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Remembering Guthrie Speers
Ned Groth, October 2012

(Author’s note: This biographical remembrance is based on documents and personal communications, including yearbooks, class newsletters, letters Dr. Speers wrote to me, conversations we had, and my own recollections. I have woven in a few anecdotes and biographical facts from other sources. My goal is to create an honest and loving portrait of our former chaplain, as we knew him. While I’ve striven for factual accuracy, I take full responsibility for any errors. This remembrance can be amended, if need to be, as others contribute their own memories to it.  –NG)

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T. (Thomas) Guthrie Speers was Darrow’s chaplain for just one year, 1958-59, when some of us were freshmen. He was one of Lamb Heyniger’s spectacularly overqualified faculty recruits. Guthrie had served as pastor of the Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore for 30 years, and retired at the end of 1957. In the summer of 1958, when Lamb found himself suddenly in need of a chaplain, he turned to Guthrie to fill the position, and Guthrie agreed to do so for a year, planning then to return to retirement.

Although Lamb and Guthrie had Princeton in common, they had an even stronger tie: family. In 1955, Guthrie’s son, T. Guthrie Speers Jr., had married Susan Savage, a niece of Mrs. Heyniger and sister of long-time Darrow trustee Arthur Savage. (In 1971, Susan Savage Speers became one of the first two women Princeton Trustees, and she is also a long-term trustee of Bryn Mawr, her alma mater.) Few people could resist Lamb when he began twisting their arm to join in his most passionate enterprise, Darrow, and Guthrie was no exception.

I remember Dr. Speers (The Boss always called him “Doctor,” because he had a Doctor of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary) as a tall, gracious, patrician gentleman, a kindly presence in the classroom and dining hall, and an inspiring preacher (at least to the extent I that was inspirable). He and Mrs. Speers (her name was Elizabeth, but Guthrie always called her “Mrs. Speers”), were sort of grandparents-in-residence, especially for some of us younger kids. If they felt at all out of place in an isolated boarding school after decades leading a major urban congregation, it didn’t show.

Guthrie and Elizabeth spent just that single year at Darrow; the following fall, in 1959, we had a new chaplain, the young, energetic and feisty Jim Wright. (And just in case you didn’t already know it was a small world, when Jim was at seminary himself—at Union—he did his first year of field work with TGS Jr., at John Hall Memorial Presbyterian Church in NYC!) The portrait above is the only photo of Guthrie in the 1959 yearbook. But when I began writing the Class Newsletters in 1968, Guthrie responded with enthusiasm to my request for news, and we remained in touch, off and on, for the rest of his life.

In our first newsletter, in 1968, Guthrie told us that after leaving Darrow, he had served as chaplain at Goucher College, in Baltimore, for five years (so much for his planned retirement!) They had then moved to Capitiva Island, FL, where he was pastor of the Chapel by the Sea. He and Mrs. Speers spent  summers at their family home in Center Sandwich, NH, and invited any of us who were in the vicinity to drop in for a visit. A year later, in 1969, Guthrie reported that he had retired the previous spring from the chapel in Florida, and that he and Mrs. Speers were now dividing their years between Center Sandwich and a little place in Baltimore; he again said “it would be a joy to see you” should any of us be passing through either location. Guthrie mentioned that he had visited the Darrow campus in October, at the peak of its fall beauty, and that he had run into Harry Mahnken at the Yale-Princeton game in New Haven a few weeks later. Guthrie said that Harry, who had been forced to retire from Darrow the prior spring, “felt utterly lost” without coaching at the school, and was hoping to find a similar position somewhere. He urged any of us who could do so to recommend Harry for any such opening we knew of.

