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Richard Preston Unsworth
  • Memorial contributions may be made in lieu of flowers to Needham Congregational Church, Unsworth Memorial Fund, 1154 Great Plain Ave., Needham MA 02492 or to Northfield Mt. Hermon, Richard P. Unsworth Scholarship, 1 Lamplighter Way, Gill, MA 02354.

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Memories & Candles

“Although I have not seen Richard Unsworth since I was graduated Smith College in 1960, I remember him well. He was the Chaplain of the college and...Read More »
1 of 3 | Posted by: Lyn Gillespie Brakeman - MA

“Dick and Joy continue to encourage and inspire all of us through their guidance by example, and their quiet, steadfast support for human rights and...Read More »
2 of 3 | Posted by: Charlton Price - Seattle, WA

“Thank you, Dick, for keeping the light of knowledge, peace, justice, and equality burning bright. My condolences to your family. ”
3 of 3 | Posted by: Claudia Istel

Richard Preston Unsworth died on September 14, 2016, in his 89th year, with family at his side. For most of the last 76 years, he lived in Massachusetts, recently in Needham, previously in Arlington, Easthampton, Sheffield, Gill and, for decades, in Northampton. Born in 1927 in Vineland, New Jersey, he was the younger son of the late Joseph Lewis and Laura MacMillan Unsworth.

Richard met his wife and partner, Joy Merritt, while he was a student at Mt. Hermon School for Boys, and she at the neighboring Northfield School for Girls (classes of 1945). Richard went on to Princeton University (B.A., 1948), and Joy to Wheaton College (B.A., 1949). The two were married in August, 1949. Taking turns earning advanced degrees, Richard received a B.D. from Yale University Divinity School in 1954, Joy a M.S.W. from Smith College in 1959, and Richard a Th.M. from Harvard University Divinity School in 1963. Richard and Joy supported each other through 66 years of marriage, including two busy careers in education, their pivotal roles in social change (he, race relations, anti-war and women's rights; she, special education and classroom integration), and their rich family life. Joy died in 2014, with Richard and her family around her.

Richard's second strongest love was his love of music. His father was a violinist and violist, and his mother was a pianist and singer. His childhood home was filled with music, especially on Sunday afternoons, when a chamber group gathered after church. Richard's desire to play accordion was quickly vetoed, but double bass proved a suitable alternative. He played in jazz combos, as well as chamber and symphony orchestras, from his early teens until his early 80s, and he tapped out complex rhythms with ease until the day he died.

Richard was a tireless optimist, and remained cheerful, gregarious, egalitarian, and gracious to the end. More than anything, he demonstrated to those around him -- his children, students, colleagues, caretakers, and even his opponents -- that every person deserves respect.

He believed in the power of the pulpit, and used it to serve social justice, especially during the Civil Rights Movement. Richard joined the March on Washington; raised bail for jailed demonstrators in Birmingham; participated in a sit-in where, along with Massachusetts Governor Endicott Peabody's mother, Mary, he was arrested for integrating the restaurant at the Ponce de Leon Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Florida; marched on Selma, provided support for the Memphis Garbage Workers' Strike; walked in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s funeral procession through the streets of Atlanta; and emerged from these turbulent times with a life-long commitment to non-violent resistance.

This passion for non-violence drew Richard to André and Magda Trocmé, French pacifists who organized the tiny farming village of Le Chambon to shelter Jewish refugees, especially children, during the Holocaust. Richard worked for years with the Collège Cévenol, which the Trocmés founded, and wrote joint biography of them, A Portrait of Pacifists, published in 2012 by Syracuse University Press.

Richard's longest professional engagement was at Smith College, where he served over the course of more than fifty years in several appointments -- as a member of the faculty, as a chaplain, and as a senior fellow of the Kahn Institute for Liberal Studies. Unsworth came to Smith from Yale University, where he was assistant chaplain (1950-54), and left briefly to be dean of the William Jewett Tucker Foundation and professor of religion at Dartmouth College (1963-67). In 1980, Richard returned to Northfield Mount Hermon, where he served as headmaster (1980-89) and president (1989-91). NMH was deeply important to Richard, not only because this was where he and Joy met, and where he had his first teaching experiences (Bible and English, 1948-50). Richard was shaped by and believed in the school's social mission, established by founder Dwight L. Moody, and played out in the school's long history of inclusion, internationalism, and egalitarianism.

His time as headmaster at NMH included a transformative engagement with Asian language and culture. He was president of the Critical Languages and Area Studies Consortium -- a group that promoted the study of Asian languages in US private schools -- from 1987-1997. A serial retiree, after leaving NMH, he also served with distinction as headmaster at the Berkshire School (1991-96), and as interim chaplain at Smith College.

The family who cared for and will remember him includes daughter Lucy Slosser, husband Eric and their children, Matilda and Eleanor; daughter Molly Gotwals, husband Tom and their child Hannah; daughter Sarah MacMillan and her children, Lewis and Abigail; and son John Unsworth, wife Margaret and their children William, Eleanor, and Thomas. Thomas and his wife Lauren are the parents of Richard's great grandson, Charlie. Richard also leaves son-in-law Bryant Jordan; sister-in-law Margaret Unsworth, wife of Richard's late brother Byron, and their children Bruce, Alan, and Laura; Joy's cousin Betty Adams and her husband Bruce; and godchildren Nick Underhill and Sarah Wisseman.

Richard will be buried on Mount Washington in the Berkshires, next to Joy and their daughter Jane, who died in infancy. A memorial service will be held at First Churches of Northampton, 129 Main Street, Saturday, December 3, 1 pm with a reception to follow. Memorial contributions may be made in lieu of flowers to Needham Congregational Church, Unsworth Memorial Fund, 1154 Great Plain Ave., Needham MA 02492 or to Northfield Mt. Hermon, Richard P. Unsworth Scholarship, 1 Lamplighter Way, Gill, MA 02354. The family has entrusted Eaton Funeral Home of Needham, MA with his care.

Upcoming Funeral Services
A reception will follow the service