Life with Alice

By William C. Frey

Ann B. Davis was an amazing Christian and a lifelong Episcopalian. She came to visit our household community on Epiphany, 1976, and stayed for 38 years.

A few years ago the TV Land channel hosted a program honoring shows from Roots to The Brady Bunch. Polite applause followed each speech. The Brady Bunch came last, and Ann was the last cast member to speak. The audience, composed largely of other celebrities, erupted in a standing ovation lasting several minutes.

Ann was visibly stunned. I do not think she fully appreciated how powerful her image had become. Always ready with a sense of humor, a gracious response, and a common-sense solution, she seemed to be the anchor of the Brady family. And she was a wholesome role model, both on screen and off.

In her late 40s Ann had a midlife conversion experience. As she told it, when her parish in Hollywood welcomed a new rector, she thought she’d “go and catch his act.” His “act” was Bible study, and as she plunged in all the lights began to go on. As she put it, “I felt as though I had been living in a castle, but confined to one room. Now all the others are open.” During her travels she began to visit Episcopal churches and to befriend their rectors, whom she called her “Fly Fathers.”

In 1974, she planned to visit Denver for a dinner theater production, and someone suggested that she look me up. She appeared at a noonday Eucharist I was celebrating and I recognized her immediately from her years on The Bob Cummings Show. My wife, Barbara, and I had lunch with Ann, enjoyed her dinner-theater show, and became her fast friends. Afterward she would stop in Denver whenever traveling cross-country and visit for a day or two. In the summer of 1975 she accompanied our family on vacation to Mustang Island, Texas.

During my years as Bishop of Colorado, we lived in a large old downtown house with a community of people committed to the renewal of the Church. In late 1975, Ann had six months between engagements and asked if she could make a prolonged visit. Of course we said yes, and she shared a bedroom with two other single women. She had her own house in Los Angeles, but she never complained.

We soon discovered some minor differences between Alice and Ann. There were five small children from three different families living in our household. Ann was uncertain about how to talk to them without a script. She soon decided to treat them as adults and that worked out well for all concerned.

At first she did not cook. The adults took turns in the kitchen, so Ann eventually learned to brown hamburger and chop vegetables. Then she always cooked tacos.

She was an immediate hit when I visited congregations in Colorado. After services, I was no longer the center of attention and could relax. When asked for autographs during these visits, she would only sign church bulletins, so that anyone who wanted to show them off had to admit that they had been to church.

After about three months it became evident to Ann and to the rest of us that she was not just visiting. She called her agent and told him not to bother her for a year. “I got a better offer,” she said. She and Barbara flew to Los Angeles to close her house and move her household items (including two Emmys) back to Denver. Never married, Ann became part of our family “like a maiden aunt,” as she put it.

She was invited to speak all over the country. Borrowing a popular joke, she told audiences that as she started reading the Bible seriously she was amazed that it contained so many passages from the Book of Common Prayer. Her talks were frank and honest. Once at a men’s gathering someone asked her about the toughest thing she had to give up in joining our household. She quickly replied, “My lover.”

When the Rev. Canon Bert Womack opened the St. Francis Center, a day shelter for Denver’s homeless, Ann was one of the first volunteers. She avoided the limelight, sorting dirty socks and underwear and managing the washing machines. She later said that it changed her perspective on street people. “Now when I see somebody diving in a dumpster, I don’t say to myself, Oh, how sad. I say, That may be a friend of mine.”

When she first moved in she drove a little silver Porsche with a vanity plate saying Allelu. She loved to ski and one day, returning from the slopes, she was pulled over by a police officer. She knew she was obeying the speed limit, so she asked why she had been stopped. The policeman replied that he had seen the vehicle’s plate, assumed she was a Christian, and wanted to pray with someone before going to a shooting incident in Breckenridge. I said her vanity plate had finally paid off.

We discovered that the iconic nature of The Brady Bunch made her recognizable everywhere. In restaurants, markets, convenience stores, even on the street, people would spot her. She was universally gracious about autographs. “You helped raise me,” her fans often said. “And look how well you turned out,” she replied.

Her appeal was universal. Although The Brady Bunch was a very white show, people of all races loved her. When we lived in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, while I was dean of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, it was mostly African-American kids who came to the door asking for Alice. During one meal at a restaurant filled with Native Americans, many patrons walked over and patted her on the shoulder.

Ann was devoted to prayer. Her intercessory work was private but effective. And she took her job as godparent seriously. Ask any of our grandchildren. She was invaluable in helping me teach homiletics. She had a deep appreciation of both the craft and the content of communicating God’s Word to people.

We moved to San Antonio in 1996. The nearest parish, St. Helena’s, was in the small town of Boerne, and Ann became like Anna in the temple: twice-weekly Eucharist, Bible study, choir (alto). She helped train lay readers and became one herself, and a lay eucharistic minister, taking Communion to an even older shut-in.

Ann B. had a hip replaced about ten years ago. Barbara and I went to the hospital, but since the doctor was still with her we were directed to the waiting room. There we discovered a very distracted African-American woman taking care of three small children. She told us the children were those of her sister, who was dying in a nearby room. We immediately sent her off to be with her sister and took charge of the children. Barbara took the two oldest, found a book, and was reading to them. I took the baby and was giving him a bottle. After about 15 minutes the hospital chaplain walked in, gazed at the scene, and blurted out, “Are you, uh, family?” There can be only one answer to that question. Ann agreed.

Ann kept up with church news and lurked on several weblogs. When General Convention met in Denver in 1979, she volunteered to be a page in the House of Bishops. She loved the work and volunteered at several subsequent conventions.

Ann was a creature of habit. She devoted several days a month to answering her fan mail. Her breakfast was the same day after day. And she had her hair done each Saturday morning. On May 31, 2014, Barbara and I were having breakfast when Ann’s hairdresser called, wondering where she was. I raced to her room and discovered that she had fallen during the night in her bathroom and had done severe damage to the back of her head. She never woke up and died peacefully the next day. She’s buried at St. Helena’s.

The Rt. Rev. William C. Frey, who served as Bishop of Guatemala (1967-71) and Bishop of Colorado (1973-90), lives in San Antonio.

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