By Dr. Joseph Chuman
I can’t reflect on Peter’s life and contributions before struggling with the pain of his death. Peter died so suddenly and without any signs or warnings that his demise has left us all with a sense of shock. Peter and Tracey, in early October, had just returned from celebrating the wedding of their son Aaron on the day before, and then the next day, he was gone. His death is a merciless interruption of a life that he led with such purpose and dedication and with so much to look forward to. As such, his death is a tragedy that is impossible to emotionally or mentally grasp. Only with the passage of time will its reality begin to fall into place. But how long this will take, we cannot know.
We do know that Peter’s death is a great loss to so many in so many ways. Tracey and Peter were high school sweethearts and close to celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary. There are no words to describe the grief and sorrow of the loss of a life partner with whom we have shared the intimacy of every day. Peter leaves his wonderful sons, David and Aaron, who carry forward so much of who Peter was. And our hearts go out to Peter’s mother, Katherine, whom Peter cared for with great diligence and love. And beyond, there are Peter’s brother and sister and the members of his extended family, a family noteworthy for its grace and the caring that its members hold for each other.
But we in the Ethical Society also greatly feel the loss occasioned by Peter’s death because Peter loved the Society and he loved the people in it. He was a true pillar of our community. He and Tracey always seemed to be present. Both served as our president. Peter was our finance chair, our treasurer; he served for years on our membership committee. He was always ready to use his creativity as a graphic artist to design our brochures and our flyers. No assignment was too great or too small, despite the demands of his profes-sional life. He redesigned our budget, he volunteered in a program years ago dedicated to supporting gay teenagers. He taught a sex education course in our Sunday School, always contributed, along with Tracey, in our Skills Auction, and much else that extends beyond memory.
As the son of a Presbyterian minister, Peter was perfectly comfortable with congregational life. But it is how he related to the Society, its ideals and its members that says so much about him. Peter was extraordinarily intelligent and knowledgeable. He was hardworking, conscientious, and manifested competence in everything he did. Peter commanded a great deal of respect from others. His authority did not come from being aggrandizing, flamboyant, self-important or from a display of ego. Rather, Peter’s authority emanated from his thoughtfulness, his sincerity of purpose, his mental sharpness, his diligence and from the fact that he always did his homework. Peter Kelley was a man of great integrity and substance who engaged life and its challenges with purpose and enthusiasm.
Peter was also a living example of the personal ideals that Ethical Culture most seeks to promote. We are to live our lives “so as to bring out the best in others and thereby in ourselves.” And this Peter assuredly did. He was caring, generous, respectful, kind and loyal to those he loved and to his many friends. He had no yen to be competitive with others, but to be cooperative, supportive and helpful. He appealed to our higher natures and we are all privileged to have walked by his side. And I know this because I was among his friends for 30 years.
As we move ahead, the fact that Peter is no longer with us will become increasingly apparent. We have been greatly diminished. Our task is to honor Peter by borrowing from his wisdom and strength to make of ourselves better people, and to continue to build our community around the values that Peter so beautifully exemplified through the way he lived.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen.