Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Paul Sawyer Honored at Charles Olson Centennial

The final weekend of the Charles Olson Centennial, October 8-10, began with a celebration of the life of a man who was a poet and writer himself and the friend of some of the country’s leading poets and writers, including Gloucester’s recently appointed Honorary Poets Laureate, Charles Olson and Vincent Ferrini.

On Friday, October 8 at 3 p.m. the life of Rev. Paul Sawyer was commemorated in words and music at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Gloucester, a church he often attended and sometimes preached at. Family members, friends, former colleagues and poets and writers, who had traveled to Gloucester for the Charles Olson Centennial, joined together to pay tribute to the life of this remarkable man at the church where Vincent Ferrini often read and Olson wrote about in his Gloucester epic, “The Maximus Poems.”

Rev. Sawyer, who died in Pasadena on June 23 of pancreatic cancer, was the animating force behind the newly founded Gloucester Writers Center, formerly the home of Vincent Ferrini, where Ferrini and Sawyer spent countless hours talking during Sawyer’s many visits home to Gloucester. Even as he struggled with cancer, Sawyer campaigned for the project, helped to raise funds for the purchase of Ferrini’s house, and visited Gloucester to garner final support for his dream’s realization, writing to board members:

“The Ferrini Olson Poetry Center will provide a setting for writing and scholarship in the spirit of these two outstanding Gloucester writers. It will carry forward their commitment within the Cape Ann community as well as the wider world, reaching out to schools and writers engaging in the ‘unfinished business’ in front of us.”

A native of Saugus, Sawyer grew up on Cape Ann during the summers, where his parents, a brother, sister, nieces, nephews and cousins lived. His schooling was completed nearby at Phillips Andover Academy and Harvard University, and Sawyer returned frequently to Gloucester to visit family and friends, always marveling at the natural beauty of the city and its ability to attract and nurture artists and writers.

As much as Sawyer was animated by poetry, which he shared often with his congregations as a Unitarian Universalist minister and graduate of the Star King School of Ministry in Berkeley, California, he was also a strong advocate for peace and social justice. According to his obituary in the Pasadena Weekly, he had been incarcerated “some sixty times during protests against the death penalty, nuclear power and the war in Vietnam.” His jail companions included singer Jackson Brown and “Pentagon Papers” author Daniel Ellsberg.

But “he had so many spheres—jazz, politics, history,” Susan, his wife of 25 years, said, describing his fifty years of ministry in Seattle, Oregon, Berkley, Pittsburg, New Jersey and Pasadena. His sister Charlotte, wife of retired Gloucester pediatrician, Dr. Hamer Lacey, told a story about how Sawyer, though gravely ill, attended a reunion at Andover with old classmates, many of whom occupied positions of power in the world.

“He didn’t want to talk about old times,” she said. “He didn’t want to discuss his illness. What he wanted to talk about was the war in Afghanistan and how to end it.” His wife added that Sawyer reminded his former classmates, “Your values aren’t worth anything unless you are ready to go to jail for them.”

Shortly before his death, Sawyer completed a memoir, “Untold Story: A Short Narrative History of Our Time,” in which he told his own story in the context of the turbulent years during which he preached, wrote, taught and made of himself an example of the “examined life,” so important to Emerson, Thoreau and the New England Transcendentalists he spent a lifetime studying and emulating.


Carolyn said...

Paul Sawyer was a wonderful Man- thank you for your article about his most unusual life. One's life is what you make it.

Henry said...


Nice piece. Did the GDT run it? Can I put it on the GWC website. It fills in some of the GWC history.