In memoriam: Mary and Wells Behee

Some very sad news this week in the death of Wells and Mary Behee, lifelong Universalists and church servants. I never met them, but knew much about them from Derek Parker, a friend and ministerial colleague (and successor) to the couple. I asked him to share his remembrances — lest this long-serving couple’s contribution be forgotten — and he’s graciously agreed.

Mary grew up in the Universalist Church of Lynn, Massachusetts.  She was the daughter of a long standing Universalist family in that community.  Following World War II she enrolled at Saint Lawrence College, to study religious education with Angus MacLean.  It was in theological school that she met Wells.

Wells grew up in Medina, New York.  His family attended the First Universalist Church of Middleport, New York.  During World War II, Wells served in the Navy.  His military service included both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of combat, including the Battle of Iwo Jima.  Later in life Wells would frequently comment that the only thing which kept his sanity at Iwo Jima were his repeated praying of the Washington Avowal of Faith.  Following World War II, the First Universalist Church of Middleport sponsored Wells to study for the ministry at Saint Lawrence College.

Mary and Wells served together in ministry.  While Mary was never ordained, she was sometimes licensed to preach.  This was a ministry she seldom exercised, preferring to work with young people in classroom settings.  Together they served the Universalist Church, Dexter, New York; the Universalist Church, Woodstock, Ohio; the Universalist Church, Eldorado, Ohio; and the First Universalist Church, New Madison, Ohio.  Aside from her work in Universalist religious education, Mary also worked as an elementary school teacher in different rural Ohio school systems.  Wells also enjoyed an additional career as a high school instructor of public speaking, Shakespeare and English composition.

Both Wells and Mary were gadfly critics about the Unitarian and Universalist merger.  While their opinions were sometimes abrasive to colleagues, the core of their criticism rested on three points:

  1. That post-merger redefinitions of Universalist theology and traditions were not faithful to the evolving traditions and spirit of Universalism,
  2. The post-merger closure of Universalist institutions like the Jordan School, and the theological schools at Tufts and Saint Lawrence.  Mary and Wells were of the opinion that the Tufts and Saint Lawrence theological schools should have merged.
  3. They expressed concerns about the lack of support for rural churches, and about the post-merger preparation of ministers to do relevant liberal ministry in rural settings.

In retirement Mary became involved in causes related to the humane treatment of dogs.  Wells also dedicated himself to a late life ministry of advocacy on behalf of combat veterans.  Following the beginning of the Iraq War, he would volunteer his time to provide a pastoral ear to young combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.  He would also preach on issues related to the extreme psychological cost combat service takes on armed service members.  One of his sermons, “War Never Ends,” was given to a Dayton, Ohio gathering of the American Friends Service Committee.

In retirement Mary and Wells also nurtured the religious vocations of a number of Earlham School of Religion students with Unitarian Universalist, Quaker and Brethren backgrounds.  The mentoring was not always requested, and sometimes made friendships difficult.  But the offer to buy seminarians dress shoes were real and sincere.

Noted advice to seminarians included:

  • “When you are preaching in many churches,  your feet are at eye level with the congregation.  Invest in professional looking shoes.  Anything else is a distraction to the congregation.”
  • “A good sermon is like a good play.  It has a beginning, middle, climax, and an end.   If you give people anything less than this, it is like giving somebody a hot dog, no bun, and a cheese danish; and then calling it a balanced meal.”
  • “Let me show you how to preach without a microphone and amplification.  Seminaries don’t teach that any more.  But how do you think we preached in those big buildings after World War II.  Without a microphone!  If the power goes out, or the sound system blows a fuse, you will need to know this.”

Mary Behee died Tuesday, December 13, 2011 from an automobile accident on a rural Ohio county road.  Her husband, the Rev. Wells Behee, was a passenger and sustained less serious injuries.  He died in his sleep at Heartland Eldercare of Eaton, Ohio on Thursday, December 15, 2011.  Mary was 85 and Wells was 86.

At their own instruction, Wells and Mary chose for the cremation of their remains.  The family will hold a private internment of Wells’s ashes in his boyhood town of Medina, New York.  Mary’s ashes will be scattered on coastal Cape Cod.  A public memorial gathering is tentatively scheduled for summer of 2012, in rural western Ohio. Wells and Mary are survived by their children Kris, Cathy, Carol and Emerson and a number of grandchildren.

  • Wells’s website, including sermons and the page of the New Madison church.

    1. What sad news, and yet how fitting that to the end they were together and on the road of life. Wells was a fixture on the UUHS-chat for many years, with an authentic Universalist faith and deep scholarship. I admired the way he kept on trying amongst people he found less and less rewarding, perhaps even less responsive. His insights were often powerful, as her heart was large. May light perpetual shine upon them, each and both.

