Full Transcript of Interview with Dick Magraw, January 21, 2012
Interview by David Woolley, video recorded by Terry Kayser
DW: How did you come to be a Quaker?
Dick: Our family were Episcopalians and my three brothers and I all were choirboys in that church, and really sort of pillars in the church in that way. But many people forget that after World War I there was enormous generalization about anti-war pacifism. It was almost ubiquitous. And the striking thing about my family was that we were so aware that the Episcopalian church was not really following along with that the way we were. My older brother was a very strong-minded person and he sort of discovered the Quakers and the American Friends Service Committee, which fit very much with the times. You know World War I was a perfectly terrible war. I mean you guys are too young to know it but it was just a terrible war and the revulsion against war was very strong. And so as things became stormy around the world and Europe and Ethiopia and China, our family persisted in our anti-war views and the American Friends Service Committee was something that we felt very warmly toward. The American Friends Service Committee really came into being in World War I and they served to ameliorate the postwar sufferings in Europe. So that’s really how I got into Friends work. Shirley and I in World War II made substantial contributions to AFSC. We were quite idealistic about that, and we remained feeling that way about Quakers. Then as our kids came along and we gave more thought about connecting with a religious base, why then we joined the Minneapolis Friends Meeting about 1949 or 50. And that’s really the story of how we got connected.
DW: What was Minneapolis Friends Meeting like back in those days when you joined?
Dick: Well, it was largely sort of the focus of older birthright Quakers. There were devoted members who strove to have a viable church day school. But it really only picked up momentum when a number of young families joined with a substantial number of children, and then the church day school became more viable in the early 50’s. I could name the people, but I don’t know that there’s any point in doing that. Except there was one individual, Edith Jones, who had been a librarian. Actually she’d been a librarian three different times, and she lived on some of her retirement funds, but she essentially gave all of the income she had from her third job as a librarian to support the Meeting. We were really impressed by that kind of devotion. She was a really remarkable person. We had a number of remarkable people in the Meeting. We were much taken with the lack of dogma in the Quaker church. We had plenty of that where we came from. We were very much taken with the fact that the Friends did not have pledges of the sort of reciting beliefs. What they did was basically all a matter of doing good works. Without proselytizing, without pushing people to believe as they did. As you probably know, there are an enormous number of beliefs extant in the Friends Meeting at any one time, and we don’t have any requirement that people adopt a certain set of beliefs as a criterion for membership. And actually one of the things that I’ve observed from time to time is that it seems to me sometimes that it’s almost a negative aspect of our congregational efforts if we come down to a point of asking in effect for people to set out their beliefs, because it almost always carries with it the secondary effort to get others to believe as we believe. And we deal with that simply by turning our back on insisting on a common way of believing. Sometimes that’s disquieting to people. Satchel Page once said “there’s a certain looseness about this here liberty that’s disquieting.” And if people get to talking about the things they believe, why, the kind of divergence that emerges is disquieting.
DW: So given the fact that there’s a lot of variety of beliefs, are there commonalities that kind of pull the people in Meeting together? Are there commonalities of belief?
Dick: I was with you until you said commonalities of belief. There certainly are commonalities. The idea that everybody carries a spark of the divine. There’s that of God in every man, is the saying. I think that is, if it isn’t pushed too far, is a commonality of belief. When I was speaking a moment ago I was thinking of one very fine person who left the Meeting because he felt there was not enough expression of religious belief or belief in God, and he found that disquieting.
Let me pursue that a little bit, talking about this person who left the meeting because he felt there was not enough overt expression of God. And I thought that one of the comments that another senior member of the meeting made at that time was really quite trenchant when he said that when people rise and speak in meeting, I think of that as a manifestation of God. And I think that’s maybe not an express commonality but I think that people do respect the comments that are made in Meeting. Not blindly or universally, but the feeling that the collective effort to think through has an element of the divine. You know I have many times reflect on something that John Parker said when he spoke one time in Meeting, when he rose and just said one thing and sat down. And he just said, “I love you all.” And I’ve thought many time since that it’s a really wonderful expression of that commonality if you will.
