Tag Archives: Rev. Frank Hall

In Death, The Gift Of Life

Like many others, Dan Levinson moved from New York to Westport when his children were young. He thought it would be a great place to raise kids.

He was right. He grew to love the town, and has been active in many non-profit organizations here and in Bridgeport.

Like some others, his father — Peritz Levinson — moved in with the Levinsons late in life. He too learned to love the beach, Longshore, the library and Senior Center.

Peritz died a year later. Unlike many others, however, his death was not frightening, painful or brutal.

Instead, it was powerful. It was meaningful.

And now it’s become the impetus for an intriguing, important book project.

Peritz Levinson spent his life in Cincinnati. That’s where he took care of his own parents, until they died.

Peritz Levinson, with a very young Dan.

A psychiatrist, he came to Westport when he was 90. His wife had died, and he was ailing. He did not want to impose on his son.

Peritz need not have worried. He had prepared to die. During the last year of his life, he “became transcendent,” Dan says. “He was less present, but more brilliant.”

As they heard Dan talk about his father’s death, people who befriended Peritz during his last year — Sue Pfister at the Senior Center, Bill Harmer of the Westport Library, Sharon Bradley at Visiting Nurse & Hospice of Fairfield County — encouraged Dan to write about the experience.

Peritz and Dan Levinson take a selfie.

He realized there were other stories out there, of “good deaths.” He decided to find them, find writers to tell them, and collect them in a book.

In Death, The Gift of Life is hyperlocal, he says. It  features 10 stories from here.

Some of the names are familiar, like community activist Estelle Margolis and musician Charlie Karp.

“It’s not a book for the world. But I think it can influence a lot of people.”

For much of history, Dan notes, death was seen as a natural part of life. People died at home, surrounded by loved ones. But advances in technology and medicine have made us think we need to “fight and scrap,” to put off the inevitable end of our days.

Peritz Levinson, enjoying his son Dan’s back yard.

Peritz Levinson had thought for years about death. He was a founding member of Exit International. The non-profit organization wants to ensure that all rational adults have access to the best available information, so they can make informed decisions about when and how they die.

“My father wanted to be present as he died,” Dan says. “He was calm. He had clarity.”

The final 3 months in particular were “spectacular.”

Dan took his father to meaningful places. Peritz loved the beach. At Elvira’s, Stacy gave him rice pudding. When they drove through the golf course, people waved. Dan’s son Jesse — Peritz’s grandson — was around for much of the time too.

Peritz Levinson, surrounded by (clockwise from lower left), his grandchildren Andie, Adam and Jesse, plus Andie’s now-husband Steve and Adam’s girlfriend Hayley.

“It was beautiful,” Dan says. “We had quality time, and closure. There was acceptance and peace.”

Dan is fully aware that his family’s experience is rare. Part of the reason for the book is to spark conversations about dying. So he sought writers who knew their subjects, and could tell their stories lovingly and insightfully.

Estelle Margolis, longtime activitst and a Westporter who prepared well for her own death.

Longtime civic volunteer and political activist Margolis, for example, prepared well for her own death. Her grandson wrote her story.

Author Mary-Lou Weisman wrote about Pamela Parsons Naughton, the wife of actor James Naughton. Karp’s sister Eleanor Duffy writes about him.

Other familiar author names include Sarah Gross, Jarret Liotta, Robin Weinberg and Craig D.B. Patton. I was honored to contribute Peritz Levinson’s story.

The title — In Death, the Gift of Life — comes from something someone told Dan Levinson: “Your father gave you his life. And he gave you his death.”

On October 13, the book launches officially, at the Westport Library. There’s a 6:30 p.m., reception; remarks from Levinson, Liotta, Weisman, Naughton (and me), and music by The Name Droppers, Charlie Karp’s band.

The public is invited. It will be a joyful celebration of this book — and of the joys of good, meaningful deaths.

(For more information on the October 13 event at the Westport Library, click here.)

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Frank Hall: A Minister Cut From A Different Cloth

As a teenager growing up near Boston, Frank Hall thought about being a minister.

