The 32 years that the Reverend John Eusden spent as Williams College’s much-loved and respected chaplain would be more than enough for most people’s résumé, but Reverend Eusden, who died late last month at the age of 90, had even more to offer. Marine aviator, educator, spiritual guide, environmentalist, author, musician, athlete into his 80s and civil rights activist, Reverend Eusden was a Renaissance Man who never stopped either learning or teaching.
Reverend Eusden was still early in his tenure at Williams College when he met Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights leader’s visit to the school in 1961. This was a transforming event for the chaplain, who soon joined Reverend King on the front lines of the civil rights movement in the deep South. Reverend Eusden recalled those days in a Berkshire Eagle op-ed piece of April 21, 2006, occasioned by the death of the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, Reverend Eusden’s predecessor at Williams and a fiery and renowned peace activist while a chaplain at Yale.
"One day at a strategy session in the motel," wrote Reverend Eusden, referring to a meeting with Reverend King at the only motel in Birmingham, Alabama that would accept blacks, "a homemade bomb was thrown into our first floor room. Martin, Bill, I, and, I believe, two others all dove under a bed. We asked the great doctor what to do. Martin said, ‘Let’s say the Lord’s Prayer.’ We did. The bomb rolled around on the floor and never went off."
Reverend Eusden was beaten, bitten by dogs and jailed during those civil rights marches and protests. His activism against the Vietnam War led to his being wiretapped by the Nixon White House, which also regularly audited his income tax returns. His political stances and passion for justice influenced Williams and its students, as did his appreciation for the world’s religions, which took him to Hong Kong and Japan in the scholarly pursuit of the links between Eastern and Western faiths. When Reverend Eusden retired from teaching he served as minister of a Congregational church in Bennington, Vermont for more than a decade, and into his 80s he hiked, skied and bicycled around his beloved New England mountains.
His was a life extraordinarily well-lived, one that had a huge impact in Williamstown and beyond.