John Chesley Towery was born on March 25, 1926 in Corydon, Kentucky, to Joe C. and Elsa Frances “Duchess” Kirk Towery. John was the first of two sons. His younger brother was William, who became a minister and teacher. Their father was a teacher in Upper, Daviess, Kentucky and Owensboro, Ky.
John was valedictorian of his high school class. Following graduation in 1943, John decided to attend the University of North Carolina. As it was wartime he joined the V12 Naval Reserve Officers Training Corp. This was a university program to accelerate the production of officers to support the war.
While at UNC John was active in the Baptist Student Association. He came under the influence of Dr. Das Kelly Barnett, the minister at the Baptist Church in Chapel Hill. Barnett was an important leader in the effort to change the racial policies of the Southern Baptist Church. He wrote many public articles and church reports in this effort. In the end he was unsuccessful and became an Episcopalian. He also thought their views on alcohol were more to his liking. Barnett later became a Professor of Christian Ethics at The Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. As we shall see, the young Towery left a strong impression on Barnett and vice versa.
John received his Bachelor of Arts Degree in Naval Science from the University of North Carolina in 1946. He was only twenty, having completed his degree in two and one-half years. He was awarded his commission at graduation. It was presented by Captain Donald W. Loomis, USN, Commanding V-12 Unit at University of North Carolina.
Following graduation, John served as an ensign in the US Navy on the USS Nantahala in the Pacific. Hostilities had ended, and the Nantahala, a tanker was sent to served the ships and bases in the Pacific theater. Here is a little background of the ship and the life on board for John and his fellow crew members. It was written by a crew member for the ships website.
“The USS Nantahala was launched in 1944 and broken up in 1975. During her 31 years of service she sailed the world providing the "life blood" of the fleet to ships of our Navy as well as to those of our allies.
“Fleet Oilers were the gas stations of the fleet, transferring their cargo to other ships while at sea in an operation called Underway Replenishment, or the UNREP detail. They carried thick, black fuel oil to fire ship's boilers, highly volatile aviation gasoline for gas powered aircraft, and JP5 jet fuel for jet powered aircraft.
“Duty on a Fleet Oiler didn't have the glory serving on a "tin can" or "bird farm", our customers, did. Many times we couldn't even share the same liberty ports with them because we either had to stay out and refuel the ships remaining on station or go elsewhere in order to take on more cargo. However, without the Fleet Oilers, the Task Groups and Task Forces of the Navy would have been severely limited in their range of operations and the time they could stay at sea.
“Life underway was typically long periods of steaming broken up by the underway replenishment detail. For most ships underway replenishment lasted a couple of hours. For us on the Nantahala underway replenish operations could sometimes be continuous for a couple of days, working around the clock, grabbing a sandwich and nap when and where we could. When not refueling, time was spent maintaining the ship, her equipment, and rigs. All of this was done to the ever-present odor of black oil. Fleet Oilers were "working" ships, and work we did.”
During the time that John served, the tanker operated in the Marianas and Japan, on the coast of China, the Philippines, and the Malay Peninsula, allowing John to witness the devastation and suffering that was the aftermath of the war. Surely this experience played a role in his decision to become a minister. Returning to civilian life he used the GI Bill to attend the Yale Divinity School in New Haven. He graduated in 1950, receiving a Masters of Divinity. John was ordained as a minister at the Congregational-Christian Church at Point Isabel, Ohio.
Following ordination John accepted a position as minister at Mount Holly Christian Chapel, Amelia, Ohio. It was there that he met Eleanor Ruth Morgan. They were married on December 9, 1950, in Amelia, Ohio. Eleanor had been the “Babe Ruth” of the Cincinnati Gas and Electric Company Softball Team. Following the birth of son Ches, the family moved to Marietta, Ohio, where John served a church and two more in West Virginia.
John and Eleanor next served the New Plymouth Congregational Church in New Plymouth, Payette County, Idaho. The following is from the church’s history website:
“J. Edwin Elder left his pastorate in the fall of 1951 serving only a short time, as Reverend John C. Towery took over his responsibilities in August of 1952. Rev. I. N. Stanley served as interim until Rev. Towery arrived.
