Family Memoirs

Brad Stark's memoir of his father and growing up in Montclair.

Leland Stark, 1907-1986 – A Loving Appreciation

 

The smile you see is the man he was. Friend to all, enemy to none.

Leland Stark was a loving, caring man who dedicated his life to his family, to his Church, and to all living things.

He was warm, bright, wise, trustworthy, sincere, generous, gentle, perceptive, understanding.  He was open-minded, easy to talk with, non-judgmental, quick to forgive, and he looked for the best in everyone.

He worked long and hard, and persevered skillfully, to make a positive difference in people's lives, and he had the brains and integrity to succeed.

He wanted to make the world better, and by God, he did.

 

 

Rt. Rev. Leland W.  F. Stark, DD, LLD

Leland Stark’s father was a Lutheran minister in Minneapolis during the Roaring Twenties. One might speculate that Granddaddy Stark wasn't very successful in life because, among other things, he couldn't seem to attract a wife. So he sailed back to Sweden to see if he could do better in the Old Country where Lutheran ministers were high on the social ladder.  It worked!  He brought his blushing bride home to America, where Lutheran ministers were, well, just Lutheran ministers -- certainly not revered as they were in Sweden.

Apparently, the Rectory was not a happy one, and young Leland went a year of high school without once laying eyes on his mother. You see, whenever she heard him come in the door, she ran upstairs and locked herself in her bedroom. When Leland graduated high school, his father gave him 50 bucks, wished him well, and showed him the door.

There's not much about the elder Starks in Mom's book.  Probably because she taught Craig and me that "If you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all". My only recollection of the old folks was a visit to their Minneapolis home when I was about 8. As we entered and Dad stepped forward to embrace his mother, she retreated, stuck out her hands as if she was warding off a mugger, and announced in her stiff Swedish accent: "No kiss!"  She must have been a real sweetheart, that one!

Leland Stark worked his way through Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, where he earned enough respect and friendship from his peers that he was elected Class President. He was captain of the college debating team and began a lifelong friendship with Harold LeVander, twice governor of Minnesota. He was athletic, and I seem to recall that he made the college handball team. In my youth, he was an enthusiastic golfer.

 

He went to college an atheist and enjoyed attacking the faith of others.  Then something happened, a spiritual  trans-formation, which brought him to the Episcopalian ministry – the first 20 pages of Mom’s book "I Chose a Parson" tells the story better. Suffice it to say that fresh out of seminary, amid the breadlines, Leland began his ministry with 4 scattered missions in rural Minnesota, each too small to support their own rector.  These farmland dirt roads were nearly sign-less, but he had learned that a cigar was worth about 20 miles in the old Model T.

 

Seven years later, he was called to be Dean of Calvary Cathedral, Sioux Falls, a big jump.

Just consider: this man worked his way through college selling insurance door-to-door – in the Depression! Elected Class President. Friend of a future governor. Made two college teams. I don't know about you, but I never did any of those things! So it’s safe to conclude that Leland Stark was someone special.

 

 

Seven years later, he became rector of Epiphany Church in downtown DC, one of America's largest Episcopal churches where a thousand was not unusual on Sundays. It was a prestigious and influential position – the Eisenhower’s worshipped there.  Mom and Dad became friends with the powers that be.

We lived one block from the National Cathedral and one block from the spacious grounds of the Red Chinese Embassy.

One day Craig and I climbed their tall iron fence and shot a commie gardener in the butt with our BB guns!  He was one mad Chinaman, you can bet, but we legged it through the woods and ran home laughing our heads off.

Oh look!  There’s his wonderful smile again. 

 

 

 

After only 5 years in Washington, Leland Stark was elected Bishop Coadjutor of the Diocese of Newark, 7th largest diocese in the US. 

I’m the broken-armed  kid, lower left.  You see, I figured if I biked downhill enough, I could stand up on the seat, spread my arms like Superman, and be the one kick-ass dude that sweet Susie Brookhart would never forget. 

It almost worked!

 

 

Throughout my life, Dad was a good listener, a wise counselor, a safe ‘n sane haven in a turbulent world. And fun to be around. He loved to laugh and tell jokes.

Sometimes late afternoons, he would take Craig and me to Woodley Park and hit grounders and long flies to us. He was quick to encourage and made light of mistakes: "Try again, you can do it!"  He could barely hammer a nail, but he could heal.

When my Father frowned – which was seldom – looked me in the eye and exclaimed, "YOUNG MAN!" in his booming pulpit voice, why the very heavens thundered and shook. When he smiled – which was often – the Sun came out.

 

Newark is a poor, black city, and in the summer of 1967, the Civil Rights Movement boiled over and exploded.  Newark Cathedral was smack in the middle of it.

