Wellesley Hills, and Rev. John Coffee, minister of the First Church in Roxbury.
At the NERC meeting In the spring of 1964, when I completed my chairmanship, to be succeeded by a friend, Ruth Wahtera, from Peabody — she went on to become president of Continental LRY — the delegates surprised me with a small ceremony after a recess in which they were all around the conference table when I reentered the room holding candles and singing something.
I was moved and didn’t know how to respond. They gave me two books as a gift that I treasured and still have: The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran and The Family of Man, a photo essay book based on a popular exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.
In the books, two NERC members, Ruth Wahtera and Sandi Mosher, had written the following inscriptions: “Each man’s joy is joy to me, each man’s grief is my own” (from John Donne), and “You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give” (from Gibran).
In penning the inscription, Ruth (I believe, or perhaps it was Sandi) wrote and misspelled truly as truely.
Sometime in 1964, I received a letter from Rev. William (Bill) DeWolfe (then serving as minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Springfield, Massachusetts), a soft spoken, decent, thoughtful guy who was a dedicated advisor to LRY. He was aware of dissension over the issue of youth autonomy and wondered if something could be done about it.
Rev. DeWolfe proposed setting up an ad hoc committee, which was done. (I was appointed chairman.) It was called the LRY Advisory Committee (LRYAC) and met in Boston, where the Unitarian-Universalist Association (UUA) headquarters were located.
LRYAC met maybe three or four times; the meetings were extended until the fall of 1964, by which time I had left high school and was a freshman in college and no longer involved in NERC.
Rev. DeWolfe tried to effect a compromise, but the youth and adult members on the committee could not agree (although our discussions were cordial). Finally, Rev. DeWolfe said, at the last meeting, can we at least adopt a resolution saying that we have done the best we could, have agreed to disagree on some things, and agree on some other things? This way we could feel, say, that we had at least accomplished something.
I felt — because we had not managed to agree, really, on anything, and also because the principle of youth autonomy was sacrosanct — that I could not vote in favor of the resolution. Bruce Elwell, a NERC representative from Maine, and I were the only holdouts.
Rev. DeWolfe looked very annoyed, at least very frustrated. He was taciturn, as usual, but you could see it in his face.
Bruce said to me after the vote, “You look like you’re one of them, but you’re really one of us.”