Out of the Woods: An irreplaceable Westport spirit, Frank Hall leaves Unitarian Church
Updated 2:49 pm, Thursday, May 21, 2015
The kindly, erudite Westport clergyman-poet-nature lover was a spiritual advisor to hundreds of us of many faiths in town who have benefited from his sound advice and personal care.
We will miss our white-bearded, bear-hugging friend with his warm, friendly, broad smile every time we met him. It signals how much he cares about us, minimizing his own long, painful struggle with Parkinson's disease.
Hall, who technically retired two years ago, was succeeded last Sunday by the Rev. Dr. John T. Morehouse, the new senior minister, who was previously senior lead minister of Pacific Unitarian Church in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. He is the sixth senior minster to be called by the congregation since its founding in 1949.
Since Hall's retirement, the church has been served for two years by the Rev. Roberta Finkelstein, interim senior minister. Her last worship service at the church will be June 21.
Hall is a gentle, diminutive man with broad shoulders and a barrel chest. He is strong, has the body of a mountain climber and is a man who knows how to handle tools. He is at home as much in the woods as he is in his beautiful modern glass-enclosed church, which lets in the sky as if it reached up to the heavens. Attending one of his sermons is in itself a spiritual experience because of the environment, so inspiring, with the accompanying music, flowers and relaxed mood of the congregation.
Hall sets the tone with his humble stride, his comfortable swaying back and forth while gently cradling the Bible in his arms, as if holding a newborn infant whom he treasures with all of his heart. One can see his gentle eyes casting about his church in recognition of the hundreds of parishioners whom he has come to know personally, indeed, to care for in their hours of need. It is palpable how much everyone around him feels close to him; his tenderness and warmth attracts the reciprocal feelings from his constituents.
Hall is an icon in Westport history even as he prepares, at 74, to retire fully from the church and the community to which he has given so much of his life with his wife, Lory. The couple has made many adjustments to the selfless life they have chosen. As Hall once quoted a friend: "When you can't change the direction of the wind, adjust your sails. I made the adjustments."
He has no immediate plans, he said, except to continue to write more poetry and, perhaps, books. Those of us who treasure his presence hope he remains in or around Westport. He has become part of our natural environment.
Hall is a Kansas-born son of a roofer who found his way to Wellesley High School near Boston where he thought about becoming a minister, according to one account written by my fellow Westport News columnist, Dan Woog. But one obstacle was in his way: He did not believe in things like the Apostles' Creed or the Virgin Birth.
"A lot of those things had to be metaphors, right?" he said. He was puzzled. While teaching at Wellesley High School from 1962 to 1969, and at the same time becoming involved with the anti-Vietnam War movement, he also became a Unitarian Church youth group advisor. Being active as a counselor to draftees, he got into trouble with the school administration. A minister at the school who helped mediate the dispute told Hall: "You should become a minister." He replied: "But I don't believe in God!" That seemed right for Unitarians. During three years at Boston University School of Theology, he also served as assistant minister of a small, socially active congregation.
In 1984, he was contacted by the Westport Unitarian Church and he immediately drove here to have a look for himself. He said he felt right at home.
"I felt an amazing sense of this is where I should be," Woog wrote in his blog of June 4, 2013. Woog added: "He brought a sense of stability to the church on Lyons Plains Road. He did it by being `spiritual,' without the theological baggage that goes along with that. Most clergy don't like to hear I'm spiritual, but not religious -- that's not a good customer -- but spirituality can be expressed in many ways. Books and music, for instance."
Hall said the Westport Unitarian Church's sanctuary -- with its physical connection to the outdoors -- is another expression of spirituality.
Woody Klein is a Westport writer. His "Out of the Woods" column appears every other Friday in the Westport News.