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Song to Woody

I met Lauren Anderson a few weeks after moving to Nashotah House Theological Seminary at a Rally Day potluck lunch in a basement parish hall. That was in August, and by June of the next year I proposed. Before popping the question, I talked to Lauren’s father to seek his blessing. We sat outside on a mild Wisconsin summer evening, I told him my intentions, and he gave me his blessing. Immediately after, abiding by the Nashotah House student handbook, I wrote to the dean to request permission for a change in marital status. Both conversations were with the same man, Garwood Anderson. I would be marrying the dean’s daughter, reclaiming a tradition tracing back to the days of Kemper and Adams.

Sure, having my dean/professor as a father-in-law had its awkward moments during my time as a student (“Do I call him Woody? Gar? Dean? Dr. Anderson?”). But above all, I’ve been blessed to have a privileged look into his life, both in public and at home.

The news of Gar’s retirement has, by now, made the rounds on the Episcopal newswire and the Facebook feeds of many sons and daughters of Nashotah House. It’s hard to predict at this point what this means for Nashotah, and equally difficult to communicate all that Gar did for our seminary.

Gar stepped into the role of dean in an interim capacity, after the sudden exit of his predecessor, Fr. Steven Peay, of blessed memory. Within the first few weeks of Gar’s entering this role, our beloved moral theology professor, Fr. Dan Westberg, died in a sailing accident. Two weeks later, the associate dean of student services, Fr. Rick Hartley, also died unexpectedly.

This was Gar’s first year as dean. As those tragedies unfolded at Nashotah, the divides in American Anglicanism deepened, threatening an institution that welcomes students regardless of jurisdiction.

Through all of this, Gar provided his famous equilibrium, patience, grace, humor, and faith. Now six years later, the fruit of that steady leadership is a seminary that today enjoys greater financial health, a clearer mission, and an articulable future.

Behind the scenes, underneath his occasionally ripped and oft-misplaced cassock, there is a consistency of character that is surprising in this day and age. I’ve spent a lot of time with Gar, seeking his help on exegesis homework, cajoling him into ice-cream runs, arguing over politics, crying on his shoulder, asking him for advice. The man is unbelievably consistent. The preacher at the pulpit, the dean in Lewis Hall, the Dr. Anderson in the classroom, the father, the grandfather, the father-in-law, the husband — they are the same man.

And in that way, my perspective may not be unique after all. How many scores of priests and lay leaders have stories about Garwood Anderson and the kindness, grace, humor, and love he’s shown them? You’ve experienced him the same way I have.

If this seems saccharine, that’s fine; if any man deserves an ode, it is Woody. I’m sure my fellow alumni would agree with me.

Gar is a rare sort: a A Christian leader who should lead but didn’t want to; a Christian who is good to his wife and kind to his kids and generous with his time; a Christian father to so many other fathers and mothers, including me.

My wife and I are naming our first son after him: Garwood Paul Anderson-Cripps. He’s due in just a few months. I pray he grows into even half the man his grandfather is.

To quote the great Bob Dylan song I invoked for the title of this tribute:

Hey, Woody [Guthrie], but I know that you know
All the things that I’m a-sayin’ an’ a-many times more
I’m a-singin’ you the song, but I can’t sing enough
’Cause there’s not many men that done the things that you’ve done.

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