“In 1953 came a big problem. The thirty year old roof was leaking and had to be replaced. Stunz Lumber bid the project for $704.35 and with volunteer labor and a private loan which was paid off at $13.00 a month at the rate of 6% for 5 years the roof was replaced. (You can bet that John was one of those up on the roof of the church, it is pictured at right.–Mel Oakes)
“Reverend John Towery had a very fine program for the young people. The Sunday School was revitalized and both Junior and Senior Pilgrim Fellowship groups were active. On July 8, 1956, Reverend Towery offered his resignation as pastor of the church to accept a pastorate at Green River, Wyoming.”
John and Eleanor were in Green River until 1959 when the Congregational Church of Austin had an opening. Professor Kelly Barnett who was filling in as pastor during the interim suggested that the church should look at the young pastor in Green River. Barnett thought John would be a good fit and was ready to make a move. They were, joining the church in September 1959.
John’s pastorship in Austin was marked by progressive programs. He demonstrated for the end of segregation in movies theaters. He sought more cooperation with Huston-Tillotson College and acted as mentor to a number of students from there. John was active in the creation of “The Raft”, a program to permit 1960s runaway teenagers to spend several nights in the church basement, provided they called their parents. They were not required to reveal their location. This program was followed by the People’s Free Clinic, again in the basement. It served a community of people unable to find healthcare elsewhere in Austin. The program was highly successful and now is called the People’s Community Clinic and resides at 29th Street and IH35. During John’s tenure a new education wing was constructed on the church grounds. The church later named the wing, The John and Eleanor Towery Educational Wing, “In Grateful Appreciation of Their Loving Service.” The church also dedicated one of the stained glass windows to John on his retirement in 1989.
For his many involvements in the civil rights movement, he received an Honorary Doctorate from Huston-Tillotson University. President John King makes the presentation at left.
John’s passions included tennis, photography, and community gardens. His compassion for others was never ending. He had a witty sense of humor and loved a good joke. (Tennis Group: L to R: Gordon Flack, John Towery, Ben White, Rich Thompson, Rose Lancaster, George Ricker and Mel Oakes).
Details of Johns pastorship can be found in the eulogies at the end of this entry.
John and Eleanor had three children, son, Joseph Chesley Towery (wife, Maggie), daughter Sally Towery Johnson (husband Thomas Johnson), and daughter Mary Towery Masters ( husband Danny Masters). They had 5 grandchildren, Pamela Johnson, Tanya Reynolds and husband John, Ricky Masters and wife Monica, Krystal Towery, K.C. Towery and wife Kendra; 6 great grandchildren, Andrew Johnson, Agnes Masters, Haley Reynolds, Clara Masters, Theodore Reynolds, Benjamin Towery, and the late Blake Johnson.
Eleanor died March 3, 2014 and John died November 28, 2014. In December, the Towerys would have been married 64 years.
Eulogies followed by a picture album are given below.
Eulogy by Mel Oakes
On behalf of everyone here, I would like to take a moment and say to the Towery family and especially Mary, Sally and Ches how much we appreciate the loving and sensitive care you gave Eleanor and John over the very difficult past few years. In our book you stepped up to the plate and hit a home run. No parents could ask for more.
After we hung up from Mary Master's call notifying us that John had passed away. Pat and I sat, silently recalling past memories with John and Ellie and trying to adjust to the reality of John's death, then Pat said, "I guess that puts us at the head of the line!" My reply was, "Well it is worse for me, I have now dropped to the bottom of Nodie Murphy's choir recruitment list." John was the only person I could sing better than. Standing next to John during the Doxology confirmed his love of singing and the purely coincidental resemblance between his tune and that of the choir. The heavenly host is in for a shock when John gets there!
However I can assure you that John would be near the top of any list that rated kindness, compassion, and generosity.
John was an avid and talented tennis player. He was a charter member of our tennis group along with Gary Cole, Tom Mabrey and me. This group started nearly 40 years ago. We soon added Ben White, pediatrician and prime mover of the establishment of mandatory use of car seats and seat belts for children in the state, and Rose Lancaster, Director of Extend-A-Care. Others from that time were Gordon Flack, Carlos Cajas and Charles Thrash.
John was a very congenial and patient member of the group. I never saw him whence at one of Gordon Flack's line calls and God knows Jesus would have given him a pass on some of those.
I should not leave you with the impression that John was not competitive. He could not disguise his satisfaction at luring you to the net to watch you stand helplessly as he beautifully lobbed the ball over your head and out of reach. There were many great times on the court, especially watching John and his son Ches play together, they were always so supportive of each other.
However the image that will be forever etched in my memory occurred at the Intramural Courts on 51st St. We played at 7:15 in the morning before any staff arrived. However one morning John, Rose, Ben and I arrived to find the gate locked. The courts were protected by a 7-8 ft chain link fence. Not to be outdone, the Reverend Towery decided we should scale the fence. Rose was not able to do it alone since the support pipes were on the inside of the fence, so the solution was: John and Ben would stand shoulder to shoulder and I would boost Rose upon their shoulders so she could reach the pipe across the top. I then climbed over the fence to assist Rose in her descent. I remember standing there looking at these three certified saints of Austin in a Flying Wallendas Wobbly Pyramid and wishing I had a camera, what better way to illustrate the three's lifelong commitment to helping others reach higher.
John was a master gardener who had a plot in the Community Gardens for many years. He often supplied the tennis group with tomatoes, bell peppers, hot peppers and for reasons that escape me, Jerusalem artichokes. Even Google returns empty-handed when asked to find a good recipe for those. Maybe John raised them because he thought they were some underrepresented tuber and felt sorry for them. He was quick to inform me after reading "Snow Falling on Cedars" for our book club that one of the characters ate fried eggs and Jerusalem artichokes. John continued to bring us produce long after his hip caused him to retire from the courts.
John was a charter member of the Men's Book Club. He loved to read and was a loyal member until his loss of mobility prevented him from attending. We still miss him.
I recall once that the church had planned a retreat in Slumber Falls along the Guadalupe River. John circulated a map and directions. Unfortunately there was an error in the directions; I asked John, "How can you expect to get the congregation to heaven when you can't get them to Slumber Falls?" John laughed and said, " You know there is a map to heaven in the New Testament, you should check it out sometimes." Well we all know that John knew that map by heart. Over the course of his life he had negotiated most of it, such that by the time he left us on Friday, he only had a short piece of the journey left. He is there by now.
I don't know the details of John's faith journey. I know where it started, segregated Kentucky, and I know where it ended, the Congregational Church of Austin where he was a champion of racial equality, especially during the 60s. I remember John demonstrating against segregated movie theaters in Austin. He encouraged Huston-Tillotson students and faculty to attend and join the church. John was also a key player in the establishment of "The Raft." This was a project to use the church basement for runaway teenagers to spend several nights, provided they call their parents. The church would pay for the phone call and the teenager did not have to reveal their location. This project was followed by the People's Free Clinic, also in the basement. That seed project eventually blossomed into the very successful People's Community Clinic at 29th and I35. John's unflagging support of gender equality and gay rights enabled the church to be a haven for many that felt un-welcomed in many other churches at that time.
I believe John's faith journey was not a result of a Paul-like conversion on the road to Louisville. I believe the goodness that we saw in John was there from the beginning. It was innate and it provided him the empathy to see with compassion what was happening around him and led to his resolve to make it better. John graduated from the U. of North Carolina in 1946 while only 20 years old. He was commissioned as a naval officer under the V12 program that was established at universities to accelerate the production of officers for WWII. John was assigned to a tanker in the Pacific, hostilities had ended. The tanker operated in the Marianas and Japan, on the coast of China, the Philippines, and the Malay Peninsula, allowing John to witness the devastation and suffering that was the aftermath of the war. Surely this experience played a role in his decision to become a minister. Following his return to civilian life he attended Yale Divinity School on the GI Bill, graduating in 1950. He married Eleanor the same year.
