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Brad Ableson '85 M.Div., Lux et Veritas honoree, dies at 50

By Frank Brown
Assistant Director, Publications

Captain Brad Ableson ’85 M.Div., a staunch supporter of YDS and a career U.S. military chaplain with a reputation as a reformer, died Feb. 17 following a long illness. He was 50.

Ableson, a frequent visitor to the Sterling Divinity Quadrangle in recent years, received in October 2008 one of the school’s highest honors, the Lux et Veritas award for excellence in applying the compassion of Jesus in ministry. A year earlier, Ableson launched the Bradford E. Ableson Prize for Ecclesiastical Leadership, a commencement prize for the YDS student whose judgment and character are best suited for church leadership.  By many accounts, Ableson himself possessed those very qualities in abundance.

Ableson (seated) with fellow alumni award honorees Cheryl Cornish and Timothy Ahrens in October 2008.Dean Harold Attridge said, “He impressed me as a deeply thoughtful and committed Christian, well aware of the complexities of living out the life of faith in the real world of contemporary geopolitics.  He was clearly dedicated to the Gospel and its message of hope for the reconciliation of divided humanity and that dedication should be an inspiration to us all.”

“YDS lost one of its best grads in Brad Ableson. They don’t make men like that anymore,” Ableson’s friend, Jack Rosenberger ’86 M.Div., wrote in an e-mail appreciation. “He was willing to be dragged outside of any theological box if he became convinced that the Presence was to be found there. He was not simply a man of stubborn conviction, but a man of faith, trusting the column of smoke and fire wherever it led. He will be missed.”

First a Presbyterian minister and then an Episcopal priest, Ableson was decorated for service at sea in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War and then the Persian Gulf War, and, finally, as the head chaplain aboard the USS George Washington aircraft carrier before and during the ongoing Iraq War. Between conflicts, Ableson served a three-year stint as chaplain at Camp David, during the Bill Clinton administration, providing pastoral care to the president, his family and support staff at the Maryland retreat.  In 2004 he assumed duties as Command Chaplain of the U.S. Strategic Command.

He had earned a B.A. in government from Oklahoma’s University of Science & Arts, followed by an MTS from the Boston University School of Theology. At YDS, Ableson garnered the Mersick Prize for public speaking. Finally, in 1999, Ableson received a D.Min. from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA with a dissertation entitled “Fields of Blood: A Theological Critique of United States Landmine Policy in Light of the 1997 Ottawa Process.”

Although Ableson held degrees from three other institutions of higher education, YDS was his first choice for support. In a 2007 interview at YDS, he explained why: "I loved YDS from my first moment on campus. It was a place with remarkable people exploring the Christian faith through critical thinking in a diverse environment. The school has enriched every single day of my life since matriculation, and I wanted to give that gift to bright students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to study at YDS."

The intellectual rigor of YDS and his natural curiosity served Ableson well in the military. From early on in his 25-year career as a chaplain to sailors and Marines, Ableson focused on the profound disconnect between Christians from the West and residents of the Muslim world. In the 1980s he emerged as an expert on preparing service members with knowledge and understanding that would make them respectful visitors in Muslim countries. Informally, and through official U.S. military initiatives like the Mullah Engagement Plan, Ableson pushed for better understanding between the world’s two largest faiths.

Ableson was the primary architect behind one of the most significant shifts in the history of American military chaplaincy: the transformation of the chaplaincy from an institution focused almost wholly on the pastoral needs of personnel to one that embraces senior chaplains as agents of reconciliation with religious leaders around the globe.

Even as he struggled with a terminal illness, in his last months, he and his wife, Julia, established a significant charitable remainder trust to create The Bradford E. Ableson Scholarship Fund at Yale Divinity School.

The Ablesons made their home in Bellevue, NE, not far from his last duty station at the U.S. Strategic Command, where for three years he was command chaplain. Since 2006 he had been priest-in-residence at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Omaha.

He was predeceased by his grandmother, Augusta Langford Davis; father, Winston Ableson; and namesake uncle, Paul Edward Davis. He is survived by his wife, Julia; his mother, Juanise Ableson Stockdale; sisters: Ann Harper, Janie Ableson and Pam Johnson; nieces, Kasey Johnson Woods and Lee Harper Jones; nephews, Jonathan Edward Harper and Joseph Ableson Johnson; and great-niece, Harper Anna Jones. Also surviving are his grandchildren, Julia Tevis Hillis and Robert Foster Hillis; and Julia “Polly” Hillis and William B.N. Lee.

The memorial service was held Saturday, Feb. 21 at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Omaha.  Representing Yale Divinity School at the service was Director of Development Constance Royster.  A graveside service will be held Tuesday, Feb. 24, 9:00 a.m. at Memorial Park Cemetery in Tulsa, OK.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions to The Bradford E. Ableson Scholarship Fund, c/o Yale Divinity School Development Office, 409 Prospect Street, New Haven, CT 06511.

Revised Feb. 23, 2009

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