The three years after our wedding were full of family, church, and seminary, not necessarily in that order. Sue and I rented the upstairs of a house from an elderly couple, Phil and Mary Smith. I was a smoker but it didn’t bother Phil who was a chain smoker. The whole house reeked. I am not sure how Sue and Mary survived in that environment. At the time I was not even aware.
Sue got a teaching job at Smouse Opportunity School for children with physical disabilities. I continued to travel to Allerton on weekends, to preach and do pastoral duties. Sue ordinarily went with me, unless she had to prepare lesson plans for the next week, or during the second semester of the ’60-’61 school year, when she was pregnant and sick with our daughter, Leslea, born in September of ’61. At the end of the semester I was offered a job as Assistant Pastor at Cottage Grove Ave. Presbyterian Church, at an incredible $3,000 annual salary, plus a 2 bedroom apartment in a house owned by the church (and right next door). The church was within a few blocks of the Drake campus.
We were ecstatic, although it did require a slight shift in my theological journey. These Presbyterians actually baptized babies. My Disciples of Christ heritage was a strictly adult Baptism tradition. Fortunately, my senior pastor, Ed Ingersoll, a short, pipe-smoking gentleman, was understanding, as long as I didn’t get into arguments with parishioners or try to “dunk” the catechism class graduates I was responsible for teaching.
There were other paradigm shifts happening during the early ‘60s as well. Des Moines was the capitol of Iowa and a university town, but African Americans, or “colored people,” as they were called then, were restricted by some rigid real estate codes from living in certain parts of the city. The civil rights struggle was coming to our city in the form of a movement to have the City Council adopt an “open housing” ordinance to prevent these “redlining” practices. Sue and I helped establish a family-to-family system of whites and blacks inviting one another to their homes to get acquainted, since most whites did not know any blacks personally. We also had lots of “Hootenanys” in our living room.
Our seminary had one black Methodist student, Fred Smith. We could socialize on campus, but I remember being jarred when I learned why he did not respond to any invitations to come to any of our homes, letting us know that there were certain places he did not feel safe being seen.
I had attended the first Martin Luther King visit and speech to Des Moines at the civic auditorium in 1960 and had the opportunity to meet him and ask some questions after his speech. I’ve always said that was the inspiration for my involvement in the ‘60s civil rights and anti-war movements. We did, in fact, get the open housing ordinance passed over the next couple of years, not without struggle and late-night phone calls threatening me and my family, and a few of our church members turning their gaze away when I was around. But on the whole, Dr. Ingersoll and the congregation were quietly supportive of their young radical Assistant Pastor.
Seminary life went on as though not much was going on in the world. Except that we did have some students from the real world. I had mentioned Fred Smith, our one black student, who was a young pastor and family man who let us know what it was like being black in Iowa. Joe Fourre, a “colored” Methodist minister exchange student from South Africa (colored was a legal classification there) introduced us to the struggle against Apartheid. When he had finished his year at Drake and was headed home to his wife and 3 young children, he told us: “Some of us may have to give our lives to end this unjust system.” I’ve often wondered about him and his family. And the one female student in our seminary reminded us of the glass ceiling for women who wanted equal status and pay.
The 1960s were just beginning and we were living our lives unaware of what was unfolding.