As an undergraduate at Chapel Hill, John had come under the influence of Dr. Das Kelly Barnett, a pastor at the Baptist Church. Barnett lead a very public, though unsuccessful, effort to revolutionize Southern Baptist's views on race and the social gospel. Barnett eventually abandoned the Southern Baptist and became an Episcopalian professor at their seminary here in Austin. It is clear that Barnett was very impressed with the brilliant young Towery. Barnett continued to follow John's career and when an opening appeared at the church in 1959, Barnett recommended John for the pastorship.
John was a tireless worker who was always available for any work project at the church. His expertise in so many areas and his easygoing nature made him an ideal member of these work parties. As you look around the church you not only see his imprint on the lives of many, but also, on the physical plant itself.
John Towery will live on in the memories of all who knew him. He was a principled man who sought justice for others and shared his love with friend and foe alike. I was always impressed with John's willingness hear the argument of those he disagreed with. On many occasions I thought I had given John the perfect opportunity to bad mouth some group or politician, he always disappointed me. It just was not in his nature to criticize. We can only strive to meet his high standards.
John's legacy would be too long to list here, Pat will tell you more of it. I see a part of his legacy in the faces of Ches, Sally and Mary. They know how special they were to have John and Ellie as their parents. Were they able to have selected their parents, they know they could not have done better. All of us here did select John and Ellie as our friends and we also know, we could not have done better.
Eulogy by Pat Oakes
Mel and I arrived at the church on the 2nd Sunday of October, 1964. We had just moved from Tallahassee for Mel to begin his post-doc at UT. Growing up in a large Congregational Church in Miami, I was a little surprised to see such a modest building—and when we got inside, there was no organ, but a trio playing. We had stopped going to church in Tallahassee because all of the churches were segregated. We were so delighted to be a part of a baptism service that Sunday when young Paul Saustrup was baptized with his black godparents standing with the family. There were other people of color in the congregation, too. At coffee hour—something quite new for us—we were greeted by John and Ellie and other members of the congregation. We were hooked—and we have been there ever since. We knew we were home. Because of John and the people he drew around him, our lives were changed forever as we became a part of the church family.
Mel has already mentioned a few gardening stories, but here are a few more. My good friend Cheryl Hazeltine inherited John’s plot of land at the Austin Community Gardens and has found it to be very productive. Meredith Williams Parker says that her mother Mary Charles loved John, but what really made him special was that he grew red chard, which they both loved. He often brought some by her place. Fran Briggs remembers that she and John had a gardening interest in common. One summer he asked her to water his garden at Trinity UCC while they were gone. He had planted corn, which was very attractive to the fire ants, but she was flattered that he would ask her to take care of his precious plants. Garry and Judy Cole remember all the plants that he brought Judy, especially mint, which she promptly killed. Soon after he would show up with more plants—finally just bringing her bunches of mint instead. John used the leaves from Judy’s trees for compost at his garden at Austin Community Gardens. They also remember wonderful Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties at the parsonage on Ridgehaven.
Doyal and Tommie Pinkard add, “We loved the annual New Year’s Eve parties they hosted for their teen-aged children and their friends, which included us and our teenagers. On this night, everyone was safe. The Towerys were so hospitable; their back door was always open to all. And I recall going with the church children and Eleanor to the "Confederate Home" to bring gifts to the elderly men, some of whom may have been Confederate soldiers in their youth, and nursing homes where the youngsters led the residents in carol singing.
John was a mentor to many young folks. Rev. David Cleaver-Bartholomew says. “As you probably know, it was with John’s help and counsel that I chose to accept the call to enter the ministry and to go to seminary, and it was because of him that I chose to go to Yale like he did. It was because of John (and Eleanor I suspect) that I was able to do an intern year at the church, a year that proved extremely valuable, and to be a great time on top of it all. John and Eleanor were incredible examples of Christian hospitality to everyone, including Dena as they would have her stay with them whenever she would come down from New Haven to visit. John also came up to New Haven at the beginning of our senior year of seminary to participate in our wedding, and he wouldn’t let us pay for any of his expenses. I’m sure it was because he and Eleanor knew seminarians weren’t typically flush with money. Such was his/their generosity, thoughtfulness, and kindness. Suffice it to say that both Dena and I, but especially me, are enormously grateful to God for John, and Eleanor, and thankful to have had the privilege of knowing him, and them. They were just plain wonderful to me, and to me and Dena, and they have left a big impression on me that continues to influence my ministry. I thank God for their lives! “
Rev. Sarah Bentley says, “John was one of the most accepting, nonjudgmental people I knew. He was ready to meet with and help anyone who requested it. For instance, he delighted in telling me of his visits to a member who lived in a nude apartment complex. When I squirmed a bit at that, he said, ‘Well, everyone has their own way of living.’
He was also very welcoming of me as the first UCC clergywoman in Austin and always made sure that I got to know other colleagues and often suggested to them that they have me preach at their church.
From Rev. Pat Russell, “For nearly 50 years, John and Eleanor Towery have been two of my favorite people in the world. It was just a week or two after I arrived at Huston-Tillotson College back in 1964 – I was the only white student in my class and had come to H-T from my home in Colorado. I heard a knock on my dormitory door, and when I opened it, there was John. He introduced himself and welcomed me, inviting me to attend worship at the church whenever I wanted to. It may have been the following Sunday that I walked from the H-T campus over to the church on 23rd Street. I was warmly welcomed by John and the rest of the congregation. John told me that I could always catch a ride with Robert Jones, an upperclassman at H-T who was active in the church. On that first Sunday, Eleanor persuaded me that I wanted to teach the youth Sunday School class, which I came to thoroughly enjoy. But it was left up to John, a few weeks later, to tell me that I really shouldn’t be smoking while I was teaching. My best friend, Teddy Jefferson from H-T, was the junior ping-pong champion from Galveston, and John had been a ping-pong champ in the Navy. I knew that I was in the presence of greatness every time I watched them face off against each other over the ping-pong table in the church basement. I decided to attend summer school at UT in the summer of 1965, and John invited me to live in the church basement that summer.
It was that same summer that our rock band, The Babycakes, got started, and John was kind enough to allow us to practice in the church basement. On the nights we practiced, the basement and stairwell would be filled with UT students, and there would be dozens of them watching us through the windows in the alley. That gave the band great exposure to the folks at UT, and one day the Daily Texan ran a big article about the crazy scene at that ‘little church on the drag.’
John and I often talked about my intention to become a UCC minister, and he was always very supportive. In fact, in spite of my long red hair and bushy beard (pretty outrageous for anyone living in Texas those days), John invited me to become a member of the Deacons. I was truly honored. I left Austin at the end of the summer in 1966, but returned some years later to serve as the Associate Campus Minister for United Campus Ministry of Austin. I felt right at home when we moved our offices to the third floor of the new Educational Wing at the church….. I have always been indebted to them for taking in my daughter Beverly when she needed a home, for their great generosity and profound courage. To this day, some of my happiest memories are the times I spent with John and Eleanor, as well as with Ches, Sally, and Mary. I always felt at home with them – they have always been my second ‘family.’”
Eunice Paul remembers, “It is more than 35 years since Bob and I moved to Austin (from England) and met John and Eleanor. During the ten years we were there, we really appreciated their friendliness, kindness and hospitality. I could cite many examples of things I remember such as John's generosity with his pecans and other garden produce, taking us to pick dewberries (which we had never had before) and introducing us to okra! Their summer pulpit exchange with Dean and Lydia in 1982 has left many lasting impressions. Dean, Lydia and I were in Burnham-on-Crouch recently and people there still remember the sight of John, Eleanor, John's mother, Mary and Danny squeezing into Dean and Lydia's tiny English car. Meanwhile the Tapleys were driving round Austin in Eleanor's Cadillac.”
