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Archive for the ‘AWARD WINNERS’ Category

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.

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By PHILLIP BANTZ
Naples Daily News: May 29, 2007

“I’m strictly against guns. I never wanted them in the house,” said Seckler. “Now I wouldn’t be in the house without a gun.”

Seckler’s stance on guns changed the morning of May 16. He was mowing his lawn when he turned around and saw two 20-year-old men standing behind him. Seckler said one of the men was pointing a gun at his head.

After Seckler, 50, raised his hands to the sky, the two men pushed him past the garage toward the front door of his home in northeast Cape Coral. They held him at gunpoint and said they were getting into his house no matter what.

A struggle ensued at the front door. Seckler refused to let the men inside and they beat him over the head with the pistol and their elbows and fists. One of the men bit Seckler’s back. Seckler’s fiancée, Elizabeth Kachnic, 37, said she heard screaming and the door slam repeatedly.

“I don’t know what happened to me,” said Seckler. “I was so scared. I’m not crazy like that, but I knew I had to do something.”

The gun was pressed against Seckler’s temple. He said he pushed the assailant’s hand down and the gun fell to the ground. Seckler said he screamed for Kachnic to call 911 as he and the two men scrambled for the weapon.

“I got the gun. I just turned around and shot,” said Seckler. “If they did not come here with a gun, they would be alive. It’s their fault.”

He fired every bullet in the clip. One of the men, John Patrick Moore Jr., was hit as he sprinted across Seckler’s driveway. He stumbled to the edge of the street and died.

Police say Moore’s accomplice, Damion Jordan Shearod, fled when they lost control of the gun. Seckler said Shearod was hiding in the garage or the side of his home and appeared after the gunfire ceased and ran to a car parked in the street outside Seckler’s residence.

Police say Moore’s 19-year-old girlfriend, Jazzmyne Carrol-Love, was waiting behind the wheel and the two sped away.

Seckler had just killed a man. He hadn’t held or fired a gun since he was 18 years old and serving in the German Army. Even then, he was only aiming at practice targets.

“I was crying, screaming and hurting,” said Seckler, a large man who became tearful while recounting the shooting. “If they would have gotten in they would have killed us both. Everybody says I did the right thing, but it feels so bad. I killed another person.”

Lives changed forever

Long bands of yellow police tape cordoned off their home and detectives stood in their driveway looking down at a puddle of blood as Seckler and Kachnic packed their essentials and drove away on the evening of the shooting.

They lived in an area hotel for a week. Then they rented a camper and left Lee County for a while. Seckler said he had an emotional breakdown at the RV park and requested a priest. The priest was not available and the police were called, but they could not ease Seckler’s troubled mind.

The couple returned to their Cape Coral home Monday. The house had symbolized a new beginning for the pair, who left the perpetual hustle of New York behind in January and headed for the Sunshine State.

On the afternoon of their return, Seckler slid his new handgun into his pocket and started up the lawn mower. He mowed part of the side yard before the fear took hold. He went back into his home and locked the doors.

“We have to lock ourselves in to feel safe during the day,” said Seckler. “We don’t feel safe going to dinner and coming home at night. It feels like someone’s hiding around the corner.”

A jogger dressed in dark clothing coming down their street in the middle of the afternoon incites panic. Seckler and Kachnic must always be together when at home. If one is swimming in the backyard pool, the other is watching for an attacker lurking in the bushes or around the corner of the house.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever ride my bike around the neighborhood,” Kachnic said. “We came down here to start a new life and it’s just not fair. It will never feel safe again like it used to.”

When a gardener knocked on the couple’s front door as they spoke about the shooting, Kachnic jumped off the couch and asked Seckler if she should get the gun before answering. They were both crying.

Seckler and Kachnic both have upcoming appointments with therapists. Seckler also has an appointment with a neurologist. Ever since he was pistol-whipped on the temple, his vision has been blurry and he can’t read magazines or street signs.

While Seckler works to obtain a concealed-weapon permit, Kachnic will be getting a gun of her own, she said.

“It was meant for us both to be dead and they would have robbed us,” said Kachnic. “You can’t imagine the fear. We just don’t know what to do.”

Shearod and Carrol-Love were arrested and remain in the Lee County Jail; both have been charged with one count each of homicide and robbery with a firearm.

In 2005, a Lee County jury found Shearod guilty of murdering an 18-year-old Lehigh Acres man, but Judge James R. Thompson overturned the conviction, citing a lack of evidence.

The State Attorney’s Office is awaiting a judge’s decision on an appeal in the case. The jury’s verdict will be upheld if the appeal is granted and Shearod will be sentenced.

“The judge who let him go should be in jail,” said Kachnic. “Who knows how many people he’s shot and how many times he’s gotten away with it. I hope they (Carrol-Love and Shearod) stay in jail forever.”

Meanwhile, Seckler and Kachnic are desperately trying to piece their lives back together. They have considered selling their home and starting a new life somewhere else. They have also considered turning their residence into a fortress of sorts, installing surveillance cameras and a tall privacy fence around the property. Seckler is leaning towards the latter option.

“I’m not going to give in,” he said. “We’re going to stay here and make it safer. I know it will never feel like it felt when we moved in, but we’ve got to make the best of it.”

Inland Press Association:  First Place, human interest category

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