Former PSR President Neely McCarter dies

May 12, 2007

Neely Dixon McCarter, president of Pacific School of Religion from 1979 to 1991, died May 10, 2006, in Xi'an, China, where he and his wife, Jean, had been touring. He was 77 years old.

Born in Gastonia, North Carolina, McCarter received his undergraduate degree from Presbyterian College, in Clinton, SC, in 1950 and his Bachelor of Divinity degree from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA, in 1953. His graduate education was at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia (Master of Theology) and at Yale University, where he received the MA and PhD under the eminent theologian H. Richard Niebuhr. He taught Christian education at Columbia Theological Seminary and at Union Theological Seminary, where he also served as dean from 1973 to 1979.

The author of several books on Christian education, biblical theology and prayer, and the administration of theological education, his last book was The President as Educator: A Study of the Seminary Presidency (1996), based on interviews with presidents. He was acknowledged as a national authority on the training of ministers and theological scholars.

An ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, McCarter was the eighth president of Pacific School of Religion. The current president, William McKinney, had this to say about his predecessor: "Above all, Neely McCarter was a teacher whose professional career brought him to ever-wider classrooms. For those of us on Berkeley's "Holy Hill," he has been an inspiration, a role model, and a friend. It's been said that no one knows how successful a president has been until years after he or she has left office. Neely was a great president and a blessing to PSR."

When McCarter visited PSR as president-elect before taking over on July 1, 1979, the faculty gave him a box filled with some items to help him cope, including: a rake "for smoothing things over"; a toy boat "to use when it becomes clear you can't walk on water"; and a magnifying glass "for viewing the diminishing resources."

But in his dozen years as president, he gave PSR a solid financial foundation, raising the school's endowment from $9 million to nearly $22 million—more money than the school had raised in its previous 124 years.

The seminary's physical plant also vastly improved during McCarter's tenure. When he arrived, campus buildings were described as a "deferred mess": a roof caved in; a chimney collapsed, narrowly missing people below; and most of the campus was poorly maintained and earthquake vulnerable. All of that changed during his presidency, and the Seeley G. Mudd Building for classrooms was completed under McCarter as well.

McCarter was credited with bringing renewed vitality and meaning to theological education and for his emphasis on preparing people for ministry in the local church, as well as for broadening the school’s perspective to become a more inclusive and multicultural community. "Caught in the midst of turbulent times and tough situations," said one resolution in his honor, "you have been a witness to what it means to be Christian by the grace of God. Your integrity, your compassion, and your determination have made you an instrument of God's peace." He was highly regarded by the seminary's students, who "canonized" him in a mock ceremony upon his retirement from PSR.

McCarter was known for his wit, his warmth, and his wisdom, but perhaps most of all for his integrity. He was a true servant of God. He fought for civil rights in Virginia, where and when it was not a popular thing to do. He was a thoughtful critic of U.S. foreign policy, had a long-standing interest in China and Asia, and throughout his life was an ardent advocate for peace and justice. Known as a strong family man, he and his wife raised three children in a Bernard Maybeck-designed house near the campus, and he adored his grandchildren.

In addition to his wife Jean, who was born in Brazil of missionary parents, Neely McCarter is survived by three children and five grandchildren: Robin (and Mark) Anderson of Piedmont, CA, and their children Dixon and Cameron; Robert McCarter (and Susan Davis-McCarter) of Gainesville, FL, and their daughter Kate; and Shirley (and Larry) Kaml of Nipomo, CA, and their children Matthew and Victoria.

Contributions may be made to the Neely D. McCarter Fund at Pacific School of Religion.

A memorial service was held on June 1, 2006 at First Congregational Church of Berkeley.

(updated 3/13/09)