DW: Leaving behind commonalities of belief, what other commonalities do you see among Quakers?
Dick: I think the respect for one another’s views, the respect for one another, is an important element in the cohesion in the Meeting. That’s not a kind of vapid or superficial acceptance of different views. It’s really implicit in the way we conduct our business. It’s often times obscured, but when push comes to shove we really tend not to move ahead until there is a general acceptance. Or if that can’t be found, at least until there has been a very full and deliberately paced airing of the ideas. I think you know, we had one senior person who just died, George Watson, who had a very strong idea that our monthly meetings for business were a very central part of Quaker togetherness. In many ways I think he felt that the monthly meetings for business were almost more important than the weekly worship service because they were a place where this kind of attitude toward one another is played out.
DW: Quakers have these things we call testimonies. Maybe you could talk a little about those? What they are, and if any of them are particularly meaningful to you.
Dick: Well, it’s interesting, that comes in a very timely way for me because of a recent experience I had over Christmas. I spent the holidays with some of my family members. One lived close to Dulles airport when Shirley and I lived in Washington – Garret Park – when we lived equidistant to the Dulles airport, the national airport, and the Washington airport, and I was traveling all the time so that I used those airports.
Well, I traversed the ride from Washington to Dulles airport and was simply astonished at the residential growth. I mean there were miles of McMansions. It was alluded to in a front page story in the New York Times the year or two after I got home. This represents the contract money from the Pentagon, played out in this enormous development. I’m talking about miles and miles of huge houses. Well, I’m getting carried away, but you remember when Eisenhower was about ready to leave office he gave his famous speech about the military industrial complex. The guy who wrote that speech later became president of the University of Minnesota. And that’s the military industrial complex. And I think that the peace testimony, which used to be relatively individual and simple. Did you uphold the peace testimony and either in one way or another oppose the altruism, conscientious objection or something of that kind. Now I think our peace testimony has to be much more complex and deliberative because now it’s not just a matter of will you bear arms as an individual, the whole darn society is involved in this. I remember there was a Norse folk myth about Loki playing a trick on Thor. He challenged Thor to lift a cat but it occurred that the cat was the transformed head of a serpent that went down and around the world, so Thor is trying to lift the world, you know. Well, I think our peace testimony is too simple.
You asked about particular testimonies. I think the peace testimony is a central part of Quakerism. There are many other important testimonies but right now I am preoccupied with this because I don’t think our peace testimony has carried the day in any sense of the word. I think we have an entire society that’s been militarized. And it’s sort of like Loki and Thor, we’re trying to pick up the whole world. I think it’s not just a matter of individual pledging not to go to war. Not to inflict damage on others.
DW: I’m interested in what you said about pacifism after World War I and how that contrasts with society today.
Dick: You know, Tom White has this yellow card – we have not really been what Tom is saying – this is a militaristic society. Some have sought to avoid paying taxes. I think we need to rethink our approach.
DW: Let me follow up on that. What would rethinking our approach be like, and how would you envision that happening?
Dick: I think first of all we need to recognize the prevalence, the pervasiveness of the military industrial complex. And I think that all our lives, Shirley and I sought support for the American Friends Service Committee and its orientation was the right way to go, but now I’m thinking that Friends Committee on National Legislation is probably where we ought to be putting our major efforts. I don’t know. I think we have to really look at how pervasively the military industrial complex is in our society. I’m an old man, getting beyond any effectiveness in these things, but I think that we have to take a much more radical view of what needs to be done. I honestly thing that we need to be much more radical, much more aiming for the roots. I think that is much closer to what needs to be done and emblazoned. And that is not something I feel very comfortable or enthusiastic about. You know my older brother went to prison as a conscientious objector, and in a way never really recovered. He would dispute this I’m sure, but from my perspective he never in his life, he never really got back on track. He had been Harold Stassen’s director of administration – I forget what exactly his title was – and he never had his civil rights restored, he never could vote. So what I’m saying is that I really shy away from radical approaches. I like to, you know, fade into the body politic. I’m certainly aware that our Quaker peace testimony has not carried the day remotely. I think we’ve lost ground in this regard. I’m going to talk about this at meeting, actually.
