The Rev. Dr. Neil Wayne Gerdes died on November 6, 2016 at the age of 73.
Neil was born in Moline, IL on October 19, 1943 to Della Bennett Ferguson Gerdes and John Edward Gerdes. He was a dedicated and accomplished scholar, receiving a Bachelor of Arts in History and English from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 1965 and a Bachelor of Sacred Theology from Harvard University in 1968. Neil then went on to earn a Master of Arts in Education and Religion from Columbia University in 1971, a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies from the University of Chicago in 1974, and finally attained a Doctor of Ministry from the University of St. Mary of the Lake in 1994.
Rev. Gerdes began his ministry in 1973 as a theological educator at Meadville Lombard Theological Seminary, becoming Associate Professor of Bibliography and Dean of the Wiggin Library. He was ordained a UU minister on October 26, 1975 by the First and Second Church of Boston (now First Church of Boston)—the congregation where he had served as a student intern while attending Harvard. In 1980 Rev. Gerdes expanded his educational community ministry, accepting a professorship at the Chicago Theological Seminary and serving as the school’s Library Director. From the early ‘70s onward Rev. Gerdes was a member of the First Unitarian Society of Chicago, officially becoming an Affiliated Minister of the congregation in 2002. After 40 years of service as an educator and librarian, and having been honored as a Professor Emeritus of Meadville Lombard Theological School, Rev. Gerdes retired from the ministry in 2013.
In addition to his work as a theological educator, Rev. Gerdes was an active member of the UU Ministers’ Association, and served on the board of the First Unitarian Society of Chicago. He was also an officer of the Association of Chicago Theological Schools’ Library Council. Finally, Rev. Gerdes was present for the founding of Collegium—an association for ordained and lay liberal religious scholars—and served as its secretary-treasurer for 37 years.
Neil was a lover of the fine arts, especially classical music and the theater, and greatly enjoyed travelling across the country and the world. He treasured books and learning, once saying, “For me my most meaningful and profound learning has come from the pages of books, often guided by great teachers.” And he was devoted above all to his family and friends.
Rev. Dr. Lee Barker, president of Meadville Lombard Theological school and close friend of Neil, had this to say in his own tribute to Rev. Gerdes:
Neil was Unitarian Universalism’s librarian extraordinaire, having served on the faculty of Meadville for 40 years prior to his retirement in 2013. He was a wonderful mentor to students, a lover of books and information, a passionate spokesperson for tradition and academic protocol, an erudite conversationalist, a man of very goofy humor, and a champion for liberal theological education. He gave much to our school and our students and to our movement. The school has lost one of its giants.
Neil is survived by his four sisters: Marjorie Carpenter, Reta Morrissey, Marlene Saad, and Eleanor Lohf; his 18 nieces and nephews; and his many great-nieces and great-nephews.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Meadville Lombard Theological School.
Funeral services were held on Saturday, November 12, 2016 at Erie United Methodist Church, 811 8th St, Erie, IL 61250.
A public memorial service was held on Sunday, November 20, 2016 at the First Unitarian Church of Chicago, 5650 S. Woodlawn Ave, Chicago, IL 60637.
Notes of condolence can be sent to Marjorie Carpenter, 9520 Fuller Rd, Albany, IL 61230.