From the Archive

by Charlotte Carl-Mitchell

Some interesting facts about our past board presidents:

Milton J. Shear was our very first board president in 1947. In a letter to the editor in the Arizona Republic in 1948, at the height of McCarthyism, he challenged the idea that one country or party or church was right and righteous. That thinking, he said, was totalitarian. The new First Unitarian Church of Phoenix, the youngest Unitarian church in America, was meeting at Kenilworth School.


Taylor Smith was a banker described as an outgoing, friendly, understanding man, and our board president in 1948. He was also chairman of the board of the Friendly House, “a social service organization operated for the benefit of Spanish-speaking people and others of foreign heritage to gain American citizenship.” To be supportive of immigrants was probably not popular during McCarthyism.


E. B. Myrick was our president in 1949. He was an electrical engineer and veteran of WWI. During WWII he commanded the Navajo Ordnance Depot outside Flagstaff. Because of a war-time labor shortage he created a Navajo and Hopi village at the depot encouraging Native American workers to move in with their families, giving them well-paying jobs when other employers wouldn’t. He was also a cat fancier and member of the Canyon State Cat Club.


James Stewart served as board president from Jan-Sep 1950. He had a BA from Dartmouth, an MA from Columbia University and a PhD in education from Stanford. He taught history and English at Phoenix college for ten years then became principal of North Phoenix High school and served as assistant superintendent of curriculum for high schools in Phoenix. He was president of the Arizona Education Association and served on the State Board of Education. He was the first in a long line of educators who have led our board.


Isabelle Johnson, one of the founders of our congregation, served as board president from Oct-Dec of 1950. She was born in Massachusetts, lived in China and Montana before settling in Minnesota. She had supported the women’s suffrage amendment and was an administrative leader of the Red Cross Motor Corps during WWII. She moved to Phoenix in 1943 and when the American Unitarian Association sent the Rev Lon Ray Call, whom she knew, out west to form new Unitarian churches, he contacted her. She organized the effort in Phoenix and has a room named in her honor.


Isabelle Johnson’s daughter, Frances Locke, later Bishop, was board president in 1951 when the church was denied the use of the YWCA and built our own building at 800 E. Pasadena but were without a minister for over a year. She served as president again in 1953. Frances had graduated from the University of Chicago in 1929. She did graduate work in education, psychology and sociology at several universities including ASU. She was a teacher and then a counselor for the Child Study Service of the Phoenix Elementary Schools. In 1969 she ran for the Phoenix Elementary District School Board. Long before Red for Ed, she wanted to improve education for all children.


J. D. Filson, president in 1952, was also a teacher. He was chairman of the English department and a drama and speech teacher at North Phoenix High School. A former student said this about him: “He was tall, graying, horn-rimmed, and intense. His classes left me breathless. It was my first experience of the connection between eroticism and the intellect. Mr. Filson insisted that we think of ourselves as adults. When we discussed family relations we were to “relate” to our potential children rather than our soon-to-be-abandoned parents. One day when one of the students used the word “Communist” in a sneering tone, Mr. Filson said: ‘Hey, whoa! Would you like to define Communism for us?” (This was still the early fifties.) He then spent the rest of the hour on Marx, comparing ideological communism to the practice of the Soviet government and also to various forms of Western democracy. He concluded, “When you look at it this way, Jesus Christ was the first Communist. And tomorrow one of your mothers is going to call the principal to tell him I said so.’ “


Charles Purtymun was president from Feb 1953 to Jan 1954. He was a dentist but also interested in education, having earned a BA in education from the Arizona State Teachers College in 1942.  In 1954 he won election to become president of the Phoenix Union High Schools and College District board of education. He won re-election in 1959 on a platform that said teachers and other employees should be recognized and paid according to their proven ability. He was also an avid gardener and president of the Phoenix Iris Society.