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Robert Nelson West, 88; led Unitarians through challenging times

Rev. West served as the Unitarian Universalist Association’s president from 1969-1977.

By Globe Staff 

When the Rev. Robert Nelson West published a memoir 30 years after stepping down as the second president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, he called his book “Crisis and Change.”

“Bob West is given to understatement,” Warren Ross noted dryly in the book’s foreword.

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The title alone could have said crises, plural. Rev. West was elected in 1969, only eight years after the association formed. Upon assuming leadership, he learned that he had inherited a deficit so large that he had to cut the budget by 40 percent. Repercussions from his staff reductions were matched by anger from the association’s Black Affairs Council, whose funding was affected by the financial woes.

If that wasn’t enough, he also gave the association’s Beacon Press permission to publish a book version of the Pentagon Papers — the US Defense Department’s secret history of the Vietnam War. That drew FBI scrutiny of the association’s bank records in 1971. Rev. West’s eight-year tenure was so exhausting that when he stepped down in 1977, he never returned to the ministry, but denomination officials have since credited him with rescuing the Unitarian Universalist Association during its most challenging period and ensuring that it dodged bankruptcy.

“What we do now would not be possible without Bob West’s preservation of our association,” the Rev. William G. Sinkford, a former UUA president, said at the association’s General Assembly in 2004, when the Rev. West was named the recipient of the Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism.

Rev. West, who after his years leading the UUA worked as a management consultant and as executive director for two Boston law firms, died Sept. 27. He was 88 and lived in Boston.

“The time of my tenure as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations was like no other in our Unitarian and Universalist history,” Rev. West wrote in his 2007 memoir. “The years from 1969 to 1977 were a contentious time in American life as well, the momentous reverberations of which continue to echo through critical national and international events today.”

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Modest and soft-spoken, Rev. West had established a reputation as an opponent of the Vietnam War and a supporter of civil rights and other social justice causes when he entered a field of seven candidates in 1969 to become president of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

The election was held just eight years after the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America consolidated into the UUA. Rev. West was elected with a majority of votes on the first ballot during a General Assembly that was so contentious that at one point hundreds of delegates walked out. He succeeded the Rev. Dana McLean Greeley, who had been the last president of the American Unitarian Association and the first UUA president after the merger.

To deal with the financial shortfall he inherited, Rev. West laid off five department heads, trimmed about half of the 150 staff positions, and consolidated personnel in 21 districts into seven interdistrict offices, according to a profile the UUA published in 2002, a quarter-century after his presidency ended. Those measures generated a great deal of anger, some of which was directed at the association’s headquarters and at Rev. West in particular, he recalled in an interview with the UUA. “Supposedly responsible UU ministers were publishing such sentiments as ‘UUA headquarters should be blown up,’ or ‘25 Beacon Street should be sunk in Boston Harbor,’ ” he said.

Along with restoring the association’s financial health and moving it out of debt halfway through his presidency, Rev. West had the UUA launch the denominational newsletter Unitarian Universalist World, which is now UU World Magazine. He insisted that it be mailed to all congregants free of charge. During his tenure, the UUA also developed its first sexuality program and opened the Office of Gay Concerns.

Presenting the distinguished service award in 2004, Sinkford praised Rev. West for having “the great courage to publish the Pentagon Papers, and said “he left the finances of the association sound and the spirit of our faith renewed enough so that his successors could begin the process of rebuilding.”

Rev. West, Sinkford added, “led our association through what were, without a doubt, its most difficult years.”

The eighth of 10 children, Rev. West was a son of Samuel Washington West and the former Mary Evelyn Wells. He was born and grew up in Lynchburg, Va., and after high school he served in the Navy as an aviation control tower operator.

Attending Lynchburg College on the GI Bill, he graduated in 1950 with a bachelor’s degree in English. While there he met Nancy Smith, whom he married in 1951.

After graduating, they moved to her hometown of Altavista, Va., where he initially worked for her father’s insurance agency. According to a tribute posted on a UUA website, Nancy West encouraged her husband to consider the ministry, and he went to the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, Calif., from which he received a master’s in divinity in 1957.

He was ordained that year by his first church, which was then called Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church in Knoxville. Rev. West served there for six years before accepting the call to serve the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, N.Y., where he stayed for six years before seeking the UUA presidency.

Rev. West, who had served on the Starr King School board, and on the board and executive committee of International Association for Religious Freedom, was awarded two honorary doctorate of divinity degrees — in 1970 from Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, and in 2013 from Lynchburg College.

After stepping down as UUA president, he and his family spent a year in London. He subsequently worked as a senior consultant at the Arthur D. Little firm, and as director of administration and executive director of the Palmer & Dodge and Parker, Coulter, Daley & White law firms, according to the UUA.

Rev. West, whose wife died last year, leaves three sons, Robert Jr. of Watertown, Charles of Asheville, N.C., and Thomas of Arlington; a daughter, Mary Catherine Pinto of Bedfont, England; a sister, Rilla Krebbs of Richmond.; four grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday in First Church in Boston on Marlborough Street.

“I am glad to have been able to be of service to our denomination during an exceedingly difficult period,” Rev. West told the UUA for the 2002 profile. “I am gratified that the last quarter of my tenure witnessed a turning point among our members and clergy that was characterized by a newly constructive ambiance, accompanied by vitality, optimism, and a renewed hunger for grappling with basic religious issues.”

A UUA tribute quoted the Rev. John Buehrens, a former UUA president, as saying that Rev. West’s “conduct under fire was often heroic, but largely thankless.” He added that “Unitarian Universalists owe him a great debt.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.