An Examined Life
The Rev. Robert Grant '39 reflects on faith, family, and work
The Rev. Robert Grant ’39 never thought he’d go to college. After all, it was the height of the Depression, and his family barely scraped by on his father’s meager salary as a janitor. Then fate intervened—as it would other times throughout his life, and Grant found himself majoring in philosophy in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences.
“I originally had enough money for one semester,” says the 99-year-old Grant, speaking by phone from his home in Roscoe, N.Y. “But I took on a series of odd jobs, in addition to working as a pastor, and managed to finish my degree. I also found time to minor in history and psychology and to meet my future wife.”
For the next half century, Grant plied his trade as an itinerant pastor and social worker. Eventually, the burden of traveling and caring for his wife, Helen ’39, who succumbed to Alzheimer’s in 2001, took its toll on him, and he quietly withdrew into the background.
The College of Arts and Sciences recently caught up with Grant to discuss the secret of longevity and the importance of a well-examined life.
You’ve always had a thing for philosophy, right?
I majored in it as a basis for theological studies, which I pursued later. I was awarded a two-year fellowship in the philosophy department, in hopes of earning a master’s degree, but I also had to work, serve as a pastor, and support my parents. I passed the two-day written exam and was tops among the five people in my master's program, but I never completed my thesis.
During my two-day exam, I gave Helen an engagement ring. We were married two years later.
What thesis topic were you considering?
I was very interested in language—the language of faith and how it conveyed truth.
Would you give me an example?
I was critiquing a book titled Language and Reality [originally published by Books for Libraries Press in 1939] by Wilbur Marshall Urban. He was an American philosopher interested in the language of poetry and faith, as well as the factual language of science.
What changed your mind about attending college?
A friend of mine planned to enroll at Syracuse; I was invited to go along with him. So I applied and was accepted. In those days, a year’s tuition was $300. I figured that, along with room and board, I had enough money for one semester. And they couldn’t take that semester away from me.
Did you always want to go to Syracuse?
I grew up in Fulton, which is between Syracuse and Oswego, and graduated from high school in 1934. I had no realistic expectations of attending college. My dad was a janitor in a private home, and didn’t earn enough money to finance me. So I took a year off [after high school], and was recommended for a job at the Swiss-based Peter, Cailler, Kohler Swiss Chocolates Company, which later became known as Nestlé. They opened their first American factory in Fulton. We locals called it “The Chocolate Works.”
After I got a job there, the office manager asked me if I was going to stay with the company. Unfortunately, I was honest, and said no. By then, I was thinking about becoming a history teacher. … He said, “Well, we can dispense with your services. Go downstairs, and pick up your salary envelope.” We were paid cash in those days. Afterward, I got some odd jobs, and saved up about $450.
When I got to campus, I went to the employment office, and found ways to earn money, raking leaves, washing windows, and all that. I soon learned about the National Youth Administration, which was part of the Works Progress Administration and helped students such as me stay in college. I think they gave me about $30 a month.
Were you involved with church?
One of my jobs was working in the laundry room at the Hospital of the Good Shepherd. [Founded in 1873, the hospital was later transferred to the University, which operated it on a contractual basis until the 1960s. In 1964, the building was renamed Huntington Hall.] I also found out about a rural church in New London, some 30 miles east of Syracuse, which needed a pastor. By then, I had a license to preach.
As an undergraduate?
Absolutely. I think I heard about the church job—it was at the New London United Methodist Church—at the beginning of my second semester.
New London is a small canal town, between Oneida and Rome. I used to take the train from Syracuse to Oneida, where I’d meet up with one of my church members, who was a [railroad crossing] watchman. I would travel with him to New London. On Sunday nights, somebody would drive me into Rome, where I’d take the train back to Syracuse. That job enabled me to pay for college and my living expenses.
You must’ve been incredibly busy.
I was. That was a typical weekend during the school year. In the summertime, I’d work at the church full-time.
During my senior year, my father suffered a massive stroke. I remember telling his employer around Christmastime that I was considering quitting college and taking over his job. His boss said that it would be foolish for me to drop out, being so close to graduation, so he kept my dad on for $15 a week.
What a blessing, with so many people being out of work.
Yes, indeed. New London didn’t have a parsonage, so, after graduation, I accepted an appointment at the Pennellville United Methodist Church [located north of Syracuse, near the Village of Phoenix], which had a parsonage. My mother and dad ended up selling their home in Fulton, and, along with my brother, came to live with me in Pennellville.