DW: Maybe we could talk about some of the other testimonies. There’s the testimony of simplicity, for example.
Dick: Yes. I think that’s an easy one to live. At least as I see it – I don’t – I think to be radically involved in simplicity, it’s in a way, it kind of becomes an end in itself. But to live basically is simple, unpretentious, undemanding life is really the way to go. But if it comes down to matters of dress, I think that’s off-putting to me. If you’re going to adopt a buttonless existence, I think there are other more important things to do.
Dick: I think that’s essential. I mean that’s fundamental to everything else.
DW: Well, let’s switch gears a little bit, then. I know one question that a lot of people have is are Quakers Christian? What’s the relationship of Quakerism to Christianity?
Dick: Well, for me, Christianity is a religion. And my own view is that it’s not essential that a Quaker profess – how to say this – I think one can be Buddhist, one can attend a Buddhist church or temple or a Hindu temple and still be a Quaker. I see Christianity as, for me, because of how I’ve been raised and the culture that I’m in, I’ve had trouble saying that for me Quakerism is Christian, but I think you can also come to Quakerism through other religious backgrounds. I’m sort of put off by people who say, well, if you’re not a Christian then you’re nothing and there’s no point in our talking if you’re not a Christian. And there are a lot of people like that, and a lot of people in our meeting like that. But I’m trying to think of a good analogy for what I’m saying. Maybe I can say it this way. I think that Christianity is a set of ethical and behavioral characters – is a central part of Quakerism for me. But I think of Christian theology as not the same thing. I mean, concerns about the Trinity or the Nicene Creed, or the Apostles Creed, these things do not figure in my … I never think of reciting the Apostles Creed, for instance, in Friends Meeting. It’s just not… I think it’s a digression, not central to Quakerism as I see it. Gosh, guys, I’m getting uncomfortable because I may be offending you by what I’m saying.
Terry: Not me.
DW: That sort of leads to another question for me. What for you personally is your concept of God?
Dick: There are things about our world, our universe, that I don’t understand. They are, as far as I’m concerned, beyond my understanding. And I’d be quite comfortable saying that kind of fact, that kind of ambiguity, I’d be quite comfortable giving the name “God” to. But I am not really very comfortable with pushing into that unknown and building a theological structure of a trinity or a heaven or a hell or purgatory or anything of that kind. I feel those are man made constructs, and I have no quarrel with people who want to draw those kind of pictures and who fall down and worship them. I just don’t want them to feel that I have to worship them.
DW: Well, let’s talk then about Quaker meetings for worship. What happens in a meeting for worship?
Dick: Well, there are several salient elements of it. One is that it is congregational, it is a collective effort. People are gathered. It is basically a kind of expectancy. There’s no format other than that expectancy – well, that’s not quite true because we have these hymns and so forth – but there’s really no real formality other than those elements of timing involved. I’m more comfortable with the early meeting which is essentially totally unstructured except for the obligatory reconstitution of the hour by having people fill in anything they wanted to. That is pretty obligatory. But I’m more comfortable with the somewhat structured semi-programmed meeting, fundamentally because of tradition and history. That’s what I have attended. That’s what some of these wonderful people that I think of as being saints in my own experience, like Edith Jones or Matt Thompson or Jack Parker or lots of others that I’m going to forego naming. I think that the lack of formal structure, the avoidance of rote expressions, of regular formulated prayers, which from my perspective I really don’t think of as being prayers at all. I think they are recitations, like a pledge of allegiance. They are often times beautifully phrased, I think of the Episcopal book of common prayers, there are some wonderful phrases in that. “We have done those things which we ought not to have done, and we have left undone those things which we ought to have done.” You know, every Sunday that’s expressed exactly. But in my view it would be better not to have it so rote, not to have it in such a thought-escaping, thought-avoiding way. And that of course is one of the characteristics of the silence of Quaker meetings is that it does encourage thought. There was a book years ago “The Keys of the Kingdom” in which the priest characterizes prayer as nothing more than clear thinking. And I think that’s characteristic of the silence of Quaker meeting.
