By PHILLIP BANTZ
The Keene Sentinel: February 16, 2008
One raw winter night years ago, Fay L. Gemmell was called to an apartment in Keene. The minister was needed.
An infant had frozen to death in its crib.
The young parents were shivering when Gemmell arrived. Their breath was visible in the frigid air. In the corner, a dog and her puppies huddled together to stay alive.
“That dog could take better care of its puppies than the couple could take of their child,” Gemmell said. “It was indescribably awful.”
Then drift from that hellish place to a celebration, a wedding.
Gemmell is marrying two young people, perhaps future parents. He sees them staring into each other’s eyes, envisioning their futures entwined.
“Sometimes I see things that are so holy,” Gemmell said, “that I think I must divert my eyes.”
For Gemmell, now 87, there is no such thing as a literal heaven and hell. But he says there are glimpses of each during our waking lives.
“I don’t believe in heaven and hell concepts. I believe I’ve had heavenly moments and hellish moments,” Gemmell said while sitting with his dachshund on a leather couch at Langdon Place of Keene one recent afternoon.
“Sometimes right here in this place, some little old lady or little old man will say something to me with a smile on their face that’s so sublime,” said Gemmell, his grayish-blue eyes lighting up. “To me, that is heavenly.”
The son of Nebraska farmers, Gemmell spent his childhood in a “little house on the prairie.” It was a lonely and contemplative life, he said, but one that fed his rampant imagination.
“Early on I learned to draw something from the immenseness of the prairie,” Gemmell said. “I think the rim of the prairie was the end of the world for my parents. As a child, I was always curious about what was over that horizon.”
It was the loneliness of life in the flatlands that led Gemmell to his local church. The congregation would become his extended family. And a succession of young ministers would lead him to his calling, however reluctant he was.
“One minister who was very friendly told me that I should be a minister,” Gemmell said. “I said, ‘Yes, I agree … but I don’t believe in all that stuff.’ ”
And he still doesn’t.
Gemmell’s struggle with religion and some traditional Christian beliefs, such as the concept of an afterlife, has consumed him for decades.
“I have real arguments in my soul about religion, especially fanaticism,” he said. “Some of the evil that has been caused by religion tears and rips at me. Sometimes I’m ashamed of religion.”
Religion, though, has been an endless source of fascination for the curious Gemmell.
As a young man, he pursued a bachelor’s degree in humanities from Nebraska Wesleyan University, and then he left the prairie to seek out a master’s degree in theology from Boston University.
Coming to New England was initially an unpleasant experience.
The mountains made Gemmell feel claustrophobic. He longed for the wide-open expanse of the prairie.
“And then I saw the ocean,” he said. “And I saw the prairie in the ocean. I was okay.”
In Boston, Gemmell studied alongside a man who would later become the most famous human-rights activist in American history.
His classmate was Martin Luther King Jr.
“I remember those days as I watched him grow into fame,” Gemmell said. “I had no idea of the greatness that would come to him, but you couldn’t help but notice him. He had amazing courage. He spoke out from the beginning.”
Gemmell also spoke out, though not as loudly or famously as his classmate. He became a minister free of orthodox ties. Not a “pulpit-pounding preacher,” but a free thinker who encouraged others to do the same.
“I’m not orthodox anything,” he said. “I’m not a literalist. I wouldn’t think about cramming my views down other people’s throats. What really matters, the only thing that matters, is that you are nice and do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Gemmell spent 30 years as a minister in various parishes in New Hampshire and Massachusetts before founding the campus ministry at Keene State College in 1963. He was the campus minister and counselor for 24 years.
“He’s ministered to the whole community in Keene. He’s been the older brother, the father figure for the whole community,” said Paul E. Cullity, the current campus minister and Gemmell’s longtime friend. “I think he’s more known and widely loved as a minister than anyone’s ever been in this area. He’s just incredible.”
Inside their rambling house in Keene, Gemmell and his wife, Charlotte, raised four children.
They enjoyed writing and art. They had countless discussions on religion and theology.
For more than two decades, Gemmell wrote a homespun philosophy column, “Proxy Pulpit,” for The Sentinel.
“It was just one man’s opinion about things great and small,” he said.
The Gemmells were also avid and talented gardeners.
Five years ago, Charlotte died. It happened just a few months before the Keene State College ministry building was dedicated to her and her husband. They had been married for 59 ½ years.
“I always stress that half a year proudly, like a boy when he says he’s 3 ½,” Gemmell said.
Charlotte suffered greatly before her death. Her stomach was removed because of the cancer. She lost a lot of weight. In the final days, she had dementia.
“It was a strange place to be … being relieved that she was gone. That the suffering was over,” said Gemmell, his head tilted up toward the ceiling of his small room. “People would say, ‘Aren’t you looking forward to seeing Charlotte again?’
“In one way, of course I would, but what Charlotte?” he said. “The 60-pound emaciated one? The beautiful girl at our marriage? Or the strong and vibrant 40-year-old pregnant woman?”
Then last September, death dealt another blow to Gemmell. His 61-year-old son Jon, an elementary school teacher, succumbed to complications from rheumatoid arthritis.
“It was a great loss and there was a great sadness,” Gemmell said. “I had to bury my son, a wonderful man.”
The minister who believes in neither heaven nor hell, who admits to being somewhat afraid of both, said he still enjoys entertaining the thought of an afterlife.
“It’s hard to conceive that my 87 years would be the end of it,” he said. “But the last thing I would fear would be oblivion. That would be better than some alternatives.”
Leaving his home for Langdon Place, an assisted living facility, was a heart-wrenching chapter in Gemmell’s life.
He left behind truckloads of memories. He threw away reams of his writings.
“What you bring is a few of your favorite things,” Gemmell said. “It’s very hard. Everything becomes a little more precious.
“It’s a dignified way of giving in and giving up, but not with great negativism,” he said. “It’s knowing what’s to come is the other side of life, more great experiences.”
As Gemmell speaks, his African grey parrot, a gift from friends, rocks back and forth on a perch in its cage.
Prince has a 100-word vocabulary. Each day after the sun sets, the bird mimics Gemmell’s habitual phrase, taken from an old children’s prayer, before the two go to bed.
“Now I lay me down to sleep,” Prince says.
“Now I lay me down to sleep,” Gemmell says.
When Gemmell drifts off, he’s already thinking about the next sunrise, the new light coursing over a distant prairie, moving toward the horizon.
“Each day when I wake up,” he said, “I think about what amazing thing is going to happen to me today.”
New England Press Association: Second place, human interest category.