We have had another death in our UCN family. Gwen Plunkett, who with her husband Jim joined Unitarian Church North in 1967, died at home on July 22nd, surrounded by her family.
I met Jim and Gwen sometime in the late 1970’s, when I did a few pulpit exchanges with UCN’s minister at that time (Dale Robison), and when UCN was meeting at the Mequon Women’s Club. I got to know Gwen a little better when I became UCN’s minister last July, but I didn’t discover until recently what a trailblazer she was.
Interesting word, that. It comes from the word “blaze,” which originally meant the white spot on the forehead of a horse. But it came to mean the mark that scouts and explorers would notch into trees, to help people find their way through the woods. Eventually, the people who marked out trails this way were called “trailblazers.”
Gwen Plunkett was an adventurer, a spitfire, a force of nature–in a word, a trailblazer. At age 17 she received top honors from the state of New York for her pioneering research in chromatography. She was also her high-school class’s valedictorian and graduated from Vassar College with a degree in biochemistry (a field not many women pursued in 1956!).
She enjoyed many outdoor activities, like tennis, cycling, kayaking, mountain climbing, traveling, bird watching, and star-gazing (even in Peru for a solar eclipse). But she also served the larger community through her work on a number of boards (for libraries, museums, Family Service, the Medical College Board for Women’s Science, College Endowment, Present Music, etc.); through her service in local government (village trustee, district school board); and in general supporting science education, women’s empowerment, the natural environment, and the visual and performing arts.
We even have some physical reminders of Gwen here at UCN: the flaming chalice we light on Sundays (given in memory of Gwen’s father) and the flaming-chalice picture hanging in the foyer (in memory of Gwen’s mother). And, for astronomy buffs, there’s the Jim and Gwen Plunkett Observatory at Harrington Beach State Park.
So there are many things that will remind us of Gwen, and what was important in her life. In fact, they almost make up an alphabet:
Art and adventure; books, birds, and bicycles; concerts, crosswords, and comets.
Family and friends; gardens and grandchildren (10 of them!); eclipses, education, and the environment.
Libraries, language, and literature; museums, mountains, and music; PBS, the performing arts, the Plunkett Observatory.
Science and school boards; travel and theater; churches, chalices and… chromatography???
(I could go on, but you get the idea.)
We all leave markings–intentional or not–that will likely mark a trail for people who come after us. In that way we are all trailblazers. And though we all have different views of what life there may be after death in another world or plane, we do know that the things we stood for, the things we believed in and gave our lives to–these are the notches we’ve left in the woods that will either help people find their way, or make them run around in circles and get lost.)
One of Gwen’s favorite books was “The Prophet,” by Kahlil Gibran, and we will be reading some of his words in Gwen’s celebration service at 11:15 am this Sunday (after the Sunday service and coffee hour). But for now, here’s one passage that helps me remember how life and death intersect–not just for Gwen and her family, but for all of us:
“Whenever you pass by the field where you have laid your ancestors, look well thereupon, and you shall see yourselves and your children dancing hand in hand. …
“For this I bless you most: you give much and know not that you give at all. The stream has reached the sea, and once more the great mother holds her child against her breast. Farewell, this day has ended. If in the twilight of memory we should meet once more, we shall speak again together and you shall sing to me a deeper song.”
peace and unrest, my friends,