I had a car, by then, so it was convenient for me to work on my master’s degree at Syracuse, while serving the church. I’m afraid the demands of the job eventually caused my studies to suffer.
Money must have been tight, even with working full-time.
During my first semester at Syracuse, I was fortunate enough to live in student housing for only $2 a week. There were five of us in that house. The landlady said that, if we helped pay for gas, she’d let us cook our meals there. That was a big help.
You won’t believe this, but, one week, my roommate ate for 90 cents. I got by on $1.10. … We’d usually get vegetables from the farmer’s market and mix them to together to form something. I don’t think our nutrition was all that balanced. I ate a lot of apple butter.
Were you involved with Hendricks Chapel?
I was pretty active there. One of my responsibilities, during my junior year, was serving as a liaison between Syracuse churches and students, who volunteered as substitute Sunday school teachers. One of them was Don Waful [’37, G’39], who, like me, is almost 100 years old. … In our senior year, Helen and I were selected co-chairpersons of the Syracuse-in-China Committee, enabling us to join the Hendricks Chapel board.
When’s your birthday?
I turned 99 on September 7th. … I guess there are many reasons for my longevity. I know it takes a lot of doctors and a lot of medicine. My family calls me the Energizer Bunny.
As a student, were you worried about the War?
There was a lot of discussion about it. The Reverend Lloyd Stamp, a religious counselor on campus, led a regular discussion group on the subject. Some were for the war, wanting to stop the spread of Nazism; others felt that, as followers of Jesus, we ought not to participate. The Reverend Stamp brought Christian faith into the center of the discussion.
After seminary, you returned to Central New York. You probably know the area like the back of your hand.
I came back from the Chicago Theological Seminary in 1945, and was assigned to a parish under the Methodist Church in Altmar, near Pulaski [a village between Syracuse and Watertown]. I was a pastor at several rural churches there, before accepting a call from the Lisle Associated Church and a Presbyterian church in Whitney Point. [The villages of Lisle and Whitney Point are south of Syracuse, between Cortland and Binghamton.]
Following a pastorate in Hall in the Finger Lakes region, I accepted a call from the United Church of Roscoe in the Western Catskills. I was their pastor for 12 and a half years, before becoming the first social worker at the Roscoe Community Nursing Home [since renamed the Roscoe Regional Rehabilitation & Residential Health Care Facility], which opened in 1970.
And you retired there, a decade later.
If I’d known I was going to grow to be so old, I might’ve stayed there another 10 years.
Something tells me that retirement doesn’t come easily to you.
I took my job as a pastor and a social worker very seriously. They were quite time-consuming. I guess I could’ve been classified as a workaholic.
Later on, Helen and I had a large garden, which kept us pretty busy during the summer months. We also attended concerts and dramas—that sort of thing. I've done a lot of letter writing, and I work out three times a week, from six to seven in the morning.
Letter writing has turned into a form of ministry—you know, writing to people in joy and sorrow. I’ve discovered that my letters, over the years, have had a lot of meaning to people.
They’ve also been a great way to keep in touch with classmates from SU. When Helen and I went back [to campus] for our 50th class reunion in 1989, she had trouble recognizing people, including those she had been seeing every five years or so. It proved to be the beginning of her journey into Alzheimer’s. For five years, Helen was completely dependent on me. She died in 2001.
I am sorry.
Helen majored in home economics education, but gave up her career to raise our boys. She started substitute teaching after our sons were grown, and then, in 1969, became a full-time teacher for 10 years. I was glad Helen had that long of a career. She was an excellent teacher and enjoyed it.
We were married 58 years, and had two boys. They’re now 68 and 71. I depend a lot on my younger son, who lives about five miles away from me.
I have five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
In addition to your marriage, what did get out of attending Syracuse?
Beyond providing a sound liberal arts education, it widened my horizons incredibly. The content of my courses, the contact with my professors, and the friendships I had with students from diverse backgrounds expanded my vision of the world and of life, in general.
Outside of a trip to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1934, I had never been far from home, until college.
What do you think is the greatest virtue?
Love is the greatest virtue. I’ve come to believe in the primacy of love and of the kind of living that issues from it.
I'm fascinated with a little phrase in the First Letter of John: “God is love.” … When we love, we are with God—maybe not love as affection, but as willing the good of others. Sometimes, we fail to trust the power of this love, but, in the end, in spite of violence, it will win the day.
What’s the real secret to growing old?
Science says it’s my genes; faith says it’s the grace of God. It’s just a gift.