The Rev. Dr. Herbert F. Vetter Jr. died of ventricular fibrillation and myocardial infarction on March 7, 2014, at the age of 90, at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
Herb was a true intellectual, a student of philosophy, science and literature, a scholar, a man who wrestled with the complexity of the human condition. His younger years as a conscientious objector, a librarian, an entrepreneur, a music lover and a Quaker with Lutheran roots prepared him well for a life in ministry. But he is best known as the man who envisioned a national radio program featuring interviews with the great thinkers of his time; we can thank Herb Vetter for introducing Unitarian Universalism to a wide population of National Public Radio listeners through his syndicated radio program, The Cambridge Forum.
Herbert Ferdinand Vetter, Junior, was born in Baltimore, MD, on September 27, 1923 to Herbert Ferdinand Vetter Sr. and Kathleen Wilson. A child of the Depression, he watched his father, the owner of an auto parts store, succeed in rental property investment during hard times, learning from him the value of entrepreneurship and hard work. Drafted to serve in World War II right out of high school, he refused as a conscientious objector to support the war in any way. He thus served a term in Federal prison in West Virginia, where he was the prison librarian and edited the prison journal, also hosting a daily radio program and learning to run a printing press — all excellent preparation for his later career as host of The Cambridge Forum, founder of the Harvard Square Library, and editor of writings by James Luther Adams, Charles Hartshorne, and Rabindranath Tagore.
His parole officer recognized his genius, and helped open doors for him to enter the University of Chicago, where he discovered Unitarianism while attending a Quaker meeting held at First Unitarian Church. He was drawn to the sound of the choir rehearsing, and entering the sanctuary, one could say that he never left again. He believed that Unitarianism “was a more adequate form of worship,” and its rich tradition of the humanities — music, literature, art, and science —resonated with him. It was during his Chicago years that he met and married Dorothy Hagquist in a 1950 wedding officiated by their friend and Herb’s mentor, James Luther Adams. He soon became a divinity school student, first at Harvard, and then at Meadville Lombard Theological Seminary, from which he graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity in 1952. He received an Honorary Doctor of Divinity Degree from Meadville Theological School in 1983.
Mr. Vetter was ordained on October 26, 1952, at the First Congregational Parish, Unitarian, in Sharon, MA, where he served from 1952 to 1953. From 1954 to 1957, he served the Unitarian Church of Franklin, NH; then the Unitarian Church of Delaware County, PA (1958-1959); the First Parish of Milton, MA (1959-1960); and the First Parish of Northborough, MA (1960-1964).
Seeking to be closer to the center of intellectual discourse of the early 1960’s, the Vetters moved to Cambridge, MA, where Herb served as the Associate Minister with the Rev. Ralph Halverson at First Parish, Cambridge, and subsequently as Minister at Large, while simultaneously founding and directing The Cambridge Forum. In 1999, First Parish in Cambridge voted him Minister Emeritus.
Herb was very active in wider UU circles. He served as co-chair of the New England Ministers Institute; Moderator of the Greenfield Group of Unitarian Universalist Ministers; Field Education Representative of the Harvard Divinity School; Executive Committee Member of the New England Unitarian Ministers’ Association; member of the United Ministry at Harvard and Radcliffe; member of the Leverett House Senior Common Room at Harvard College; and member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Board of Chaplains.
An avid writer and historian, the Rev. Mr. Vetter authored five books—Joyful Power (1999); The Harvard Square Book (2007); Is God Necessary? No! And Yes (2007); Prayers of Power (2008); James Luther Adams: Prophet to the Powerful (2008)— and edited five additional titles—Speak Out: Against the New Right (1982); The Heart of God: Prayers of Rabindranath Tagore (1997); Catholic Power vs. American Freedom (2002); Hartshorne: A New World View (2007); Notable American Unitarians 1740-1900(2007).
In 1967, while serving First Parish in Cambridge, Mr. Vetter founded The Cambridge Forum, which began as a program of the Social Responsibility Committee of First Parish, and functioned as a platform that brought together renowned thinkers and ordinary citizens to discuss and examine social and political issues. Topics of discussion included the Vietnam War and the civil rights and anti-nuclear movements. The Forum produced the first continental radio and television broadcasts made by Unitarian Universalists. Cambridge Forum now exists as a non-profit organization affiliated with First Parish; its live public discussions are broadcast through National Public Radio.
Herb’s anti-war convictions continued during the Vietnam War; he participated in an underground network that helped young men avoid the draft and escape to Canada. The Vetters’ phone line was tapped by the FBI.
Following his retirement from the ministry and Cambridge Forum, Herbert Vetter founded the Harvard Square Library in 2000 (www.harvardsquarelibrary.org). Affiliated with First Parish in Cambridge, this is a digital library that features biographies, books, historical documents, and other materials about Unitarian Universalism and religious liberalism.
Herb was interested in music, reading, visual and performing arts, and travel. He loved classical music and jazz; Duke Ellington was one of his favorite performers. He is remembered by his son, Jim, as having “an amazing intellect,” and by his daughter, Kathleen, as having been “passionate about his many projects.”
He is survived by his wife, Dorothy H. Vetter; daughter, Kathleen E. Vetter (John Zurich); son, James B. Vetter; son-in-law, Tim Kutzmark; two grandchildren, and one great grandchild. Three brothers and one sister also survive him.
A memorial service was held on March 22nd, 2014, at 2:00 p.m., at First Parish in Cambridge. Notes of condolence can be sent to Dorothy Vetter, 1573 Cambridge St., Apt. 306, Cambridge, MA 02138.