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History and Heritage

Bertha TainterVictor UrbanowitzThis section of our web site honors the history of Unitarians and Universalists in the MidAmerica Region.

Here you will find a series of History Vignettes written by members of the History and Heritage Committee and other contributors. New vignettes will appear several times a year.

If you have a story to suggest, please contact Victor Urbanowicz at vurbanowicz@yahoo.com.

Adlai StevensonBy Victor Urbanowicz

One doesn’t research Adlai E. Stevenson (1900-1965) very far before an impressive picture begins to form. His 1952 acceptance speech for the presidential nomination, for instance, would seem odd today because of the speaker’s ambivalence, but it plainly comes from an extraordinary mind:

I would not seek your nomination for the Presidency, because the burdens of that office stagger the imagination. Its potential for good or evil, now and in the years of our lives, smothers exultation and converts vanity to prayer.

In 1956 Stevenson failed to unseat the popular Dwight Eisenhower, and in 1960 he lost his party’s nomination to John F. Kennedy. There is far more to Stevenson, though, than these electoral losses. His speeches were often compared to Winston Churchill’s. His long record of public service includes working for the Secretary of the Navy in the Roosevelt administration and later helping to draw up the documents that created the United Nations.

“Congratulations on your election as president. I know from hearsay how satisfying that can be.” Stevenson to Dana McLean Greeley in 1961 on the latter’s election to presidency of the UUA.

President Truman appointed him delegate to the UN General Assembly in 1946 and 1947. In one term as governor of Illinois — an office which he held when offered the nomination and which he was reluctant to leave — he was effective at eliminating government corruption. Under the Kennedy administration he returned to the UN as US Ambassador. There he “served as president of the Security Council and advocated arms control and improved relations with the new nations of Africa” (Harvard Square Library). During the controversy over the Bay of Pigs invasion, Stevenson unwittingly issued false denials of CIA involvement because the administration had concealed the truth from him. On learning the truth, he came close to resigning his ambassadorship. In 1965, however, he died in London while holding that office.

Richard Henry readably describes Stevenson’s Unitarian connections in the Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography:

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By Stefan Jonasson (first published in The Icelandic Post)

From the editor:

Emil GudmundsonMost UUs know that Spaniards, Italians, Transylvanians, French, Poles, and other groups had a hand in shaping our tradition. Here in North America we should also look at the Icelanders and their descendants. Emil Gudmundson, a Canadian, had crucial roles in both tracing the Icelandic influence and in organizing Unitarian Universalism in the Midwest. I never met him, but did find a typewritten letter of his in the archives of the Prairie Star District. It was in Icelandic, so I have no idea what it said.

From the author’s preface to the Facebook version of this piece:

Emil was one of the people who encouraged me to study for the Unitarian Universalist ministry. He taught me that ministry was, first and foremost, about presence – simply being with people in times of joy and in times of sadness – and that ideas were important, but not more important than relationships. And Emil reassured me that the love of things Icelandic might be rare, but it wasn't odd.

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A Sometimes Shadowy Figure

Leona Handler LightLeona Handler Light (1915-1992[1]) is an impressive and puzzling figure in the history of twentieth-century Unitarian Universalism. She capably served the Western Unitarian Conference in Chicago from the mid-1930s to the early1940s and then did hazardous duty in Hungary and Transylvania before and during the outbreak of World War II. In Lawrence, Kansas, she revitalized the historic Unitarian society. She then abruptly dropped out of sight for over two decades and apparently re-emerged to take a prominent role in the Black Empowerment Controversy in the late 1960s.

And with raised eyebrow you ask, “Apparently re-emerged?” Ministry candidate and research sleuth Jon Jasper Coffee is almost certain that the “Leona H. Light” of the 1960s was the Leona Handler active in the 1930s and 1940s, but recognizes that more digging needs to be done. All the same, he has uncovered enough information, most of it from primary sources, to sketch a fascinating portrait of someone whose career should pique the curiosity of anyone interested in the history of women—or anyone—who capably served liberal religion. The following condenses his findings.

Origins and Early Work

Probably born to a Baltimore family, Leona Handler studied at Tufts College, Tufts Theological School, Boston University, Northwestern University, and the Unitarian Collegium in Kolozsvar, Transylvania. Before becoming office secretary for the Western Conference of the American Unitarian Association (AUA) in Chicago, she worked as an assistant in Massachusetts congregations.

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