Paul Sawyer, a Pasadena Unitarian Universalist minister whose life became intertwined with some of the great cultural movements and political struggles of the past 50 years, died last week after a four-month battle with pancreatic cancer.
Diagnosed with the disease in February, Sawyer, an occasional guest columnist for the Pasadena Weekly, finished a book on some of the experiences of his adventurous life, “Untold Story: A Short Narrative History of Our Time,” two months prior to his death on June 23 — four days shy of his 76th birthday.
While Sawyer was active in supporting public education and served on a number of civic boards, including the city Charter Reform Task Force, he is perhaps remembered best as a tireless advocate for the dispossessed who often risked arrest in his opposition to war, capital punishment and nuclear energy. In recent years, Sawyer was also an ardent critic of the consolidation of major media, serving on the board of the Media Democracy Legal Project, an outgrowth of the Unitarian Universalists for a Just Economic Community and the Cultural Environment Movement, working with lawyers from the National Lawyer’s Guild and other legal professionals, in conjunction with the Media Alliance of San Francisco.
The Rev. George Regas, rector emeritus at All Saints Church and a leading peace activist, described Sawyer as a man of boundless zeal when it came to promoting issues of peace and justice.
Regas said he retuned from a trip out of town earlier this year when he heard Sawyer was in the hospital and had been diagnosed with cancer.
“In the 15 minutes that I was there, he wanted to talk to me about the peace issue and the war going on in Afghanistan. Here this man is told he has cancer of the pancreas and is not going to live long and in that setting he wanted to talk to me about how the US was making a tragic mistake in Afghanistan and how we had to do something about that. Quite amazing,” Regas recalled.
“No one had the consistency and constancy on the peace and justice front as Paul Sawyer. He wore me out,” Regas said. “I had great affection for Paul, and I’ll miss him. There aren’t many people like that. … You would find no one that so consistently advocated peace and justice as Paul Sawyer.”
During an interview Monday at the family’s home on North Chester Avenue, Susan, Sawyer’s wife of 25 years, recalled her Harvard-educated husband as a deeply religious and spiritual person, “a Renaissance man” who wrote and taught poetry, studied ancient Chinese philosophies and spoke and wrote in Chinese, read voraciously, inspired others to act and was prepared to be arrested for his beliefs.
By the time they had met, Susan said Paul had been incarcerated some 60 times during protests against the death penalty, nuclear power and the war in Vietnam.
“He had so many spheres — jazz, politics, history,” Susan said of her husband, who started his ministry in 1964 at the Onion, the distinctively bulbous and acoustically pleasing Sepulveda Unitarian Universalist Society building on Haskell Avenue in North Hills, then ministered in Seattle, Oregon, Berkeley, Pittsburgh, New Jersey and finally Pasadena in 1996.
Along the way, Sawyer became friends with some of the nation’s top poets and others active in protesting the war in Vietnam, people like Father Daniel Berrigan and “Pentagon Papers” author Daniel Ellsberg.
Kevin Powers, a friend of the Sawyer family who helped Susan during Paul’s last days, remembered being arrested along with Paul and singer Jackson Browne during a protest against the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in Northern California in the 1980s. While Browne sang songs, Ellsberg read Shakespeare and Sawyer recited poetry.
“It was a great scene,” Powers said. “It was really quite an event. It was the place to be.”
On Father’s Day — just days before Sawyer’s death — Pasadena musician Billy Mitchell and his Billy Mitchell Trio played at the famous church where Sawyer started his preaching career. Adam, his son, remembered how Sawyer insisted on preaching that Sunday.
“We all said, Dad, you don’t have to do this. But he said, ‘No, I said I would.’ He had such an amazing sense of duty about him, which we saw in his local action, and all his involvement locally.”
During his ministry, Sawyer traveled to other parts of the world, including trips to the former Soviet Union and China, where Sawyer taught American poetry.
“Wherever he went, he just inspired everybody,” said Susan, who works as the nurse at Pasadena High School.
During the course of his preaching career, Sawyer became friends with such writers as Ken Kesey, author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Sometimes a Great Notion,” and Tom Wolfe, author of “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” and both writers caricatured the studious and committed Sawyer in their works. Other longtime friends included Paul Krassner, a founder of the Youth International Party, the Yippies, and former comedian and cultural icon Wavy Gravy. Both Krassner and Gravy were members of Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, who traveled around the country in a bus called Furthur while dropping acid along the way, as described in Wolfe’s famous tome of the times.
Six years ago, Sawyer and Gravy, who remained friends over the years, were among four people arrested during protests outside San Quentin State Prison, where condemned prisoner Kevin Cooper was set to die.
“He hated the term counter-culture,” Susan said of Paul, who was born and raised in Boston, attending Phillips Andover Academy before being accepted at Harvard College.
“He said, ‘We are the true patriots. We are not the counter.’”
In spite of his sickness, “He retained that booming voice,” said Adam. “He had a frail body, but he had that booming voice and
A few weeks before that, Adam said his Dad was strong enough to see him receive his doctorate in education from Harvard, his father’s alma mater.
Susan recalled that on that same trip just before his death, Paul attended a reunion of Phillips Andover Academy and Prep School, “with old high school classmates from Andover who are in power today,” she said.
At some point during the event, she said, “they started talking about his book and talking about his life, and the women were swooning, and at one point he said your values aren’t worth anything unless you’re ready to go to jail for them.”
Along with his wife and son, Sawyer is also survived by his first wife, Carolyn Colbert of Ashland, Ore., and their daughters SharLyn Sawyer, Shanda Sawyer and Katherine Sawyer; Adam’s mother, Carole Selter Norris of Berkeley; and son Alexander Sawyer, a former intern with this newspaper who is now at student at UC Santa Cruz.
A memorial service for Sawyer will be held at 2 p.m. Sept. 25 at Sepulveda Unitarian Universalist Society, 9550 Haskell Ave., North Hills. Call (818) 894-9251 for information.
For a copy of Sawyer’s book, write to email@example.com.
Recent Columns by Paul Sawyer