    2. I’m shocked to receive the news of the death of Wells and Mary. I loved them both and always looked forward to seeing them at Convocations. Mary had written to me on several occasions that because of Wells’ health, she wasn’t sure they’d be able to attend future convocations. The last time I saw them was at the Convocation held at the Clara Barton Camp. Wells spoke to me of his depression and nightmares, the result of a late diagnosis of Post Tramatic Stress Disorder. How well he knew, firsthand, the psychological damages of war. It certainly does not end. Rest in peace, my dear ones.

    3. I feel such a loss of two wonderful friends. In 1980 Wells took me “under his wing” and helped tutor me through high school so I could get the grades I needed to successfully graduate in my effort to become employed by the New Madison Police Department & Wells made it happen.

      Mary was also an encouragement and in some respects giving me motherly advise in matters we discussed. They both attended my wedding and over the years I’d either stop by or call to say hello.

      I’m going to miss them so very much. My life and been blessed by knowing both of them and my prayers to their families for comfort and peace.

    4. I was touched by Derek’s memoriam was excellent. I learned stuff about mom and dad that I never knew. Our entire family has appreciated this as it was shared. We have just few comments.

      Children of Wells and Mary Behee are in Birth order
      Kathy-Ann Becker of Wendall Depot, Massachusetts.
      Karyl Parks of Greenville, Ohio
      Kris Rantz of New Madison, Ohio
      Wells Emerson Behee of Ithaca, Ohio
      Karen Barbara of Decatur, Indiana
      (all girls began with the letter “K” and we grew up in a common bedroom in the upstairs of the house and became known as the “KB” bunkhouse. and is still fondly and proudly referred to as such)

      The memoriam is spot on, including the parts that gave the surviving family a smile, because it was so accurate.
      “The mentoring was not always requested, and sometimes made friendships difficult.”
      We totally understand.

      Thank you for your kind thoughts and teaching me something I never knew about my parents.

      The past few years have been difficult for all of us as we grappled with dad’s disease. Many of mom and dad’s friends have become collateral damage in the disease progress wake.

      My sister, Kris, and I had to step up more and more in attempts to help mom “love dad through this”. In this journey, we discovered a mother we never knew existed. Mary Behee was an icon in devotion, patience, courage, and unconditional love. She was able to forgive the unforgiveable. She was a pillar of strength.

      Although the mission was sometimes unbearable for all of us; Mom’s courage carried us all through and enlightened us and taught us patience and forgiveness where we never thought we could possibly find any. She was an inspiration and a good woman. All these qualities, we discovered only through living through this, and I would do it all again.

      As for Dad, the past 20 years have been difficult with him as he became more and more eccentric. 20 years ago, family noticed bizarre aberrations, that in retrospect, were early onset markers of his pagets disease that was diagnosed 15 years ago, that was crushing his brain, and perhaps also his alzhiemers. We forgive these difficulties, because it was the disease progression. This was not the father we knew and loved. Our father was the kindest, most loving, supportive parent one could ever ask for. As a dad, he was the BEST.

      Thank you for this Derek Parker.

    5. I will miss both of them even though we were only able to get together a few times we were very close in spirit and prayer.
      I know for sure that we will join each other in heaven.
      Thanks Wells and Mary may God grant you eternal rest.
      John and Melanie Fella.

    6. On more note, both of my parents were active in the Humane Society. For several years they were active officers with the Darke County Humane Society. My father was president and my mother was secretary. They also, being liberals, were advocating the humane treatment of ALL animals. I remember one time going with other members of the family and the Humane Society on a raid to save a variety of animals including malnourished dogs, cats, hogs, ponies, goats, and even a Brahma bull.

      My parents were teachers and molders of people. My dad taught Boy Scouts to swim though he didn’t swim. He was the coach to his five children and their partners competitive canoe and kayak racing though he rarely ever sat in the boat.

    7. To all of the Behee children:
      I am just now learning of the death of your parents, partly because I live in Florida, partly because I travel a great deal, but mostly because I’m guilty of procrastinating about making trips back up “home” to visit with old friends. I was born and raised in Arcanum and first really knew your father
      in 1960, when he became one of my teachers in the 7th grade. I will keep this short as I am still trying to “wrap” my head around this news. Your parents were far more than teachers, especially your father, they were educators of the highest caliber. I as a youth was one of those infamous “problem children” with a chip on my shoulder, daring the world to knock it off. Your father introduced me to Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, appreciation of the fine arts and much more about life itself. I last visited your Mom and Dad I believe in August of 2011 and it was most wonderful. I have a hundred stories of your parents, if you would ever like to hear a few, please call me [redacted]. My condolences are a sorry substitute for what you have lost, but it is all I have to give, except to say “I believe I am one of your father’s success stories.” I shall truly miss them both.

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