The Rev. O. Eugene Pickett, who as president led the Unitarian Universalist Association from 1979 to 1985 as our faith resumed growing after more than a decade of decline, died July 18 at his home on Cape Cod. He was 94 years old.
Pickett joined the UUA senior staff in 1974 after a resoundingly successful ministry at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta. In his twelve years there it grew from 300 to 1,150 members, becoming both the largest UU congregation of its time and a “mother church” that inspired and then nurtured several new Atlanta-area congregations.
After five years in the UUA’s Ministry department, Pickett was elevated to president when the Association’s board chose him to complete the term of the Rev. Paul Carnes, who died of cancer two years after the General Assembly had elected him. Pickett became the fourth president of a young Association still finding its way after it was formed by the 1961 consolidation of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. At the end of Carnes’s term Pickett was elected to a full four-year term by the General Assembly.
A “private, genuinely humble, even self-effacing person” is how Pickett is characterized by his biographer, the Rev. Tom Owen-Towle. He was an institutionalist whose way of leading was “steady yet undramatic.” And it worked. By all accounts, Pickett’s was a successful presidency.
It began as the Association had regained its equilibrium after all but collapsing due to a debt crisis. The new president set his sights on building financial strength while reversing a long decline in the number of congregations and overall membership. And, according to the Rev. William F. Schulz, who served as executive vice president under Pickett and succeeded him as president, Pickett re-energized the Association’s spirit.
Pickett launched Friends of the UUA, the program by which individual UUs may make contributions directly to the Association; initiated the first of the Association’s continuing capital campaigns; and established a crucial relationship with the UU Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, New York, which had benefitted from a huge bequest and has been generous to the UUA since it first worked with Pickett. The result then was a $9 million trust to support theological education and a $2 million grant to supplement the pensions of retired ministers and their spouses.
He also set out to bring new spirit into congregations by increasing the Association’s field staff, launching a new youth organization, and joining with rising feminist energy to authorize Singing the Living Tradition, the groundbreaking hymnal with gender-neutral language that our congregations still use today. Further, he elevated racial justice efforts by convening the first formal meeting of Black UU ministers and by initiating a racism audit of the UUA.
By 1984, the number of congregations, the number of members, and the number of children enrolled in religious education were pointing up, in an era when all other mainline denominations were shrinking.
“I can say without hesitation,” Schulz said, “that Gene was the best president the UUA has ever had. . . . He had great institutional smarts. He was visionary, hard-working, insightful about people, and kept on good terms with virtually everyone while in no way being a pushover.” What made this possible, Schulz said, was Pickett’s extraordinary integrity—“almost no hint of artifice.”
“Such a good man, so kind,” said Kay Montgomery, who was an active member of the Atlanta church in Pickett’s time, later joined the staff of the UUA, and succeeded Schulz as executive vice president. “The staff loved him unreservedly.”
Oliver Eugene Pickett was born in the rural village of Winfield, Maryland, about 30 miles west of Baltimore. He needed thick glasses and read a lot. He was so devoted to the local Methodist church that he was named Sunday school superintendent for a year when he was 14. When he was 16 he entered American University in Washington, D.C., using a stipend it offered to Methodist students.
He left college in 1943 to enlist in the Navy; he trained as a medic and served in the South Pacific. He returned to American University in 1946. Before long he discovered the Rev. A. Powell Davies of All Souls Church Unitarian, then a prominent moral voice in Washington, D.C. He’d been questioning his Methodist faith, and he quickly adhered to All Souls and Unitarianism. He’d been considering graduate school, thanks to the GI Bill, and decided on seminary: Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago.
Pickett and Helen Rice, another seminary student, who’d grown up in a Congregational missionary family in Africa, were married the week he graduated. She became a crucial partner when he was UUA president, an “ever-present companion to whom our movement owes more than it will ever know,” he told the 1980 General Assembly. Helen Pickett died in 2017. They are survived by their three daughters, Ann Gardner of Harwich, Massachusetts; Martha Pickett of Phoenix; and Emily Pickett of Vancouver, British Columbia; and four grandchildren.
Pickett was ordained by First Unitarian Church of Miami (now Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami) and served there from 1952 to 1954. Then he was called to First Unitarian Church of Richmond, Virginia (now First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond), where he served for eight years before the call to Atlanta. It was while he was in Richmond that he became deeply engaged in civil rights efforts, opposing a movement to close the local public schools to prevent desegregation. This devotion continued throughout his ministry and included taking part in the 1965 Selma voting rights march.
After he retired from the UUA he remained a powerful presence in our faith. He served for six years as minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, a UU congregation with no geographic boundaries, and simultaneously served as president of the International Association for Religious Freedom.
When Pickett retired from those positions in 1991 he served on the UUA’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee, which determines when UU ministerial candidates are ready to receive fellowship. He and Helen moved to Cape Cod, and he even served for a while as president of their 100-member local congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House of Chatham.
His ministry continued as mentorship. A steady stream of younger UU ministers beat a path to the Cape to visit him, including current UUA president the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray. “I will always remember the lovely afternoon we spent at his home,” Frederick-Gray said, “and the insights he shared with me.”
Even after the pandemic descended, Zoom kept the visits going, to the very end of a long life devoted to the power of the spirit.
A virtual service of remembrance was held on Wednesday, August 5.
An abridged version of this article appears in the Spring 2021 issue.