Only one thing stopped him: He didn’t believe in certain things. Like the Apostles’ Creed. Or the virgin birth.

“A lot of those ideas had to be metaphors, right?” he says.

But while teaching at Wellesley High School from 1962 to ’69, and being drawn into the anti-war movement, Frank also became a Unitarian Church youth group advisor.

Frank Hall today.

Frank Hall today.

His beard and activism as a draft counselor landed him in some trouble with school administrators. A minister who helped mediate the dispute told Frank, “You should be a minister.”

“I don’t believe in God!” he replied.

That seemed perfect for Unitarians. During 3 years at Boston University School of Theology he also served as assistant minister of a small, socially active congregation. Noam Chomsky was a member.

He was called to Attleboro, where he spent 12 happy years as senior minister. In 1984 the Westport Unitarian Church contacted him. Frank was not interested in leaving, but one Sunday afternoon he drove down, by himself.

He found an open door. A lifelong poetry lover, he stood at the pulpit in the stunning building surrounded by woods, and recited lines from Emerson and Whitman.

“I felt an amazing sense that this is where I should be,” he recalls.

He’s been here ever since.

This Sunday (June 9) Frank Hall delivers his last sermon. He’ll be feted the following Sunday (June 16). Then the 73-year-old retires — though he has no plans to leave Westport.

Frank Hall, in the place he feels he was "meant to be." (Photo by Erik Trautmann/The Hour)

Frank Hall, in the place he feels he was “meant to be.” (Photo by Erik Trautmann/The Hour)

He looks back on 3 decades of association with “an amazing group of people in this church.” He has felt warmly welcomed — despite what may be a unique admission from a minister.

“I make no apologies for my theology, or lack of it,” Frank says. “I could be who I am here.” His was a ministry of poetry, he says.

“It hasn’t always been easy,” Frank admits. “This is not Kansas anymore. Fairfield County is not New England. It’s New York.” For a lifelong Bay Stater — the 3rd of 9 children, and son of a roofer — that took some getting used to.

But he brought a sense of stability to the church on Lyons Plains Road, he says. 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.”

Frank says the Westport Unitarian Church’s sanctuary — with its physical connection to the outdoors — is another expression of spirituality.

Westport's Unitarian Church

Westport’s Unitarian Church

The sanctuary was the site of Westport’s 1st gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies, during Frank’s 1st year here in 1984. He is proud of his role in making the Unitarian Church a welcoming place for the LGBT community.

He is proud too of the congregation’s growth. During his tenure the church introduced a 2nd Sunday service, and hired full-time religious education, music and social justice directors, as well as a paid youth advisor. Nine members of the church have moved from the pews into ministry.

During his ministry, Frank held dozens of 6-week sessions with small groups. They talked about spiritual journeys. Frank’s journeys also took concrete form: He took 29 “coming-of-age groups” (14-year-olds) to Boston, touring important sites in and around the birthplace of Unitarianism.

He cherishes his friendship — and regular meetings — with other clergy. “We’re a real support group for each other,” he notes. “We’re on the liberal spectrum, but they say I’m off the spectrum.”

Frank’s community involvement included the formation of the local A Better Chance house. He is also on the board of Temenos Institute.

Retirement will include spending time with his wife Lory, a hospice worker. He also hopes to publish.

Frank Hall's home, for 30 years.

Frank Hall’s home, for 30 years.

“I’ve written 1,000 sermons, but I’ve never published anything,” Frank says. He’s eager too to revisit the 4 journals he filled during a 5-month sabbatical, 20 years ago. He drove across the country by himself, in a VW Vanagon, enjoying detailed conversations with many people he met. He envisions a book that’s “not just a travelogue, but an inner journey.”

Five years ago, Frank was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. He wanted to work 5 more years. His neurologist said, “No problem.”

“It’s worked out,” Frank says. “I feel blessed by my work. I feel blessed, as Robert Frost wrote, that I could unite my vocation and my avocation.

“It’s been a great run. A great trip. Now I’m ready to start a new chapter.”