By Jane Ahrens
Note: Click on any of the images to see a larger version.
The New York Times obituary reads, “Ralph Waite, a multifaceted actor who became etched in television history as the craggy-faced, big-hearted patriarch of a rustic Depression-era clan on the popular 1970s dramatic series “The Waltons,” died on Thursday [February 13, 2014] at his home in Palm Desert, Calif. He was 85.” And reading further, “Tiring of the county bureaucracy, he sought meaning in religion, a reversal of his belief in college that secular philosophy was sufficient. He entered Yale Divinity School and earned a master’s degree. He was ordained a Presbyterian minister and served congregations on Fishers Island, off Long Island, and in Garden City, N.Y.”
Inquiring minds wanted to know more, to dig deeper about this man who everyone knows from show business and Hollywood. What was his real connection to Fishers Island?
The Union Chapel scrapbooks reveal interesting correspondence and a look at Rev. Ralph H. Waite’s service to the church on Fishers. Having graduated from Yale Divinity, class of 1956, Fishers’ Union Chapel was his first calling, and according to documented articles, he was Union Chapel’s first full-time pastor. Island resident Dick Baker confirmed that Ralph began serving the church on weekends while still at Yale, as many had before him. In 1955, he wrote a Christmas letter to the islanders in which he welcomes all to attend the church’s holiday events including a children’s Christmas party, Christmas Eve candlelight service, and a communion service on Christmas morning. In it he wrote: “The Christmas songs we hear on the radio and TV seem to be accompanied by a choir of angels. Where can we go this season and not hear, perhaps faintly, the choir of heaven? Outside the clear, crisp nights, the bright stars, the frosty breath, the crunch of snow – all combine to make music in our hearts and to make us feel there is music in the air. Inside – the warmth, the flushed cheek and bright eyes of a child, the smell of evergreen and Christmas food, the memories of bygone Christmases, call forth from deep in our hearts a song of praise to God for all He has given us. And we join the company of all men in all ages and with the angels to sing praises to the Father.”
The Sunday Service of Dedication of July 15, 1956 tells a bit more about this young minister. Not only are all the words that Rev. Waite said from the pulpit written in his hand in the church program – the Invocation, Dedication Prayer and Benediction – the back cover includes this thank you: “The building of the parsonage and the calling of a full-time minister would never have been possible without the support of the whole community. Many of our people have given of themselves night after night after working at their regular jobs all day. Help came from those outside the church as well. To all who have so generously given may we offer our thanks. In return for your good services we can only offer a glad heart and the hand of fellowships. Minister, Ralph H. Waite.”
Ralph lived in the Union Chapel parsonage with his wife Beverly and younger brother Donnie Waite, who graduated from Fishers Island School with Ken Edwards and Joan Jenssen in 1957.
One evening a basketball contest between the Ahman All Stars and the FI School Vikings raised $18.51 for the Red Cross when Rev. Waite served as the Fishers Island Red Cross fund chairman with branch chairman Mrs. Henry M. Walsh. (The Vikings, including Donnie Waite and lead scorers Ken Edwards and Dick Baker, won 52-50). The Red Cross branch goal that year was $880. It was anticipated it would be reached through door-to-door canvasing and membership renewal.
Rev. Waite also gave the Invocation at the class of 1957 graduation on June 21, 1957 followed by the address by class president Ken Edwards and the reading of the class will by Don Waite.
The caption on a large photo makes it clear that the young minster was feeling at home on the Island as he climbed a fence in an apron and cocked fedora in a silly pose as it reads, “Our fun-loving ‘Ham’ minister. The Reverend Ralph Waite in the backyard of Gordon and Lucy Ahman.”
In another photo of a dinner party, Ralph is pictured with Paul Scagliotti and others.
Diane Dexter sang in the Union Chapel’s youth choir when Ralph was here and Betty Peishoff remembers him chaperoning dances in the Church basement.
Rev. Waite’s collection of correspondences reveal additional Christmas and Easter letters, meeting notices regarding financial reports and budget approvals, and appeal letters including the August 1957 support of “the only year-round Protestant church on the Island”. This mentions that the budget in 1953 was $4,137.91 and had grown to $9,205.00. Donations came from individuals, the Ladies Aid Society and St. John’s Episcopal Church.
The Dedication of the Bell on November 17, 1957 sheds additional history. Again Rev. Waite had written all his notes on the printed program. The Dedication Statement reads: “The story of the bell started a while back. Probably others had heard and been bothered by the old bell – but about two years ago two men began to hear and to feel this was not a rich, a clear, a ringing enough sound to call people to the holy hour. One man had money – another perseverance. It took two years but today we have it. It has been said that God loves a cheerful sound. To all the riches He has showered on us of late – He adds one more. May its ring remind us always of His many big and little gifts and call us to deeper service and worship.”