DW: So I know that you are someone that will stand fairly frequently in Meeting and speak. How do you discern when it’s time to stand and say something, and when you do, what’s the experience like?
Dick: (long pause) I find myself wanting to say, if I think there’s something that ought to be said. For instance, if somebody has spoken or has been the formal speaker and there have been no responses to that person, I’m likely to cudgel my thoughts to something that can be said to respond or round that off. And I’m afraid sometimes I’m guilty… You know, you spoke about my quoting things, and it’s perfectly true – I do tend to live in terms of all these sort of floating bits of thought or wisdom circling around. I’m sure maybe a third or half the time I’m motivated because it just seems to me that fits. I’m acutely aware that the meeting is a congregation. And I suppose if you ask me… see, I don’t think of my comments as God-driven or as divinely ordained, I think it more of a human interaction.
DW: So you’ve been attending Minneapolis Friends Meeting for…
Dick: 67 years. We were gone, though, for a while.
DW: But anyway, for a long time. And I know you’re still coming as often as you can. I don’t know, do you have a way of summarizing what it means in your life? What value you get out of attending the meeting?
Dick: Well, first and foremost it’s a matter of the collective effort to address the things going on in our lives and the world. You know there was a song in the Civil War, you maybe never heard of it, called “Tenting on the Old Camp Ground”, you know that one? And there’s a line, “Many are the hearts that are weary tonight, wishing for the war to cease. Many are the hearts that are looking for the right who want to see the dawn at peace.” And I think that’s sort of the sentiment I bring, many are the hearts looking for the right. That’s the set I bring to meeting. And I think… Shirley and I used to come all the time. We didn’t in recent years because Shirley had some mental problems that made it difficult. But you know, there were years, we didn’t miss it, because it was a very important thing to be with others. You asked me what we got out of it. There were always these people that to me were outstandingly good people. I start to name them and I feel our lives were richer for that. There were a whole lot of them, really. A whole lot of them.
DW: You raised four kids in the meeting. What was that like?
Dick: You know, Sue Murray used to talk about how difficult it was to teach our son Rick, who would challenge things like Moses rolling back the Red Sea. And she said she felt he was forcing the teachers to think about what they really believed. (Laughs) I laugh about that, what was that like. I think it left its mark on every one of the children, but they are not all Quakers. In many ways the guy who is most affected is Tom, is not at all a Quaker, is being married to the daughter of a United Church of Christ minister. And so they are members of the Church of Christ. But they always know what’s going on with Quakers. The one that lives here is a dentist here in town in Mound. She never goes to Meeting. Her husband’s a fallen-away Catholic. The oldest one, a daughter, is a doctor in Colorado and she, when the woman who was head of AFSC took office, she had Wendy come with her to Haiti – they traveled to Haiti as a first effort, so she’s … But you know, Grand Junction, Colorado is not a hotbed of Quakerism, so… And the other son is very much involved in the kinds of things that Quakers are involved in but he’s not attending Meeting. But he, again, knows all the things that are going on, and… So we didn’t do very well. The Andersons didn’t either. It’s interesting. Linda Coffin is the exception. And Betsy White. See, the Whites, the Coffins, the Andersons, the Magraws, the Crockers, and there were plenty of others that kind of came and went. They were a flock of kids, sort of the backbone of Sunday School.
DW: You say you didn’t do very well, but Quakerism left its mark on all of them.
