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Edward Gleason, 80; Episcopal theologian

The Rev. Gleason guided students at Noble and Greenough School and at Phillips Exeter Academy.
The Rev. Gleason guided students at Noble and Greenough School and at Phillips Exeter Academy.Gleason family

As minister of Phillips Church at Phillips Exeter Academy in the 1960s, the Rev. Edward S. Gleason encouraged a more inclusive, vibrant spiritual environment that still exists.

"It was a sufficiently broad definition so when I was challenged for housing many religions in a building of Christ, I could refer to that," said the Rev. Robert Thompson, the current minister at Phillips Church and a former pupil of Rev. Gleason's. "He knew it was the right thing to do at the time. Because he did it so well it made everything that came afterward possible."

Rev. Gleason, an Episcopal theologian who also served as headmaster at Noble and Greenough School for more than 15 years, died in the Washington Home hospice center in Washington, D.C., Oct. 31 of complications from injuries suffered in a fall. He was 80 and lived in Washington.

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During frustration over the Vietnam War, Rev. Gleason had Exeter students deliberate about the fighting and view it through a religious lens. He also had students plan most of the church services. Scratchy vinyl rock records soon replaced traditional hymns.

Rev. Gleason noted in a letter to school officials that these progressive services, which were no longer required, drew crowds that more than doubled those at many Sunday services.

Born in Newton to Gay Gleason and the former Winifred Gaskin, Edward Stone Gleason grew up in a religious family. The youngest of three, he was a churchgoer at a young age, often attending by himself.

At 14, he met Anne Mather Vermillion on New Hampshire's Squam Lake. They struck up a deep friendship and remained close through high school years.

After graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy in 1951, where he was awarded the Nathaniel Gordon Bible Prize, he went to Harvard College where he majored in geology and graduated in 1955. A week after graduating, he married Anne.

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Rev. Gleason served for two years as an ensign in the Navy Reserve, then attended Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary in Virginia, receiving a bachelor of divinity in 1960.

He spent six years in smaller churches before becoming the school minister at Phillips Exeter Academy. Along with his ministry he taught religious studies.

At Exeter, Thompson took Rev. Gleason's Old Testament class. Thompson, who is African-American, said Rev. Gleason offered comfort in an unfamiliar cultural environment.

"He carried with him a power of the soul," Thompson said. "He said a great deal of positive things and he blessed me with his bestowal of approval and understanding."

Rev. Gleason employed a critical method of looking at religious texts in class and emphasized historical context. Preferring not to give long lectures, he placed discussion in the hands of students.

"He wouldn't interfere," Thompson said. "He would guide."

Rev. Gleason wrote a number of books, including "Redeeming Marriage," "Dying We Live," "New Life," and "The Prayer Given Life."

"I think he really valued the art of expression, and I think he felt compelled to share," said his daughter Eliza Gleason Kean of Washington, D.C. "If people got something out of it that was great. It wasn't as if he wanted to convert or convince. It was just, 'This is what I think.' "

Rev. Gleason left Exeter in 1971 to become headmaster of Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, where he spearheaded coeducational learning. He instituted changes and within a few years the student population was balanced almost equally between boys and girls.

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"He rolled the dice for the first time and said, 'We have to be different,' " said Bob Henderson, a former student at Noble and Greenough who is now headmaster.

Rev. Gleason also taught religion courses at the school and showed up at many extracurricular events, stretching most of his work weeks past 60 hours.

"He was ubiquitous" Henderson said. "He knew every kid in the school. He could even rattle off everyone's middle name."

Rev. Gleason authored a mission statement for the school built around his notion that the school was an extended family. He wrote that Noble and Greenough would be "a family where one may develop the mind, the body, and the spirit for a life of service."

"It was very powerful, and he would read it beautifully," Henderson said. "The statement has changed quite a bit, but the core values are still quite similar."

After leaving Noble and Greenough in 1987, Mr. Gleason served as director of development at Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary. In the mid-1990s, he became editor and director of Forward Movement Publications, which is part of the Episcopal Church, until 2005.

While there Mr. Gleason came to know Bo Don Cox, a prison inmate in Oklahoma serving a sentence for murder. Cox, who had been addicted to drugs, began writing about his spirituality while in prison, and Rev. Gleason took notice.

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He supported Cox's writing voice and the two forged a strong bond. Rev. Gleason helped edit and publish Cox's writings and frequently visited him in jail. Cox would always scrounge up enough money to buy Rev. Gleason a Coca-Cola when he visited.

"My dad really saw something in this man, and saw a talent for writing in him," Eliza said.

After Cox was released on parole, he continued to write about faith and redemption and Rev. Gleason continued to offer support.

"Ted got Bo connected to the St. Albans School in Washington," Anne said. "He has been going there for eight years to talk about addiction."

In addition to his wife and daughter, Rev. Gleason leaves two other daughters, Sarah Gleason Ross of New Milford, Conn., and Persis Gleason Elkins of Minneapolis; and seven grandchildren.

A service will be held at 11:30 a.m. on Dec. 28 in St. Patrick's Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.

In retirement, Rev. Gleason started a popular book club, and continued to write about faith.

He was known for constant correspondence, sending hundreds of personal notes a week and continuing to write when arthritis hindered his hand movement.

"He lived a life of words," Thompson said. "None of us could keep up with the number of e-mails, handwritten letters, and notes he wrote. He was such a tireless man."


Jasper Craven can be reached at jasper.craven@globe.com.