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December 26, 2012

A clergyman knows the hell and senselessness that is war

By Cary Brunswick
The Daily Star

---- — This the first in a series of occasional columns in the coming year about local people who are part of what news commentator Tom Brokaw called the “greatest generation.’’ He was referring generally to people born after World War I and before Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, in 1927. These are people who grew up during the Depression of the 1930s and helped defeat fascism in Europe and the Japanese during World War II, whether on battlefields, ships, bombers or on the home front.

The Rev. Kenneth Baldwin was quite optimistic about the future at the dawn of a new century, a dozen years ago. He believed, with hope and prayer, that the world could “limp out of the materialistic, war-torn 20th century’’ and finally host nations and communities that could live in peace.

In the year 2000, he wrote, “we’ve seen in the century just ended the effects of militarism, of violence, of neglecting the children and poor. There is another and better way.’’ He thought nations and communities, with work, might not only live in peace but have citizens who took care of each other and shared their good fortune.

It didn’t take long, however, for Baldwin’s optimism to be challenged. A year later, the horrific 9/11 attacks occurred, followed by war in Afghanistan and then, in 2003, the invasion of Iraq.

Any hope of creating a more-compassionate society at home was dashed as President Bush spent trillions on the wars.

But war was nothing new to Baldwin. After growing up in Fayetteville and spending two years studying engineering at Syracuse University as World War II raged, he entered the Army and was sent to the South Pacific. He and other troops marched through Luzon in the Philippines behind Gen. Douglas McArthur, whom he called a military genius.

Baldwin said he didn’t firmly believe it was necessary to drop the second atomic bomb on Japan, which cost another 90,000 lives, to end the war. “They wanted a full surrender and they got it,’’ he said.

Sitting in his living room recently with his wife, Nancy, who he met while a teenager in a church summer youth program in Vermont, Ken had agreed to talk about his life as a soldier, clergyman, husband, father, veteran and community advocate.

After the war, Ken completed his engineering degree, but by then had become more interested in religion and decided to become a minister. He and Nancy were married and as Ken began his divinity studies at Edinboro University in Scotland, the couple spent time in Europe with an international student group helping communities rebuild after the devastation of the war.

Back in the States, Ken continued his studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, graduating in 1953. His first job was in Connecticut, and he continued studies at Yale Divinity School while Nancy worked at a community library. That year their first child was born, a son.

The 1950s were the 1950s. He became pastor of a Presbyterian church back in the city, in Queens, and in the 1960s, especially for Nancy with young twin daughters, life was getting more interesting.

The war in Vietnam was escalating, the civil rights movement was growing and anti-war activists were gaining more followers. Ken became involved with liberal politics with the Democratic Party and active in civil rights struggles. In 1968, he had a chance to be an anti-war George McGovern delegate at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

“I spent a fair amount of time trying to mop up blood in Grant Park, and acting as an intermediary between McGovern, Eugene McCarthy and the Johnson-Humphrey people,’’ he said.

Nancy and their teenage son went along, but with the police violence in the streets, Ken said the lad had to stay in the hotel room during much of the convention.

Not everyone in his congregation thought it was a good idea for their minister to be involved in liberal politics, but the extent of their sentiment would not be felt until the following year. 

A group of Black Panthers had been charged with conspiring to blow up some public buildings, and Ken got involved with a group that insisted the Panthers were being railroaded because of their race and politics. Before long, he was relieved of his job as pastor with little more than a month’s notice. (In 1971, though, the Panthers were indeed acquitted at trial.)

For the next year, the family lived in Brooklyn, near the ghettoes in East New York, with Ken working in a clinic for drug addicts. On one occasion, Nancy recalled, he was hit with a brick tossed from a window while he was walking to work.

Finally, he found another ministerial position, though the local Presbytery may have thought it was exiling him to the equivalent of a Siberia: the small community of Hensonville in Greene County, near Windham.

Nancy said: “The women would say, ‘Gee, what will a minister’s wife do after living in New York?’ But of course it was like heaven. Trees and a brook running near the house.’’

From there they went to the Sullivan County village of Liberty, though the decline of the Borscht Belt had sent the community into tough times.

In 1988, they retired to Oneonta, mainly because Nancy had an aunt who lived here. But, for Ken, retirement did not mean an end to ministering — or community involvement. To this day, at 89, he fills in when needed at area Methodist and Presbyterian churches, and he has no idea whether he’s officiated at more funeral services or delivered more benedictions and invocations at various civic functions.

He’s a member of the Oneonta Rotary Club, and after the “Black List’’ incident in 1992 he became involved in the local NAACP chapter. He has been an advocate for minority hiring, gay rights, veterans and a sponsor of the Academy Arms senior housing.

He has been a vocal cheerleader for downtown Oneonta, serving on the board of the Foothills Performing Arts and Civic Center, and supporting the former Bresee’s block redevelopment and other projects.

In 2006, he was honored with the “Spirit of Honor’’ award from the U.S. Colored Troops Institute at Hartwick College for “work to advance the spirit of racial and ethnic understanding in the Oneonta community.’’

But controversy has continued to seek him out. Speaking during the first Memorial Day ceremony after 9/11, he called for a rededication by individuals to God and country following the September attacks. He was publicly criticized, however, for adding that we should remember that the money to build a new aircraft carrier could feed a lot of hungry children and provide them with health care.

Ken has consistently honored veterans and “those brave souls who laid down their lives’’ in war, but also those who serve in the military today. “It is pure tragedy that so many veterans are not taken care of today.’’ He said the VA has millions of files that go untouched.

At the same time, he believes “the only war where our values were clear was World War II. Since then we haven’t learned that it’s a lot easier to start a war than to stop one.’’

Asked if his optimism has indeed faltered since the new century began, he said today he would be a “modest optimist. I like the way the mayor (Richard Miller) is upbeat but also a realist. That’s the way I try to be. But I do think better things are coming.’’

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.