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The Rev. George Nagle: Helping to make a peaceful change

May 20, 2009
By DIANE?CHASE, Special to the Enterprise

With quiet motions and a peaceful smile, the Rev. George Nagle looks ready to listen to someone else's story rather than share his own.

"I am an Episcopal priest," he said. "In our tradition, once you are a priest, you are always a priest, whether or not I have a parish. It is an important part of my identity."

Born and raised in Reading, Pa., the Rev. Nagle attended Cornell University and later Berkeley Divinity School at Yale.

Article Photos

The Rev. George Nagle
(Photo —Diane Chase)

He had a parish from 1960 to 1967 near Syracuse and chaired a chapter of the Episcopal Society for Cultural Racial Unity, an organization that was committed to eliminating segregation in the church.

He laughs and displays a photograph of a younger self. "Here is my mug shot," he grins. "I marched in the Civil Rights March in Selma, Ala. in 1965."

He traveled to Alabama with seven clergy that wanted to connect central New York to what was going on in the Civil Rights Movement.

The Rev. Nagle shakes his head in remembrance. "Most people don't recall that Martin Luther King was under attack at that time," he said. "His was a moderate voice and we wanted to, in our own humble way, enlist in his army. We wanted to support.

"As we drove to Brown Chapel from the airport in Montgomery, we heard on the radio Lyndon Johnson addressing Congress and asking for approval of the Civil Rights Voting Act. "Just by coincidence, I was in Washington D.C. and got a ticket to the Senate Gallery and saw the final passing of the Voting Rights Act later that year."

The picture came into his possession after attending his 25th seminary class reunion," he said. "As I was sitting around a person turned to me and asked, 'How do you summarize 25 years? I replied I was arrested in Selma always wished I had a copy of that mug shot. A classmate said he would get it for me. One of his parishioners was a special agent with the FBI. So he did.

"I had another parish near Utica from 1967 to 1974, and I then became deeply involved in environmental issues in the 1960s and represented our church in the New York State Council of Churches, which took me to Albany every week during the legislative session."

During that time, he became deeply involved with Adirondack issues and campaigned for the Adirondack Park Agency Act.

"The churches got behind that act. This led to me participating in a statewide environmental organization, and I would from time to time appear at public hearings on behalf of the Council of Churches," he said. "Eventually, I was offered a position with the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) in 1974 which I accepted and that brought me to Saranac Lake."

At that same time, he started at St. Johns in the Wilderness, a seasonal Episcopal parish in Paul Smiths. He remained the pastor there for 19 years. He was also asked to facilitate retreats sponsored by the Sisters of St. Margaret's while still working at the APA.

"I was at St. John's just in the summers. It was wonderful to be in the discipline of the parish. It rejuvenates. I always continued to function as a priest.

"It was quite a change. I felt it very much to be a calling and did not expect working with the APA to be permanent. In the beginning the Adirondack Park Agency was not very bureaucratic. It was a dedicated group that shared a commitment to preserving the park and enhancing development areas. It's also about helping to make growth centers prosperous. Basically the Park Agency Act is bipolar. On one hand it is about preservation but on the other it's about economic development."

He concludes that his APA responsibilities were basically policy analysis in park-wide planning and environmental issues such as highways, rivers, state land, hydropower and open space.

"My wife Margo and I are so thrilled that we live in Saranac Lake," he said. "One reason is the vitality. There are so many people doing so many good things that it makes us feel privileged to be part of this community.

"I have two grandchildren here by my daughter, Susan Olsen, who owns Borealis Color, and another in Manhattan by Robin, an anthropologist at New York University," he mentions quietly. "And my third daughter is deceased.

"I was also the chaplain in a state prison. My son-in-law succeeded me at Adirondack Correctional Facility. I worked there from 1982 to 1999. Well, I started at a prison in Watertown, so I was there for a year, and then I was the chaplain at Dannemora for two years."

" It was an interesting experience. I spent a good deal of my time with the Muslim Chaplain who was a former inmate at Clinton Correctional Facility at Dannemora. I tried to work out issues that would arise like HIV and AIDS. I was pretty deeply involved with inmate issues, running several support groups. I assisted some outside people to train inmate peer educators about AIDS. AIDS Council of Northeastern New York did that. They were very good at that. Then my son-in-law was an active-duty army chaplain and wanted to relocate to Saranac Lake. I retired and he was appointed to the position."

His son-in-law completed a tour of duty as a National Guardsman in Iraq. Now, as a colonel, he is in charge of all National Guard Chaplains in New York state.

"Recently we were at the Sagamore Inn at Bolton Landing where the National Guard hosted a reintegration workshop for 280 soldiers returning from Afghanistan," the Rev. Nagle explained. "There were 30-day and 60-day workshops dealing with various issues. This is not sustainable. It is too expensive. The Army National Guard can't afford to keep doing this but is working on trying to find a more cost-effective plan. I am impressed that they are trying to provide the means for the returning soldiers to find a fulfilling life."

Now retired, the Rev. Nagle has served on the boards of the Adirondack Medical Center, North Stars Industries, High Peaks Hospice, Association for Retarded Citizens and Saranac Lake Rotary to name a few. He continues to pursue his interests in the outdoors by cross-country skiing, hiking, camping and canoeing. He still plays an active role in the church through offering spiritual direction to assist people on their own spiritual journey.

"Other people have done far more than I have to represent the cutting edge of greater equality but I try to be true to it, " Rev. Nagle comments. "Doing one small movement. For example, I spent several weeks campaigning for Barack Obama in Pennsylvania. I played host for a former U.S. Senator, set up a speaking engagement. I distributed signs and knocked on doors. What I did was minuscule but there were thousands of people doing it. In the aggregate it made a difference. Life is like that. I hardly did anything but in the aggregate it made a difference. That can be applied to anything," he pauses and then continues, "Having one person to talk to can make an impact and have an impact to change. It's about being true to yourself."



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