Dick: Oh, yes.
DW: And they’re all wonderful people, so…
Dick: Well, I think so. But I haven’t talked with Rusk and Arnie about that. We’ll have to get together and talk about that. Or to Louise White. When you spoke about speaking in Meeting, and about the fact that I speak fairly often, I think about Louise White, who never speaks. Louise White is a very smart woman, and she’s a birthright Quaker, you know. She’s somebody I would listen to if she spoke. Do you know Louise very well?
DW: Not very well, no.
Dick: She worked for many years as a sales person, in women’s clothing at Dayton’s. She’s very, very bright. So is Rusk. The Farnells – I didn’t mention the Farnells. See, Shirley, and Ella Farnell were the ones that started the Family Camp. It was a big deal. When it started, the church was growing but people were located all around the Twin Cities. There was no cohesion. And Family Camp was a very important thing when it got going, really gave, sort of jet-propelled take-off from Meeting and was centered around the Sunday School, the First Day School. You probably never knew Ella Farnell. Well, these were some of the saints that I speak of. And above all others, Matt Thompson. Oh I wish he were around. He was an extraordinary person. He was from the deep south and had an irreplaceable southern accent. He was just amazing in his capacity to pull together people of divergent views, you know. For many, many years there was a class, an adult class held on the balcony, and Matt Thompson managed it. In his work he was a YMCA secretary, and there was a fairly well-known guy, what the heck was his name? He was a television and radio personality. You would know him. Matt moved to Dayton, Ohio, where this guy was located, and this guy wrote a couple wonderful poems about Matt, describing him as a saint, which of course would drive Matt up the wall, but that’s what he was anyway, he was an amazing person.
Well, have we run the course?
DW: Just about. Do you have any way of summarizing what finding Quakerism, what being a Quaker, has meant to your life?
Dick: Well, it’s hard not to be emotional about that. It’s certainly been a defining element. I think of all the extraordinary experiences that we’ve had in relation to that. You know, Shirley was kind of a … oh, I haven’t got a good phrase. She was somebody that the American Friends Service Committee relied on for serving as a hostess for these various missions that they sent out to carry some message to the country at large. I should be able to think of some of these people. Umm, Septa McClark was a – Septa Macpoinsett Clark. Her maiden name was Poinsett. Joseph Poinsett had a huge plantation in South Carolina and he was the person for whom the poinsetta was named. He was the ambassador to Mexico and “discovered” for America the poinsetta plant. Joseph Poinsett of South Carolina was ambassador I think about the time of the Civil War, or just after it, I guess. Septa McClark was Martin Luther King’s director of education. She was a black woman, educator, teacher. She was one of these people that was set out at the time of civil rights. And what Shirley would do, she would have this person maybe staying with us for two weeks or so, and she’d have a series of suppers or evening meetings. I remember one of my particularly good friends at the U, Jim Carrey(?) was at our house when Septa McClark was there. Jim was the smartest guy at the medical school and my particular friend and I talked to him the day after he was at our house. The dean of the medical school was there and a bunch of other people and he sort of shook his head and said “I feel sorry for that sheriff Jim Clark. But I’m getting carried away. That kind of thing was enormously beneficial to us and to our kids and our outreach. And there were a whole lot of those people, and I can’t even remember their names anymore. The guy who was president of Cummins Diesel came through. They were trying to forestall the Vietnam war. That fell more to me than to Shirley because I was supposed to get the presence of Macallister and Hamline and St. Thomas and the U to meet with this guy, he was a big wheel. I can’t even think of his name. But anyway, that’s the sort of thing… You asked me what did being a Quaker mean. Well, it’s kind of an easy thing to think about, that’s kind of an easy set of things, but… You know when we went to Japan it was terribly important to us to be connected with a Friends meeting. This is just one of those senior moments. Oh dear, I’m trying to think of the Quaker author, his wife was Shirley’s particular buddy over there. Sorry.