GAMBIER — Jerrald “Jerry” Townsend, a pioneering spirit known for his varied talents and attainments, died Saturday, Feb. 26, 2011, at Riverside Methodist Hospital. A resident of Gambier and longtime member of the Kenyon community, he was 69.
Friends and associates remembered Jerry as a devoted clergyman, counselor, and friend whose interests ranged from needlepoint to French medieval church history. An Episcopal priest and licensed counselor, he remained active in his church and the Knox County mental-health community until shortly before his death.
A native of North Carolina, Jerry was born Aug. 2, 1941. He first came to Gambier in 1978 with his former wife, Margaret “Marnie” Townsend, who served six years as the college’s dean for academic advising. The Townsends had previously been affiliated with Kirkland College in Clinton, N.Y. — the coordinate women’s college later absorbed by adjacent Hamilton College — where Jerry taught history and helped develop an interdisciplinary curriculum for the fledgling school.
After studying at Yale Divinity School, he earned a master’s degree in divinity in 1981 and was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in February 1982. He served parishes throughout northeastern Ohio and in Pontiac, Mich., and remained involved in the church after he retired from active parish ministry in 2002.
“He was a very faithful colleague fully engaged in the life of the diocese, attending our conventions and conferences and filling in for other clergy from time to time,” said Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth Jr., bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio, who knew Jerry for seven years. “He was attentive to and interested in the lives of his colleagues.”
Jerry helped break a barrier in the Episcopal Church as one of its first openly gay priests in Ohio. “He was extraordinarily faithful to a church that wasn’t always faithful to him,” Bishop Hollingsworth said. Today, most dioceses ordain openly gay men and women and some bless same-sex marriages.
Complementing his graduate degree in history and divinity degree with a master’s in counseling from the University of Dayton, Jerry served the mental-health community as a board member and president of Mental Health America Knox County (formerly the Knox County Mental Health Association), and a counselor, specializing in substance abuse and interpersonal problems for Mount Vernon Psychological Associates and the Alcohol and Drug Freedom Center of Knox County.
“He was a gracious and giving person who devoted his life to meeting the needs of others,” said Dodie Melvin, executive director of Mental Health America Mount Vernon. “It came out in everything he did for us. People with mental-health issues require a lot of understanding and help. Society sets them apart, but Jerry was fighting for them all the time.”
From August 1993 to March of 1995, Jerry was assistant news director in Kenyon’s Office of Public Affairs. During that time, he also wrote articles for the Alumni Bulletin.
Raised an only child whose family moved every year for his father’s job, Jerry was happy to call Kenyon home. “He loved being in an academic atmosphere and all the energy he got from students,” said Robert E. Bennett, professor emeritus of classics and Jerry’s partner of 30 years. Jerry most recently expressed his appetite for learning this spring semester when he audited a medieval history class taught by Professor Jeffrey A. Bowman.
Jerry enjoyed friendships with many Kenyon alumni and members of the administration, faculty and staff. Elizabeth Emmert ’86, a friend and colleague in the mental health field, saw his popularity surface during her frequent lunches with him at the Gambier Deli, Middle Ground or the Kenyon Inn. “He said hello to everybody who walked through the doors,” she said.
Psychologist Catriona Galloway Keller, a friend who served on the mental health association board with Jerry, described him as a “big man with a big personality,” characterized by humor and warmth. “He was always checking in with me, worried that I was stretched too thin between my children and my job,” Catriona said.
Jerry and his partner Robert served as Kenyon’s unofficial welcome wagon, opening the Bennett-Townsend home at 405 E. Wiggin St. to Kenyon newcomers. The couple worked hard to make Kenyon a welcoming community for faculty, administrators and students, including gay and lesbian people. Guests eagerly anticipated the garden parties the couple regularly hosted for Jerry’s birthday or the annual Ohio Episcopal Celebration at Kenyon.
During his first year of college at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, Jerry studied architecture, an interest he carried with him throughout his life. He was able to put one of his hobbies — drawing floor plans — to use when he designed the addition built in 2002 to the Wiggin Street home filled with Jerry’s needlepoint and other decorative touches.
Conversant in art, architecture, opera, education, politics and literature, Jerry personified Kenyon’s liberal-arts philosophy. He was a gifted cook and gardener who spoke fluent French and loved to dance. “He enjoyed jousting with and testing his friends and liked to call himself a recovering SOB, but he had a big heart,” Elizabeth Emmert said.
The simple pleasure of Jerry’s company will be the memory Elizabeth cherishes the most. “He created this magnificent garden where we would sit on his deck, have a cup of tea and chat,” she said. “I used to love going there. His passing is a great loss for me and our community.”
Jerry Townsend is survived by his longtime companion, Professor Robert E. Bennett; many friends; and by cousins, Lex and Rebecca Jones of Charlotte, N.C., Allie Fay Jones of Southern Pines, N.C., James and Elizabeth Jones of Fox Fire Village, N.C., Trish and Jimmy Allen of Tar Heel, N.C., Marcus and Kendall Jones of Hendersonville, N.C., and Gabriele Jones and Richard Tuinstra of Aberdeen, N.C.
A memorial service to celebrate the life of Jerrald will be held Saturday, March 12, at 2 p.m. at The Church of the Holy Spirit in Gambier with Bishop Mark Hollingsworth and the Rev. Ted Curtis officiating. Inurnment will follow the service in Kenyon Cemetery. A reception will follow in Peirce Hall for all to attend. The Dilley-Lasater Funeral Home is handling the funeral arrangements for the Jerrald Townsend family.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions in Jerry Townsend’s memory to Episcopal Relief and Development, P.O. Box 7058, Merrifield, VA 22116-7058; The Bishop’s Annual Appeal of the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio, 2230 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, OH 44115-2499; or CARE, 151 Ellis Street NE, Atlanta, GA 30303-2140.
To express a condolence or share a memory with the Townsend family, please visit www.dilleylasater.com.