Lester Henry Bill died peacefully at home at Wesley Manor in Frankfort, Indiana, on July 9, 2009, in his ninety-ninth year. His beloved wife of 68 years, Jane Elizabeth (Barber) Bill, preceded him in death at Wesley Manor four months earlier, on March 13, 2009. He leaves four children who will miss him dearly: Carolyn (Bob Bullock), Ottawa, Canada; Anita Jane Shekinah, West Des Moines, IA; Eileen, Santa Rosa, CA; and Doug (Risë), Honesdale, PA.
Lester was born in Wilton Junction, Iowa, and grew up on a small farm in Muscatine County, the oldest of seven children. After teaching in rural schools there for five years, he attended Iowa Wesleyan College, graduating in 1937. Following his calling to the ministry, he went on to the Boston University School of Theology, where he graduated in 1940 and became an ordained Methodist minister.
Through a happy coincidence of teaching a Sunday School class at two dollars a week in Brookline, Massachusetts, and being invited to a young adults’ meeting at that church, he met a lovely young Bostonian, Jane Barber, who captured his heart. They were married in 1940, and set out for a new life in Iowa, returning to Lester’s Midwestern roots. It was thanks to a kindly bishop in Boston, who provided bus fare, that the newlyweds were able to make the journey together to their new home in Crawfordsville, Iowa. Over the next fourteen years, Lester was appointed to three more Iowa pastorates: Columbus Junction, West Liberty and Fort Madison. Their four children, Carolyn, Anita, Eileen and Douglas, were born during those Iowa years.
In 1953, Lester was invited to come to the bustling metropolis of Indianapolis, Indiana, where he served as the beloved Minister of Outreach at Broadway Methodist Church for ten fruitful and enriching years. His pastoral work was at the heart of his ministry, as he visited the sick, counseled those who grieved, preached innumerable sermons and performed 232 weddings and 278 funerals by his own count.
At the same time, Lester was a concerned citizen and advocate for civil rights during this time of social ferment and change. He plunged whole-heartedly into the life of the wider community beyond Broadway’s walls, taking the courageous path of personal advocacy for peace, and against injustice and discrimination, that he and his life partner, Jane, were to follow for the rest of their days. He served on the Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights under three mayors, and on the Indianapolis Church Federation Committee on Human Relations. He was a co-founder of the Mapleton-Fall Creek Neighborhood Association, and president of the Crosstown Neighbors Association, working to preserve positive community relations in the interracial neighborhood in which his family lived. He also benefited from training in clinical pastoral counseling through the Methodist Hospital/ Christian Theological Seminary program.
During the 1960’s, Lester was one of many thousands on the march with the young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the civil rights movement: the People’s March to Washington, D.C., the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama and the march for the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Rights in Tennessee. He conducted several Hoosier Methodist Seminars to the United Nations in New York City over the next decade, and he and Jane continued to write letters to their congressmen and the U.S. presidents, voicing their concerns and suggestions about government policies. They spent their vacation of 1965 with son Doug on the Quaker Project, building a community center for black farmers in Madison County, Mississippi, and three years later worked for three weeks with the Mexican migrants who were picking cherries in Michigan.
Following his years in Indianapolis, Lester served at three more churches in Indiana cities: South Bend, East Chicago (where he was once again on the Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights) and Elkhart, before “retiring” for the first time in 1976. He and Jane then returned to South Bend, where they purchased their own home. There, Lester served part-time as minister of visitation at Grace Methodist Church for twelve years, keeping the lines of communication open with over 200 senior citizens. He retired again in 1989. He also continued to be an active community leader in South Bend, as president of the United Nations Association of St. Joseph County for four years, and president of the River Park Business Association for three years. He and Jane were volunteer managers of the United Nations Association gift shop until 1993.