A year later, Guthrie mentioned that he would be unable to get to the school on alumni day, because he was performing a marriage in eastern Massachusetts that day. He said he and Mrs. Speers were both well, and enjoying their split time in Baltimore and Center Sandwich, and that he found himself preaching nearly every Sunday, as there was no shortage of churches that needed guest ministers. He noted that on a visit to Emma Willard the prior fall, he had observed that the school had brought in two busloads of boys to attend classes with the girls; said that nearly every school wanted to go coeducational in those days; while he did not know what Darrow’s specific plans were along those lines, he felt it was inevitable and likely to happen soon.

In 1971, I got a postcard from Guthrie (mailed from SF) thanking me for the newsletter, which he reported reading “with great interest and nostalgia.” Later that year, he wrote me with the details of the Speers/Savage connections to Darrow and Princeton, in response to my query about his daughter-in-law, Susan. I learned that Guthrie himself had served for a time on the Princeton board, and that Marian Heyniger’s brother Bill, Arthur and Susan’s father, who was a highly-regarded editor at Scribner’s, had also been on the Darrow board for a while.

In 1972, Guthrie passed up our invitation to attend our 10th reunion at Darrow—he was going to his 60th at Princeton instead! He reported that life for him and Mrs. Speers had settled into a comfortable routine of six months in NH (“our real home,” where they voted and paid taxes) and six months in Baltimore. He was still busy preaching as a guest minister, and they were both volunteers for “Meals on Wheels.” They had visited with Arthur Savage around Christmastime, and he mentioned that their daughter was recovering from surgery and had returned to her work as head of counseling at Emma Willard.

The next time I heard from Guthrie was in 1975. I had finished my education and moved to D.C., and was busy adjusting to the beginnings of my career and the ending of my first marriage. Guthrie invited me to come up to Baltimore for lunch with him and Mrs. Speers, a kind invitation I regret to say I failed to take them up on. He reported for that year’s newsletter (which he described as a great service “for the fellows in your class and some others like me who love to be included”) that life was still pretty much the same, divided between their two homes, with him preaching about half of the Sundays. He said they hosted a hymn-sing every summer Sunday night in an old blacksmith shop on their little farm in NH, and that “to our great surprise and joy last summer, who should show up but Peter von Mertens.” Guthrie said he was still in touch with Harry Mahnken, who was living in Pittsfield and coaching “when called upon.” He said they had two grandsons in prep schools, one at Milton and one at Middlesex, which helped keep them in touch with the prep school world, and that he himself was class agent for his class (’08) at the Hill School. He boasted that they’d had 100% participation in annual giving that year—“All 9 of us!”

wwIn 1976, Guthrie and Elizabeth visited with Marian Heyniger at Foulkeways, the retirement home in PA where she was living, and said she was very well and active. For the first time in 1976, I had asked people to send photos to include in the newsletter (isn’t it hard to remember how primitive our publishing technology was back then?) Guthrie was one of the first to respond with a picture. His letter describes it as having been taken the prior summer “with our son and his family for a Christmas card.” I cannot at this point remember why I cut out just Guthrie and Elizabeth and two of their grandchildren (most likely TGS III and Elizabeth Thacher Speers) from that larger snapshot; I know I needed to fit a lot of photos in a small space, and I cropped several others equally severely. Unfortunately the cropped portions are lost to history. But I very much like the youthful couple in their mid-eighties, shown in this photo.

In 1977, I got another lengthy letter from Guthrie, praising the newsletter and saying how much he enjoyed participating in it. He reported that Charles Brodhead had visited with them in Center Sandwich the summer before, that Charles and Sue were living in Vermont, and closely following the events in Lebanon, whence they had recently returned home. He said, “Elizabeth and I [my only recorded instance in which he referred to his wife by her first name!] are what they call octogenarians—she is 83 and I am 86—and both of us keep busy.” Guthrie still was doing a good deal of preaching and visiting, and he had recently heard from Harry Mahnken. “We both admit that we go up stairs more slowly than we used to,” Guthrie added. He was again passing up our 15th reunion at Darrow, for his 65th at Princeton.

