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Gregor Goethals '52 B.D. remembered as a woman for all seasons

By Danielle Tumminio ’06 M.Div.

Gregor Goethals (Martha Gregor Thompson Goethals) ’52 B.D. lived a colorful life: a graduate of Yale Divinity School who also earned an M.A. from Yale’s art school, she was an art history professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, freelance designer, political savant, ecological activist, writer, volunteer, friend, spouse, and parent.  She died on Feb. 1, 2008 at the age of 81, in Sonoma, CA following a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer.

Born May 9, 1926, in Monroe, LA, Goethals did her undergraduate work at Louisiana State University in fine arts and political philosophy before arriving at Yale Divinity School.  At the time, she was one of only a few female students, all of whom lived together at 301 Prospect St., on a corner near the quad.  After completing her two degrees at Yale, Goethals went on to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University and then to the Rhode Island School of Design, where she worked as a professor for almost 30 years.   Renowned for her teaching, she received the Frazier Award for Excellence in Teaching as well as the RISD Alumni Faculty of the Year Award. Peter Hawkins of Boston University, scheduled to return to teaching at YDS in fall 2008, recalled, “She regularly received the more extraordinary accolade of standing ovations in the core art history survey taught for freshman students by the hundreds in a large auditorium.”

In addition to her teaching, Goethals also maintained a vibrant artistic career.  She published two books—The Electronic Calf: Images, Religion, and the Making of Meaning and The TV Ritual: Worship at the Video Altar—and served as art director for the American Bible Society’s Multimedia Translations Project.  She designed the logo used by the United States Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), mosaics for the Sunday School at Riverside Church, graphic designs on themes of global warming for the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs’ 2007 ECOArt LA exhibition, and the design for a mosaic triptych at Harvard.  After retiring from RISD in 1995, she moved to Sonoma, California, where she planned her own home, opened her own studio—Sundial Studios—and gave back to the community by teaching increasingly packed art history courses at area museums and libraries.

Goethals’s academic achievements were superseded only by her interpersonal ones.  She faithfully kept in touch with members of her YDS divinity school class through the class letters faithfully compiled and distributed by classmate Richard Stazesky ’52 B.D., ’53 S.T.M., documenting everything from her appointment at RISD to her cancer diagnosis with light-hearted humor.  In a memorial letter to Goethals, Stazesky wrote, “The special thing about you, Gregor, that has inspired many of us over the years is the way you kept growing, exploring, learning, serving and teaching. You were always a pilgrim with new intellectual and artistic lands to explore and conquer – all forms of art, aesthetics, ethics, theology, philosophy, history, comparative religion, ecology, politics, architecture and others of which I am not aware.  All these are ways in which God expresses her/himself and, therefore, are areas for the expressions of our love for God and others.”

Goethals also had a wide variety of friends, students, colleagues, and clients who remember her with exceptional gratitude and love.  Close friend George Todd ’51 B.D. said of her, “She was a person who was full of love for her friends and for art and had a great sense of humor.  She was always writing to be of assistance and encouragement to her wide circle of friends, and she knew many people through one connection or another who were fans of hers.”  Indeed, during her illness Goethals wrote, “From the moment I left for the hospital I have been supported by extraordinary friends and family....In looking back at the last few months, what I remember most vividly and want most to communicate is my appreciation of this generosity of spirit.”

Gregor Goethals left behind a legacy of intellectual curiosity, artistic achievement, and love that promises to inspire those who knew her either personally or through her art.  Said friend Hal Shorrock ’52 M.Div., “Every time I savor a glass of wine from the eight-inch-high blue-stemmed wine glass with the YDS class of ’52 logo which she designed for our fiftieth anniversary celebration, Gregor will be remembered and celebrated, just as she was by all who knew her and were inspired by her many gifts of mind, heart, hands and spirit.”

Gregor Goethals lived, without doubt, a colorful life.  If she were a color, Todd chuckled, she would not be just one:  “She’d be the entire rainbow.”

Memorial services were held on Feb. 14 at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Sonoma.

Gifts in her memory may be made to:  Coming Home Hospice, 115 Diamond Street, San Francisco, CA 94114; or National Wildlife Federation, 11100 Wildlife Center Drive, Reston, VA 20190-5362

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