Lester and Jane loved traveling, and the whole family always looked forward to their annual summer camping trips throughout the U.S. and into Canada. After their family was grown, Lester and Jane traveled greater distances to learn more about the world and promote peace. Their journeys took them to Ghana, Israel and Greece, and around the world (Egypt, Thailand, India, Hong Kong, China and Japan) with AARP, the American Association for Retired Persons. They were in Asia again in 1985, with the Asia Mission Study Tour in Korea, Japan and China. They traveled three times to the former Soviet Union, including a trip across Siberia, twice to Nicaragua (Interfaith Task Force in Central America, Witness for Peace program), twice to Cuba (Pastors for Peace; Promoting Enduring Peace) and twice to Mexico (once with Christian Based Communities among the poor.) They joined peace cruises on three of the world’s great rivers: the Mississippi, the Volga and the Dnieper. They were also able to pursue their passion for new horizons by participating in seven Elderhostel programs in the United States, and two more in Switzerland and England/Scotland. Wherever they found themselves, Lester took notes, Jane took photos, and together they presented hundreds of informative slide shows of their travels over the years, with Lester as narrator. Always, their message was the urgent need for all peoples to learn how to live in harmony on Planet Earth. Their stated commitment was to the peace movement and to racial and economic justice. A friend described them as “global citizen diplomats, building bridges of trust and hope,” and called them “inspiring models of good citizenship and good friendship.”
In keeping with his passionate belief that all people of the earth are one, Lester was an active member of the Methodist Federation for Social Action and of the Fellowship of Reconciliation for more than fifty years. He was also a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the United Nations Association. Lester and Jane together received the John P. Adams Award from the Methodist Federation for Social Action for their work in social justice and peace ministry, and Lester was the recipient of many additional awards throughout his long working life. In 2006 Broadway United Methodist Church created an annual award named in his honor, the Rev. Lester H. Bill Award for Lifetime Christian Service.
A recounting of Lester’s long life cannot leave out the pleasure he took in the skilled pursuits of woodcarving and calligraphy. His detailed and beautiful woodcarvings remain as tangible evidence of his patience and talent. His wonderful calligraphy graced many a certificate and important document, and his elegant penmanship enhanced the eloquence of his letters and handmade cards to family members on every special occasion. He and Jane wallpapered and painted almost every parsonage they lived in. His summer garden supplied the family with vegetables and strawberries; even special homegrown corn for popping. He was a Boy Scout leader during his earliest pastorates, and later became a Big Brother, befriending Little Brothers in both South Bend and Frankfort.
Those who knew Lester loved him for his sincerity and humility, and admired him for his passionate world view and fearless willingness to live his convictions. His deep faith and bedrock integrity were fundamental to his life and work. He will be sadly missed and greatly honored by all who had the privilege of knowing him.
Visitation and Services
A memorial service will be held in the Amanda Reid Memorial Chapel at Wesley Manor on Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 2:00 p.m. with a reception to follow. Wesley Manor Chaplain Ronald Mann will lead the service, with tributes offered by Lester’s lifelong friends and colleagues from Indianapolis days, Rev. Dr. James Armstrong and Rev. Dr. William Valentine. For those who wish, donations to UNICEF, or to the charity of your choice, would be greatly appreciated.
Lester’s cherished family includes his five grandchildren, Penny Hare (Grant Hogg) and Jonathan Hare (Maxine), Laura Herrick (Brian Morgan) and Kira and Alex Bill; and three step-grandchildren, Matthew Bullock (Anne Lise), Sarah Bullock (Ray) and Julie Bullock (Marc). He leaves five great-grandchildren, Quinn and Julia Hogg, Cameron and Gregory Hare, and Avery Herrick, as well as five step-great-grandchildren, Noah and Chandler Morgan, Nicholas Hauser and Emilie and Ethan Bullock.
Lester was the devoted brother of six siblings, all deceased: Forrest (Pauline), Russell (Ruth), Helen (Bill Gless), Gladys (Edward Campbell), Orrell (Robert Berger, William McCracken) and Victor, and treasured uncle to many loving nieces and nephews. His sister-in-law, Prudence Barber, was also a faithful and frequent visitor to Wesley Manor.
He was predeceased by grandson Caleb Bill and great-grandson James Hare in their infancy.