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Spoerl, Dorothy T. (1909-1996)

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Dorothy Spoerl

Below is Spoerl’s autobiography, abridged from an interview with Margaret Gooding and Helen Zidowecki and supplemented with historical details (in italics) and illustrations from Hands drawn by Dorothy T. Spoerl. This book by her as a religious educator displays hands as symbols of Dr. Spoerl’s own deep unification of science and religion, mind and body, practice and theory.

Dorothy Mary Tilden was born on March 20, 1906 in Brooklyn, N.Y. to Joseph Mayo and Gertrude Estelle (Bennett) Tilden. In addition to her older brother, Sidney Edward, Dorothy had a twin brother, Donald Mayo, who later taught chemistry at St. Anselms College (the only Protestant on the faculty).

In June 1916, Dorothy’s father became President of Lombard College, Galesburg, Illinois. He was active in the Universalist Church of America.

In 1927 Dorothy received a B.A. in Religious Education from Lombard College. In 1928 she received a M.A. with a major in Religious Education from Boston University. She became the DRE Assistant in the First Universalist Church in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

I am a native New York State Universalist, having been born into the All Souls Church in Brooklyn some years back. I remember little of the church school or the church services (children went to church with their families in those days), except for learning the Five Principles of Universalism [established in 1899 by the Universalist General Convention], which we recited each Sunday morning from a tender and uncomprehending age. I found them comforting, at least the fifth, the final harmony of All Souls with God, and felt fortunate to be a member of All Souls Church. Imagine my surprise, at the age of ten, upon moving to Illinois to find that the Galesburg Universalist Church also believed in the final harmony of All Souls with God, and that it really meant all souls, not just the members of our Brooklyn parish. It was then, perhaps, that I began to learn that interpretation is important, and that the process of interpretation often changes one’s understanding of words, phrases, principles, It was an important learning, for I have since discovered that such change is a continuous process. (“We Do Not Stand, We Move”, New York Universalist Convention, 1976)

Spoerl "Hands"Brought up as I was, I could hardly escape a “career” either in the church or academia. From the age of ten, I lived in Galesburg, Illinois, on the campus of Lombard College. Galesburg is on both the Sante Fe and the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroads, both of which were then the major transcontinental trains. My father was not only the president of Lombard, but through many of the years on either the state or national Universalist boards or committees, and a “popular” speaker at many events. Anyone who was going anywhere on denominational business went through Galesburg and was apt to be invited to stop off and speak at the college chapel. Therefore, a lot of dinner talk was of denominational affairs, and I met many of the “important” people of Universalism, but also of Unitarianism, because the Western Conference, centered in Chicago, was not unknown in our academic halls. Furthermore, we children went with our folks to many affairs, conventions, and what not, and got a good “dose” of enthusiasm.

Of course, when old enough to go on my own, I went first to state conventions of the Young People’s Christian Union and then, as a high school graduation present, to a two week conclave at Ferry Beach, one week a national YPCU convention, the other a General Sunday School Association week at that beach. At the end of that I was convinced that I had made my choice at long last between the three things that I had thought of as career: journalism (my highest hope to work for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, or to be a teacher, or to be a minister).

My father was a little conservative on the subject of women in the ministry (he thought they had no future there), so he said I could go to Boston University to study Religious Education, but discouraged my “dream” of St. Lawrence and the ministry. On the other hand, by then I knew a lot of Universalist types in the Boston area, and the year I graduated from college and went to Ferry Beach before starting in at Boston University, I fell in love with a young “minister from Vermont,” whom Mary Slaughter (later Scott) had said “I think you will like him.” Between having an apartment with Mary (who was then field worker for the Universalists), and having met Roger Etz at Ferry Beach, at mid-west conferences, and at Murray Grove, he offered me the part time job in Charlestown Massachusetts.