Rev. Bob Breihan recalls John’s church and community outreach, “John was always ready to respond to any need for a decision or action regarding cooperation between churches and denominations. When United Campus Ministry needed a home, he offered the top floor of The Congregational Church’s education wing and even oversaw some construction to make it more useful. I could count on him to be supportive as a board member of that organization -- even warning me when he thought someone else might be upset with our far-reaching (and often forward-thinking) activities.
Joy Author, director of the People’s Community Clinic said, “ I have heard great stories of Rev. Towery’s wonderful support of PCC. I wish I had known him myself; every mention of him is glowing and without him there may not have been this wonderful institution called People’s Community Clinic.”
John was also a mover. Dennis Murphy shares this memory. “One Sunday in 1981, when we were very new at the church, really scarcely known to John, he heard that we were moving into a new house the following week. He called me on Monday morning and asked if our move would be any easier with an old pickup and another pair of hands. I said "Sure," but that we lived out in Round Rock and that I didn't want to put him to any trouble. He said, ‘I'd like to help,’ and when we began the move-in on Wednesday, there he was, with his pickup and a pair of work gloves, which he didn't take off until after dark. He came out the next couple of days too. I think, when all was said and done, that he carted around more boxes than I did, and I know he broke fewer dishes. That was my first personal experience of John Towery, and the impression he made on me was confirmed again and again over the next twenty plus years. Here was a man who said he'd ‘like to help’ and meant it. I've lived a long time and met many people, but I've known few as generous and self-giving as John, and none more so. I will miss him. Nodie adds “He was such an authentic person and pastor, known for showing up and helping when help was needed. In that way he seemed to embody what being Christian was about--not so much talking but more doing.”
On Friday, when Mary told Danny about John’s passing, he consoled her by saying, “Now they won’t be apart for their anniversary (December 9—they made it to 63 years together). Dot Waldrip, daughter of Hildegard and Rizer Everett, says, “How lovely to think of their celebrating their anniversary together. I hope Mom and Dad join them.”
John was a true pastor and shepherd of his flock. Priscilla Perkins Grew remembers how John was such a faithful visitor to her mom, often bringing her cherry tomato plants.
Rollin and Betsy Russell write from North Carolina, “Please convey to Ches, Mary and Sally and the Towery family, as well as to all John Towery's many friends and admirers at Congregational Church and in Austin Betsy's and my sincere sympathy at John's death, and our deep appreciation for his life. He was our family's pastor for eight wonderful years but holds a special place in our hearts as a caring, loving, supportive friend. And what a lot of fun! Whether playing tennis doubles, getting him to help tow our car to a mechanic, or having drinks and laughs on Christmas Eve or New Years Eve with the cast of characters who always passed through his and Ellie's happy home. His generous spirit made Congregational Church a uniquely vibrant gathering of kind Christians, committed to service and justice, the kind of church we all need. How many times did all of us walk into the Towery's house and hear a gravelly voice say, "Come on in, I'll get you a drink; John's in the garden and he'll be here in a minute."? He was not only an exemplary pastor, but also a leader who loved and served the whole church, and especially our United Church of Christ. Solid as a rock, dependable as the tides, he was always ready to serve, and do it with grace and good humor. May his tribe increase. We so wish we could be with you to celebrate his life and his home-going.
Kathy Strong shares, “I don't know where to start when I think about all the kind things that John did over the decades for me and my extended family. The list is too long. He helped my aunt Billie Bess shop for her first new car, going with her to out-of-town dealers to get a better price. He made me feel valuable and like family. He stopped by my house with fresh produce on the way home from his garden; he lent me his roto-tiller, including delivering it, in the spring; and he picked me up in his truck and took me to the circus parking lot to load up on elephant manure. I used to laugh at his joke that went something like:
"What did the preacher preach about today?"
"He preached about sin."
"Was he for it or against it?"
I loved you, John. Thanks for all you did for me.”