I had just one more brief note from Guthrie after that. He wrote in February 1980 that “Mrs. Speers has been sick. We have moved to this [the Broadmead, in Cockeysville, MD] retirement home about seven miles north of Baltimore. It is the right place for us now.” The Peg Board reported around the same time that Guthrie was teaching a weekly bible class with 40 members, at the Broadmead.

wwGuthrie passed away on May 9, 1984, in Cockeysville, at the age of 93. Elizabeth had died in 1980, a matter of months after Guthrie wrote us that she was ailing. In reading memorial tributes to him and in doing research for this one, I learned many things about Guthrie that I never knew when he was alive. He was a standout weight man on the track team at Princeton, starring in the shot put and hammer throw; his Princeton class memorial mentioned his “phenomenal physique.” His first ministry out of seminary was at the University Place Church in New York City, and when his church merged with the First Presbyterian Church there, he served with the Rev. Henry Emerson Fosdick. Guthrie would later say Fosdick was a major early mentor and influence on his own theology and preaching style. Guthrie himself was aligned with the “modernist” or liberalizing faction within US Protestantism, which in the early 20th Century was battling with fundamentalism for control of the church. He was the lead author of a 1925 document titled “Statement of the Younger Ministers of the Presbyterian Church to the Special Commission of 1925 of the Presbyterian Church in the USA.” As pastor of the Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, he not only oversaw an expansion of the church’s building, he also ended racial segregation within the church and abolished the exclusivist system of pew rentals. He also established an outreach program to Baltimore’s Jewish community and periodically exchanged pulpits with local rabbis.

French Croix de Guerre with Palm Medal and Ribbon Sethttp://www.veteransmemorial.us/images/theme_gfx/distinguished_service_medal.gifI learned from his Princeton class reunion biographies that Guthrie had enlisted in the army as a chaplain when World War I broke out, and served overseas with the 102nd Infantry, 26th Division. He was gassed twice and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Croix de Guerre, with palm, for extraordinary heroism under fire.

During Guthrie’s years in Baltimore as minister at Brown Memorial Church, he was an important figure in the community. He served on the boards of Goucher College and of two local hospitals, spent one term (1932-36) on the Princeton Board of Trustees, and he was a member of the Presbyterian Board of National Missions from 1920 to 1953. During WWII, Guthrie was a Public Member of the War Labor Relations Board in Philadelphia.

Brown Memorial Presbyterian ChurchGuthrie and Elizabeth (nee Thacher), who hailed from Tenafly, NJ, were married in 1926, and had three children. Their son, T. Guthrie, Jr., born in 1927, followed in his father’s footsteps, attending the Hill School, Princeton and Union Theological Seminary, then was the founding and much beloved pastor of a Presbyterian congregation in New Canaan, CT. TGS Jr. died in 2011. Their daughter Elizabeth Thacher Speers, born in 1928, died in 1937.  A second daughter, Ellen Carter Speers, whom Guthrie mentioned to us as head of counseling (she was also a dean) at Emma Willard, was born in 1929 and passed away in 1972, the same year Guthrie had written us that she was recovering from two operations. Characteristically, Guthrie chose not to share their sorrows with us, focusing instead on the many positive things in their lives.

In a memorial for Guthrie in the Princeton Alumni Weekly in 1984, written by his classmates, he was remembered for his “phenomenal career in the ministry.” It was said that “his preaching, as well as his influence in the local community, won him both the affection and respect of a great number of his fellow citizens,” and they described him as “an extraordinary, unassuming man.” In his autobiographical statement for his 50th Reunion book at Princeton in 1962, Guthrie, who was then serving as chaplain at Goucher, described his year at Darrow, and said, “It was hard to leave those boys in June, 1959.”

Extraordinary and unassuming certainly fit the man I knew, as do courageous, kind, generous, and gentle. It was a privilege to know him, even so briefly, and to have been among the beneficiaries of the year he and Elizabeth devoted to Darrow, and it is a pleasure at this point to memorialize his remarkable life.


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