Squirrel illustrationI went to work for Roger Etz in Charlestown, including some preaching, discovering some thirty years later that Charlestown was Starr King’s father’s church and later his (Starr King’s). But my introduction to Unitarianism came in summer conferences, which included ‘those dreadful Unitarians,’ as our Galesburg people said. I met Curtis Reese, whom I adored with all the zeal of a high school girl and who “made a liberal out of me,” as to religion. He, along with Waitstill Sharp (head or the Religious Education Department at American Unitarian Association and later with the Unitarian Service Committee) and Robert Dexter, took time to talk to an aspiring young church worker. Going into the church was inevitable.

What made me a “liberal” as related to social action was moving to Boston on the night Sacco and Vanzetti were electrocuted; the influence of Clarence Skinner (at Tufts University), who came up to Ferry Beach weekends to help us understand social issues; and a wonderful social ethics teacher at Boston University, David Vaughan.

At mid-year of that year at Boston University, we had a Ferry Beach reunion, and I met again the “young minister from Vermont.” That summer I went to Ferry Beach as a celebration of having my M.A. in Religious Education and left at the end of the week engaged (on the pier at Old Orchard Beach) to the “young minister” [Howard Spoerl].

In 1928-1929 Dorothy was Director of Religious Education at Detroit Universalist Church under Frank Adams. Her mother went to Detroit with her, as her father had died in February 1928.

1929-1930 Dorothy was the President of the Young People’s Christian Union.

That year in Detroit tied me closer to UUism. The Religious Education Director in the Detroit Unitarian Church was Frances Wood (later field worker for the American Unitarian Association and then the UUA), and we became lifelong friends. Frances had the ability to take people where they were and to move them beyond.

Hand illustrationOn July 28, 1929, Dorothy married Howard Spoerl, Minister in Bath, Maine, in Ware, New Hampshire. Dorothy was a minister’s wife as well as the Religious Education Director. She was ordained in Bath before they moved to Orono, where Howard was minister at a Congregational/Universalist Church. He obtained a M.A. from University of Maine in Philosophy, transferring credits that he had obtained from Harvard University.

My husband, Howard, and I were at the church in Orono, Maine. Prowling in the excellent University of Maine Library, I ran into the twenty or so volumes (or was it twelve) of Frazier’s The Golden Bough (first published in 1890) and read it through with mounting excitement. I began to devise a course on mythology for the Orono church school. I wrote it up for the Christian Leader. The editor wanted to know if I was sure that I wanted him to print it, as he was afraid that it would “close many doors in the denomination” to me and Howard. I said “yes” anyway. Sophia Fahs read it, was already of the same mind, and invited me to come and talk with her about working with her on Beginnings of Life and Death.

Two years as a minister’s wife and we decided that Howard was more academic than ministerial, so we threw in the sponge and moved to Boston so he could get his Ph.D. in Psychology and Philosophy at Harvard (and thereafter we shifted between preaching and teaching for the balance of our lives). What you can do with and for young people in one is the same as the other, but there are different approaches and a wider area of trust sometimes from the young for teachers than for preachers.

Dorothy worked for the Benevolent Fraternity in Boston, which included Bulfinch Place Unitarian Church under Christopher Eliot, father of Frederick May Eliot, then Chester Drummond. She worked with children in the North End Union one day a week. Abigail Eliot (Frederick’s sister and cousin to T. S. Eliot) also taught in the church school. She was one of the leaders in nursery school education.

So Howard could go to Harvard (we had, of course, saved nothing on our munificent $2000 salary, par for those days), I wrote to Waitstill Sharp, who was then head of Religious Education of the American Unitarian Association and asked if he could get me a full time job in the Boston area. I was sent to an interview with the Benevolent Fraternity of Unitarian Churches. This was the strangest interview of my life. It went like this, “You want to be RE Director?” Me: “Yes.” He: “Where did you go to school?” Me: “Lombard and BU.” He (a high official in the Boston Edison, I think it was): “I never interviewed anyone before. What else should I ask you?” Me: “Why don’t you ask me if I want the job?” He: “Do you?” Me: “Yes, very much.” And he hired me. When I went there, it had had three ministers in the past 150 years.