Dave Ross recalls, “ John Towery was one of the kindest people I have ever known. He was kind to everyone. A major theme of his sermons was how you treat other people. His kindness and patience were tested in the 80s by our dispute with the street vendors of the Renaissance Market. John welcomed the vendors when they were moved from Guadalupe Street and offered our cooperation, but they continually demanded more and more, finally sapping much of our energy as we tried to limit the street closures. John did everything himself. We had no secretary or paid janitor. He wrote and printed the bulletins and newsletters on an old mimeograph machine. Volunteers helped clean and maintain the church We arrived in Austin in August of 1966. Being Congregationalists ourselves, we quickly found the church. Shortly thereafter we expressed a desire to join. John came to our house and urged caution, wanting to make sure we really wanted to join and not be too hasty. That was his way. We really did want to join. I recall that in our first year the adult class consisted of the Oakeses, the Appels and us. We met with John in a YMCA room above the Co-op and discussed a hot recent book, Situation Ethics by Joseph Fletcher. Later we held the classes in the Fellowship Room (not "Hall" in those days.) John often mimeographed notes for the class. He was ‘green’ before the green movement, always recycling paper by printing on the backs of previous documents. One of John's pieces of advice was ‘Never ask a bureaucrat if you can do something. They will always find a reason why you can't.’"
Debbie Appel Knowlton says “I will always admire Reverend Towery's gentle and kind disposition. There was never a time that I can remember his displaying anger or being cross…. He unselfishly devoted himself to our church, giving many more hours to his parishioners than he was being paid for. When he needed extra money around the holidays, instead of asking the church for a bonus, he worked, on the side, in the men’s department at Scarborough's Department Store to help make ends meet.
He never said ‘no’ to a request for a pastoral visit. He encouraged us to give to those in need. He actively supported our outreach projects, including the People's Community Clinic. (Debbie continues-- He even wrote the Personals section of the newsletter. For me, Rev. Towery was a strong foundation of goodness, humility, love, acceptance, curiosity, and faith, upon which I have been able to grow and thrive throughout the 53 years of my life. With no blood relatives anywhere close to Austin, my parents immersed my siblings and me in the wonderful church family of the Congregational Church of Austin. The Towerys were a core part of that family. I remember … the Christmas celebrations where we decorated the tree with hand-strung popcorn and cranberries, the Candlelight service in which we sang Silent Night in German, and Reverend Towery's children's sermon about a poor European boy, who, expecting nothing for Christmas, found a God-sent treat placed in his wooden shoe on Christmas morning. I also remember Christmas parties held at the Parsonage on Ridgehaven, in which the church youth group hosted mentally retarded residents for treats and a visit from "Santie Claus," played by Ches Towery, of course! To this day, I do not fear being around the developmentally disabled in my own practice... Ellie and John taught me that they are God's children, just like the rest of us! … Later in my adult life, he married Bob and me, after giving us sage pre- marital counseling, that we still refer to today. When I was pregnant at age 40, and my mother lay dying in her hospice bed, he ministered to her and all of us in my family. He read Psalm 121 to us, reminding us that "The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in, from this time forth and forever more." He cried with me after Mom passed away, and spoke at her funeral. Our last visit with Rev. Towery was 3 months ago. Despite being very tired and infirm, he recognized my dad, Vic, my sister, Cheryl, and me! We told Rev. Towery how much we appreciated all that he and Eleanor had done for our family. We sang hymns, read Bible verses, and told each other that we loved one another. Many of the scriptures and the Lord's Prayer, Rev. Towery recited by heart to us. He even joked that ‘Some things never change,’ when he noticed that Dad was wearing a brightly-colored tropical style shirt.
So. even in his debilitated condition, he ministered to us, putting us at ease, and helping us find comfort and peace. The last thing he said to us was "I love you." My prayer is that Reverend Towery's life of service and Godliness, can live through me and through all of us, as we attempt to emulate his lifelong example of what it means to love. I praise God for that life!”
Saturday evening after supper, Mel and I were cleaning up the kitchen while listening to the Kristin Chenowyth concert on PBS. I heard her singing some words which seemed so very appropriate from the musical “Wicked.” If I adapt them slightly, the words fit how we feel about John. “Who can say if we’ve been changed for the better, but because we knew John, we have been changed for good.” John’s influence is still being felt and will be felt for a long time. Thank God for John. What a legacy he leaves behind.