Bishop Stark spoke out for justice and reason, and because of his integrity, he had the power to be a catalyst for change.  So on a hot June day, he hosted the first-ever National Conference for Black Empowerment.  Despite threats to his life.   And to his family.  Many threats.

 

Two years later, the first African-American became Dean of Newark Cathedral.  Leland led in the fight for women's ordination to the priesthood and for Gay Rights.  He was active in the Peace Movement and met with Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi to try and end that war.

Friend of Martin, friend of Desmond, a man whose life changed the world.

 

We lived at 111 Upper Mountain Avenue, Montclair, NJ, given to the Church long ago by some unnamed (but generous) sinner.

 

What a magnificent house, a graceful English Tudor.  Perched on a steep hillside ("Mont" "Clair"), it looked straight across to the Empire State Building, 15 miles due east.  On a clear day, your eye could sweep unobstructed from the GW Bridge to the Verrazano, a  beautiful sight on a sparkling winter's eve!  There was a billiard table in the game room.    

One day, small offerings of the vermin persuasion appeared on the basement laundry counter. Dad laid a generous trail of cheese bits leading to the mousetrap, saying "Well, you know, the convicted gets a last meal."  

When we came down next morning the trap had not fired, but all the cheese bits were gone, including the bait!  Incredibly, perched ever so delicately on the trap's unsprung trigger was a tiny little turd. "Any mouse clever enough to do that", he declared, "deserves to live."  

 

 

Try to imagine the emotions of a young lass, Marilyn Denny, as we rang the front doorbell for the first time.

The good bishop's wife opened the door, smiling but quite straight and correct, and invited us in.  What made it awkward was that though we were much in love, Mar was pregnant, and we were spectacularly unmarried.

Then Dad came downstairs with a big smile on his face:  "Marilyn, my dear!" and took her in his arms. His welcome was so sincere, so simple and uncomplicated, that all her fears disappeared in a flash.

Mar grinned and laughed out loud in relief, in her feeling of wholeness, her sense of being at home, safe, belonging, with family.

 

 

Another day, when Mar and I were visiting, the place was suddenly awash with Bishops. Starting for the home team was Conrad Gesner, Bishop of South Dakota, my adored Godfather and all-time favorite teddy bear; and Chandu Rey, Bishop of Pakistan, friend of Ghandi, and the Episcopalian Bishop of Mexico and the Caribbean, good old Bishop Whatsisname.

You might think it would be intimidating among all these heavy-duty God guys, but NO!  They started telling funny stories, one after another. Round and round it went, and laughter rang to the rooftop.

Bishop Whatsit said, "One Sunday, I was late for a service and drove too fast through a little Mexican village.  A motorcycle cop pulled me over. When he saw my vestments through the window, he naturally assumed I was a Roman Catholic Monsignor.” 

“Ahh, Monsignor,” he said, "but perhaps Monsignor was speeding through our little town?  Perhaps as much as 50 kph?”

“I’m sure you’re right, officer.  I was late and probably doing 55 or 60.”

“Ahh, Monsignor is an honest man.  But … Monsignor, you might have killed a little child.”

“Too true.  I really love children – I have two of my own, you know.”

“Ahh, Monsignor is an honest man!  Drive on, Monsignor!”

 

 

Illuminating that far horizon we all share

 

My brother, Craig, phoned late one Thursday night in 1986. "Dad is in a bad way at Mountainside Hospital.  You better drive down first thing tomorrow.”   

So I hit the road early with a suitcase full of memories and apprehensions.  Six hours later when I walked onto his hospital ward, there was no one around, not even at the nurses' station.

Then an orderly came out. "Leland Stark?" I asked. 

The young man looked at his shoes and said, "He died an hour ago.  The family has gone home.  Want me to go in there with you?" 

"No thanks, just give me a few minutes." 

If you've ever witnessed raw Death, you know it’s not some mortician’s gilded tableau.  Death is cold.  Brutal.  Uncompromising. 

Walking into 6A, I beheld the ash-white face of my beloved, revered, dead Father.  His mouth was open, his eyes rolled back, white. 

I sat awhile in shocked silence, in the depths. Then walked over and carefully closed his eyes.

And then it happened – a life-changing moment – a silent, gentle, timeless moment of illuminating clarity.  Here is the wonderful thing that happened on that terrible, terrible day.

As I knelt at his bedside and grasped his hand, suddenly Dad was there, right beside me – alive, warm, whole, enfolding, loving. 

And we connected!  Everything we wanted, needed, to say sprang to life between us like springtime!  It was way beyond understanding, and it was absolutely, undeniably real. 

"Thanks for waiting, Dad.  I love you."

Illuminating that far horizon we all share is his farewell gift to each of us. 

 

Life is good.