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Max Gaebler

The Rev. Max Gaebler

I had an uncle who once told me that he hoped he didn't live to a very old age.

Why? I asked, to which he replied, because none of my friends will be around to come to my funeral and tell everyone what a great guy I was.

He had a point, but that won't be the case with the Rev. Max Gaebler, who died last Friday at the age of 97. Although it's been 31 years since Max retired as the minister at Madison's First Unitarian Society, he made an impact on not only his church but on his city that will be recalled by generations to come.

I was a young reporter back in the '60s when I got to know this vibrant and, yes, gutsy minister who was noted for speaking his mind during his sermons at the iconic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed church just west of the UW campus.

Alarmed by the violence between student protesters and police that accompanied anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, Gaebler was one of several revered religious leaders who waded into the demonstrations, pleading with both sides to keep the protests peaceful.

Among them was Max, of course, and the Rev. Alfred Swan of the First Congregational Church, the Rev. Bob Borquardt of Bethel Lutheran, and Rabbi Manfred Swarsensky of Temple Beth El. Often accompanied by the University of Wisconsin's Law School professor William Gorham Rice, one of the country's foremost civil libertarians, these leaders of Madison's largest houses of worship waded into the tear-gas-filled streets and often stood between the cops wielding billy clubs and the students, some of them with bricks in their hands.

Those, fortunately, were unusual times, but Max Gaebler never shied away from taking a position on controversial issues.

During his 35 years as FUS minister, Max not only delved into local issues, but became a noted spokesman for national and even world religious endeavors taken on by the Unitarian church. He was invited by the Vatican to spend a week at the second session of the Second Vatican Council in 1963, which he described as a "memorable and enriching experience," and he said the openness and range of opinion espoused at the session "remains a cherished landmark."

It was that experience that prompted Max to send a letter to The Capital Times in 2006 questioning a position by the then relatively new Madison Catholic bishop, Robert Morlino, who had created a controversy by forbidding his priests from speaking out about the issue of homosexuality.

"While I take a different position on (a bonding relationship between two individuals of the same gender), I respect his right — even his duty — to hold and to express publicly his conviction," he wrote. "What troubles me is his muzzling of any other position by clergy in his diocese."

While he retired from the First Unitarian Society's ministry in 1987, he continued to write, study and take part in many civic causes. He'd often stop at my office to tell me about his latest exploits and to convince me that The Capital Times should weigh in on an issue that concerned him.

He was a dyed-in-wool fan of the Chicago White Sox ever since an uncle took him to a game back in the 1930s. He even wrote an ode to Comiskey Park for us when the old ballpark was torn down to make room for the Sox's new stadium.

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And, as the first minister in the Unitarian Society's Frank Lloyd Wright church, he was at the forefront in the campaign to build Monona Terrace from the early '50s and beyond, finally succeeding in 1997.

He continued to stay involved, even after the death of his dear wife, Carolyn, in 2009.

His visits stopped a few years back as his age began to creep up on him. During his long life he contributed much to Madison, his church and humanity.

My uncle's fears notwithstanding, Max Gaebler didn't need worry about people remembering what a great guy he was.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. and on Twitter @DaveZweifel. 

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