Mary Bothwell

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Fifth in our series of interviews with members of our congregation, we feature long-time member Mary Bothwell.

In 1958, after four years in American Samoa and three years in Chicago, Mary, husband Robert, and young daughters, Elizabeth 9 and Anne 3, moved to Portland where Robert became development director at Reed College. They moved into a home in Eastmoreland where Mary lived until she moved to Willamette View retirement community four years ago.

Mary and her family started attending First Unitarian in 1958. Many people at Reed were Unitarians, making it easy to get connected right away. After learning that you had to be a member to vote, Mary and Robert joined the church in January 1960.  

Mary served our congregation in “just about everything except board moderator,” including board member, RE teacher, RE committee member, and on the Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell’s search committee. After Marilyn came as the senior minister and launched her social justice programs, Mary became heavily involved in the Racial Justice committee and helped form the offspring Racial Justice Book Group with Florence Rawson. She also served as president of the Alliance and is still active today. Mary authored the First Unitarian Church entry in the Oregon Encyclopedia and directed and produced an oral history of the church, “In Our Voices.”

In addition to having much smaller facilities (only the Eliot Chapel and Channing Room areas) and far fewer members than today, the church has changed in many ways. When asked to share a few recollections of those early years, Mary recalled the following:

·         Shortly after the formation of the UUA, Boston provided an RE program sex education guidance designed by Sophia Fahs that was very progressive for the times and was the basis for our OWL program today. A key aspect of that early program was that Mary and Robert had to take the class before their daughter participated. Mary recalls discussing what they learned with her husband – “I didn’t know that . . .”

·         For a long time there was no pledging guidance. People pledged, the budget was developed, and one person in the congregation wrote a check for the difference to balance the budget. Then in the early 1970’s, Boston provided some guidance on pledging that included a “5% tithe” guideline. Although a recent widow with two girls to care for, Mary thought, “I can do that.” She has continued her 5% tithe commitment to First Unitarian ever since. Mary is also a member of First Unitarian’s Foundation Legacy Society.

·          Another program established in the early years of Mary’s membership was an extended family program that divided congregation members into diverse groups to help build relationships and connections within the church. Each group included young families, single people and older people. Three members from Mary’s extended family group are still active at First Unitarian today. 

In her professional life, Mary was an educator. She taught English as a second language in American Samoa and served the Portland education community in numerous positions for over forty years. She taught English at Lincoln High School, was the principal of one of the four sub-schools at the experimental John Adams High School, was an adjunct professor at Portland State University, was the founder of the Oregon Writing Festival at Portland State in 1985, and was one of the founders of the Oregon Writing Project for teachers at Lewis & Clark College in 1991. She also volunteered her talents to worthy community causes, such as teaching English at Portland VOZ, a worker rights organization, and teaching children who were homeless or otherwise at risk of school failure at the Community Transitional School.

In recalling her long career as an educator, Mary mused, “school teachers are known to develop good bladders and the ability to stay up till midnight.” She is a member of the Willamette View writing group, has won two writing awards, and has published two chapbooks of poetry.

Mary still comes to church on Sundays and is so grateful for the people who bring her to First Unitarian. She thought the youth service this year was wonderful and is always impressed with our youth. She acts as the “den mother” for the UUs at Willamette View, coordinating UU minister visits to the facility for vesper services.

When asked about the ministers who have served First Unitarian Church for the last fifty-eight years, Mary recalled, “My girls thought Rev. Steiner was God – he kind of scared them.” She said Rev. Deale could have been “a CEO for a major corporation” and is so grateful for the emphasis Rev. Sewell placed on the social justice work that is still such a major part of our congregation’s fabric today.

As for our current ministers, Mary described Rev. Sinkford as a “transformative person in many ways – a serious, thoughtful scholar and yet so down to earth.” She said Rev. Disrud is “an absolute treasure who has been with me through many trying and fun times,” and she admires the wonderful social justice work that Rev. Lore does for the church, the community and the larger UU faith movement.  

Mary has a deep love of and commitment to our church. There have been “many ups and some downs over the years, but, like any relationship one is committed to, it is worth working for and giving to.”


We are blessed that Mary has been part of our church community for so many years.