Horses illustrationHoward graduated from Harvard, and he and Dorothy went to St. Johnsbury, Vermont, returning to Boston because of the low salary. Dorothy worked for Houghton-Mifflin Company, and Howard taught at Northeastern part time. A brief notation in the Christian Leader states that Howard was settled in the church in South Weymouth, Massachusetts on September 27, 1931.

1937-1939 Dorothy was Minister, Second Universalist Church, Springfield Massachusetts. Howard taught philosophy and Dorothy, psychology at American International College, Springfield. Dorothy was also Religious Education Director at Unitarian Church, under Whitman Emes. She feels that she paved the way for the later joining of the churches.

1940 Dorothy and Howard moved out of Springfield during wartime because many of the business were related to guns and ammunitions. They were ministers in the combined Methodist/Congregational Church in Jeffersonville, Vermont, and alternated with the church in Cambridge, Vermont.

1942-1944 when the American International College got a new and liberal president, Howard and Dorothy returned to Springfield, where he remained the rest of his life. Dorothy returned as minister of Second Universalist Church and Professor of Philosophy at AIC. She attended Smith part time, then Clark full time, receiving her Ph.D. in Psychology from Clark in 1942, with major work in child development and a thesis on the impact of a bilingual childhood at college age.

Around 1946 Dorothy represented the Universalists on the Joint Curriculum Committee. Dorothy was appointed in 1954 as one of four Curriculum Editors for the Council of Liberal Churches (CLC), with Edith Fisher Hunter, Lucile Lindberg, and Robert Miller under Ernest Kuebler. The CLC included Unitarians, Universalists, American Council for Judaism, and the Ethical Society. She was a speaker at numerous institutes, such as at Ferry Beach in 1948.

Hands illustrationFrom 1955-1960, Dorothy was Editor of the Beacon Series. Howard died in 1957, as did her mother, who had been living in Florida, and her brother, Donald. In 1958, Dorothy built the house at Witches Meadow, and taught in a 2 room school (expanded to 3 rooms) in Ackworth, New Hampshire (36 children, grades 3-6).

When Howard died, and Walter, who was 15 years old, wanted to “live in the country,” I built my house at Witches’ Meadow in Langdon, New Hampshire. It got its name the night I had bought the land. When I approached the land, it was hazy, with the moon shining faintly through the mist. “Witches’ Meadow” seemed like the perfect name.

1960-1964 Dorothy was curriculum editor of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This included editing the Beacon Science Series.

I got a phone call from Ernest Kuebler. By then I had been on the curriculum committee of the Council of Liberal Churches for many years, and had been for a time one of four part time editors for the Council of Liberal Churches. He wanted to know if I would like to come to Boston to do research in religious education and be curriculum editor. I said, “yes” and went. He told me later (half in jest) that I was “the only person he could hire (it was the year of merger) because the Unitarians all thought I was Unitarian and the Universalists knew I had been brought up a Universalist, therefore I wasn’t controversial at that point in history.” (As a person I “merged” long before merger/consolidation.) Whatever his reasons, I enjoyed the work. Ernest was marvelous to work with, and I would have stayed had he not left. I could not work with Henry Cheetham, but as long as I worked for him (Cheetham), I supported him.

1965-1966 Dorothy was on the faculty, Starr King, 1 day/week, and was West Coast field staff for Religious Education.

1965-69 Dorothy worked on Adult Education under Royal Cloyd.

It was a joy when I was invited to Starr King to teach one course and do the West Coast field work. I was not sure that I could survive the California highways. When Royal Cloyd offered me a job in Adult Education working for him, I said “yes.” Royal was the most creative man I have ever worked for.

Henry Cheetam demanded that I turn down all religious education invitations for three years after leaving UUA initially and to not tell people why. When Royal went through Dana Greeley (1967?), Henry permitted me to accept the invitation to spend time working with the Remonstrants in the Netherlands to introduce the Dutch translation of Sophia Fahs’ Today’s Children and Yesterday’s Heritage. The UUA paid my salary and the Remonstrants paid the expenses. I gave 21 speeches in 3 weeks.

