A Catskill Catalog: December 5, 2012

Met a woman from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. “Oh,” I say, “A wonderful Presbyterian minister is in Chambersburg. Used to be a pastor in our little town. Bill Harter.”

“Reverend Harter performed the service for my husband’s memorial,” she told me. “He’s a fine man.”
Many reading this will remember and agree. Bill and Linda Harter served as co-pastors of Margaretville-New Kingston United Presbyterian Church from the late ’60s through the late ’70s, a perfect time for these two bright, educated, and compassionate activists who straddled the oft-separated worlds of church, state, popular culture and thought-filled living.

I met Bill when I got here. I think that must have been true for nearly every pilgrim who retreated to the mountains in the last years of the youth-decade. Bill was like that, the big, smiling, crew-cut guy in the Hawaiian shirt with the warm hand-shake and sincere, “Nice to meet ya.”

He was trying to interest every potential home-buyer in the Catskills to consider buying one of the old, run-down farms, this one that he toured my friends and I through was the Harry O’Connor place, up in the head of New Kingston, a hundred some-odd acres with a empty and serviceable farmhouse and a run-down barn. At 25 or 30 or 35 thousand dollars, it was out of my price-range, which at that time didn’t extend much past zero.

But that was Bill, too. He’d figure out a result he would like to see happen – young families keeping abandoned mountain-farms whole by buying them for homesteads – and then devise a strategy to get there, even if it meant an energetic (and financially disinterested) real estate tour with a pair of young couples neither of whom had that proverbial pot to pee in.

Energetic. That was Bill. Still is, I’d bet. Energetic and out-going, gregarious and driven. After leaving the Catskills, Bill served 31 years as pastor of Chambersburg’s Presbyterian Church of Falling Spring. Today he is Pastor Emeritus. Linda died a couple of years ago. She was a great person.

As Bill was ebullient and, perhaps, a bit loud. Linda was quiet and self-contained, generous with her time and attention, but always, seemingly, a little uncomfortable, a bit self-conscious, maybe even shy. Not that you’d know it by the footprints she left. In the hospital – parishioner or not – Linda was there, for a visit, and an encouraging chat. Together, Bill and Linda were quite a team. They had a gaggle of kids, including a pair of twin girls, and a boy, Lee, named for Jesus’ home province.
Bill’s Wednesday night discussion group for teenagers helped a generation of kids explore new avenues of thinking, adjust to their rapidly-changing feelings, and measure their own values and beliefs in the context of timeless moral and spiritual principles. Teachers lightened-up on Wednesday night homework. Teens had serious thinking and discussion to pursue – away from school! What a help that was educationally.

In 2006, the American Jewish Committee honored Bill with the Isaiah Award, recognizing extraordinary achievement in interreligious affairs. Bill has always been a vocal advocate for mutual understanding and joint action among Christians and Jews, a tireless critic of anti-Semitism, and a champion of Israel.

On October 6, 1973, Bill and several of his fellow churchmen were in a commercial airliner, preparing to take-off from the airport in Cairo, Egypt.

“Five representatives of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. had spent five days in Cairo, interviewing religious and political leaders about prospects for peace in the Middle East.” These are Bill’s own words, taken from a front page Catskill Mountain News article he wrote, published the following December, called, “What was it Like in Cairo When War Broke Out.”

“We were on the tarmac when the airport officials ushered us back into the terminal. Soon martial music came over the loudspeaker, then a newscast in Arabic. I asked a young Jordanian who was there with us what the announcer was saying. He replied, ‘Egypt has attacked Israel across the Bar-Lev line, and Syria has attacked in the Golan Heights, and the countries are at war.’”
Pretty gripping eyewitness account of the sudden start of the Yom Kippur War, this one written by a mountain friend and neighbor who just happened to be there.

Bill goes on to tell of two fraught, anxious weeks spent in a Cairo hotel, replete with dust-covered foreign correspondents trekked in from Bengazi, Libya; blacked-out storefront windows; car headlights painted blue; lots of rumors and very little information that sounded remotely true. Foreigners, especially Americans, were treated well by both the Egyptian government and the Egyptian people. In fact, Bill notes that, “Egyptians tend to be outgoing and demonstrative and they appreciate the openness, exuberance and democratic approach of Americans.”

They got an exuberant one in Bill, who is remembered by many, in this part of the Catskills, as an exemplary pastor and man. From 1967 to 1977, he ministered, here, to the left out, as well as the included in. He and his late wife made the Catskills a better place.
billbirns@gmail.com