The original bell was presented to the chapel in 1898 by Mr. R. E. Prime. Molded of cast iron, it was moved to the Buckner estate when the new bell was installed in 1957. Harold Baker located the new bell in West Rutland, VT. Cast in silver, brass and copper, it weighed 240 pounds (half the weight of the original bell) and previously hung in a schoolhouse near Rutland, VT before he and Larry Baldwin brought it to Fishers. Mr. and Mrs. Walker Buckner provided the funding. Larry Baldwin, J.B. Hartsfield, Loroy Carney, Dick Baker and Dick Jenssen replaced the old bell in the steeple with the new, and Ricky Baker was “the first to ring the new bell”.
Concerned about the involvement of men on the island in church life, Rev. Waite invited Rev. John de Sousa to speak at a special dinner on December 9, 1957. Ralph wrote to John, “We are planning a dinner for all Protestant men on the Island. It will be the first time in many a year that they will be together in the Church. Out of about sixty possible laymen we have about ten that could be called active…This get together is basically an attempt to reawaken their interest. One of the real problems is that the Church has been so weak and ineffective over the years that they have developed a way of life that doesn’t include the Church…For decades the Church as been served by Yale students who were here for only a few hours on the weekend. A small core group, mostly the Ladies Aid had to fill the gap…The men just ignored the Church, gradually growing to feel it was for women and children. Last year they embarked on a new course – a full time ministry. Things have picked up considerably, yet the main body of men are either too shy, too confused as to what the Church is all about, or can’t see their way clear to begin taking an interest. This meeting is an attempt to show their need for the faith and our need for them. Out of your fund of experience I am sure you can be of help.”
The Union Chapel’s congregation had considered purchasing the Fort Wright Army Chapel but in February 1958, the decision was made not to go ahead. Instead, Rev. Waite approached the Disposal Division of the General Service Administration about purchasing “a few parts of the building” including lighting fixtures, kneeling pads and pews.
Spring of 1958 was a busy time for the Union Chapel and its minister as they requested to be considered a part of the New London Association of Congregational churches. May 25th was a day of celebration as Rev. Waite invited many local ministers to a special session on Fishers when the Association would “conduct appropriate examination, and if the result be favorable extend recognition and acceptance into the Association”. The actual service was laid out in a letter from Rev. Waite to Frank Burr dated May 7, 1958. In the same letter, Ralph also thanked Frank for his letter to the church in Garden City and explained that he had accepted a call to that Church.
A May 8, 1958 article in The New London Evening Day explains the upcoming ‘History-Making Event’ on May 25. Personal invitations to the May 25 Service of Recognition and Reception for Fishers Island Union Chapel were sent by Rev. Waite to The Reverend and Mrs. A. L. Kinsolving, Mr. and Mrs. Walter G. Buckner, Dr. J. Warren Hastings, Mr. and Mrs. H. N. French, Mr. and Mrs. H. L. Ferguson, Father Loftus, and Mrs. Page. Harold Baker was in charge of transportation to and from the ferry, Gordon Ahman oversaw the ferry charter at $75. one-way with the delegates paying for their return trip, and light refreshments of punch and cookies were provided by the Ladies Aid who also “put supper on”. A week later the thank you notes flooded in.
Late May and early July 1958 found Ralph writing appeal letters to both Islanders and summer residents. In a somewhat lighthearted letter to islanders, he began with celebrating the ‘big moments’ of May 25 and drills down to the importance of the ‘small moments’. Filled with quotes and his thoughts, he ends each narrative paragraph with THIS IS PLEDGE SUNDAY. Toward the end of the letter he wrote, “…There is work to be done. There is a message to be proclaimed. There are lives to be healed. There is an Island to be redeemed. God has chosen you for this mighty work.” And concludes with, “ I hope you are as pleased as I with the way things have been going. This is only the beginning. Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Your Pastor, Ralph Waite.”
The Day published an article by Mrs. L.C. Foyle (date unconfirmed/assume October 3, 1958) announcing Rev. John Vander Groef as the next pastor of Union Chapel, succeeding the Rev. Ralph H. Waite “who resigned recently to take an assistant pastorate in Garden City, Long Island”. Rev. Vander Groef had preached at the Union Chapel on August 10 and would “occupy the pulpit” on Fishers on October 12, 1958.
[button color=”gray” size=”medium” link=”https://fishersisland.net/ralph-waite-patriarch-waltons-dies-85/” target=”blank” ]Ralph Waite’s New York Times Obituary[/button]