When I was speaking at the Haag, three men in the back row nodded and agreed with my speech. They told me that is was about time that someone said the things that I had said. They introduced themselves as the “Pope’s bad boys.” They were three Catholic priests!

1970-72 Dorothy was minister at Woodstock and Hartland, Vermont. She then moved to Charlestown, New Hampshire, then moved to Sanford, Maine, basically to be near her son and his family. She continued to speak at conferences and religious education gatherings.

In 1987, she received UUA Distinguished Service Award. In 1994, she received the Angus MacLean Award in Religious Education.

Retirement brought constant contacts with Sunday church services and organizations after the merger. This included participation in the St. Lawrence District Conference, “Revolving Door Syndrome.” For six weeks in the fall of 1972, I worked for the Department of Extension on the “front range” of the Rockies, doing a quick demographic study of each town where there had been a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship or church, speaking in each church and fellowship. This included three weeks in Colorada Springs.

In 1973, I was awarded the degree of Doctor of Sacred Theology from Starr King School of Ministry. I was the theme speaker for the Starr King Summer School.

Small hand illustrationIn 1977, I conducted a West Coast “safari” doing a three day workshop with lectures on curriculum past, present and future for church school people in the Santa Monica, California, area. I was then theme speaker at Seabeck for the Northwest, followed by a month as minister in residence at the Vancouver Church while Phillip Hewett was on sabbatical writing and researching his history of the church in Canada.

In 1979, I was presented a Doctor of Divinity by Meadville/Lombard Theological School, and gave the commencement address, “To Keep Man’s Spirit Free.” In 1980, I was the Spring Term Minister in Residence at Meadville/Lombard where I taught a course in religious education. From there I went to Galesburg to the Lombard Alumni Reunion and spoke of the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the closing of Lombard to assure them that the charter was “alive and well” and doing splendidly at Meadville.

I was Minister of the Week at Starr Island in 1979 and 1985. I am also a member of the Ferry Beach Park Association, serving on the Board until 1987.

In 1982, I participated in the ordination of Corelyn Senn in Charlottesville, Virginia. I also did the Theme Talks for the week each at UUMAC in Easton, Pennsylvania, and Ohio/Meadville Conference at Kenyon College. The theme of these weeks was community, but each one was different.

In 1983, I participated in the dedication of the Oakcliff Church in Dallas, and had a workshop the day before at First Church and a talk with children on atomic war.

In 1986, I participated in the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Woodstock, Vermont, church, giving the anniversary sermon (not preserved in written form).

Since retirement I have preached or spoken to religious education groups on numerous occasions until a few years ago when bus service out of Sanford/Springvale (Maine) was discontinued and my eyes forced me to give up driving, so I could not get to most of them. I did have a session at the Religious Education Week at Ferry Beach in July 1995.

Dorothy SpoerlDorothy fell and broke a hip in January 1993, followed by rehabilitation for that and subsequent falls in various nursing facilities in southern Maine. She maintains extensive correspondence, in spite of visual impairment. Dorothy retains her concern for quality in religious education.

May 1999 Dorothy has moved to Sullivan County Home, Claremont, New Hampshire, to be close to her family. She appreciates phone calls and letters. She is an avid “reader,” a great customer of the Talking Books Program, as her vision is very poor.

Henry Hampton, in his Fahs lecture (1987 General Assembly) put it well: “Thus far in her long and productive life of service, she has helped educate our children, build a denomination, save more than a few intellectual souls, and, without a doubt, she has changed the course of the world…Dottie Spoerl is the best we have to offer…(Her) life of service testifies to the tremendous difference one individual can make……”

A Note on Unitarian Connections

Dorothy Tilden Spoerl held dual ministerial fellowship with the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association.

Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection

Preface, Hands, by Dorothy Spoerl