Eulogy by Tom VandeStadt
Pastor: Congregational Church of Austin, UCC
While reflecting this week on John Towery’s life—who he was, what he did, and how he did it—I thought of a story from the Gospel According to Mark. Some folks bring to Jesus a man who can neither hear nor speak. Knowing that Jesus has the power to heal, they ask him to place his hands upon the man. Jesus takes the man aside, sticks his finger into the man's ears and pokes around a bit. He spits and touches the man’s tongue. Then he looks up to heaven, sighs, and says to the man, "ephphatha." The man's ears open up and his tongue is set free. He can hear and speak plainly. Everyone is astonished.
In Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, ephphatha means, "be opened." Be opened. This story is not just a tale about one man Jesus healed one day. Rather, it’s a story that illustrates what can happen to any one of us when our lives are touched by the presence of Christ. Our ears can be opened to the call and guidance of Christ. Our tongues can be set free and our mouths opened to proclaim the way of Christ.
John Towery’s life was clearly touched by the presence of Christ. John’s ears were opened to the call and guidance of Christ. John’s tongue was set free and his mouth opened to proclaim the way of Christ.
But this story from Mark’s Gospel signifies even more. “Be opened,” Christ proclaims. Be opened. Wherever you are closed in your life, be opened. Open yourself wide. Open all that you are. Open all that you have. Be opened.
That’s how I think of John Towery. A man who opened up. A man who was wide open.
John had a wide open heart. A wide open mind. Wide open hands. Wide open pockets. The door to John’s house was always open. There was always an open place at his dinner table for anyone who was hungry. Always an open space in his home for anyone needing a place to sleep. John shared openly who he was and all he had. John Towery epitomized the spirituality of wide-open love, hospitality, and generosity.
John was open in his personal life—with his family, his neighbors, his friends, his children’s friends, his friend’s friends, and even strangers, and friends of strangers. And John was open in his professional life as a pastor. Long before the Congregational Church of Austin voted to become an Open and Affirming Church, it was already open and affirming, because its pastor, John Towery, was an open and affirming man. The church’s doors were opened up to everybody and anybody, because its pastor’s heart and mind were open to everybody and anybody.
Like Christ himself, John had a special affinity for those people who were closed out of society because they were poor, or troubled, or discriminated against because of prejudice. John opened the church’s doors to poor people and invited them inside to be healed in the Poor People’s Clinic, now called People’s Community Clinic. John opened the church’s doors to troubled youth and invited them inside to be cared for in a ministry called The Raft. And through his personal involvement in the civil rights movement, his personal commitment to desegregate Austin, John helped open up the doors that were closed to people because of the color of their skin.
Then there was the membership of the church. Through John’s open-hearted and open-minded leadership, the Congregational Church of Austin provide an open door for all sorts of free-thinkers, authority-questioners, intellectuals, believers, doubters, and spiritual seekers. And from what I’ve heard, a few rather eccentric types. With John as pastor, people with a more traditional bent and people with a less traditional bent united as the church, worshipped together, raised their children, had potluck dinners, debated the pressing issues of the day, listened together for Christ’s call, and proclaimed together the message of Christ’s love and justice.
This is the legacy, the identity, the ethos that John Towery has left the Congregational Church of Austin. Open and affirming. Open-hearted and open-minded. Doors open to the poor, the homeless, the hungry. Doors open to the traditional and non-traditional, the doubters and the seekers. This describes our church today, because this was the church under John Towery’s leadership as pastor.
John was a gardener. He always brought me very big bags of very hot peppers. To use the metaphor of a garden, the seeds John planted in the Congregational Church while he was the pastor are still producing the crop that we’re harvesting today. So much of who we are, what we do, and how we do it, is because of who John Towery was, what he did, and how he did it. As the current pastor, I am exceedingly grateful for the legacy John left our church. Today, with all of you, I give thanks for this wonderful man who opened himself up to Christ, to each and every one of us, to life itself. This wonderful man who gave himself so freely to Christ, to each and every one of us, and to life itself.