This I Believe: Dick Ottman (1984)

I decided that what I’d do is go through a chronological dissertation so you could see how my beliefs came to be.  My basic premise is that most of your beliefs were given to you at a very early age by your parents and, though you change and though you have some differences with your parents or the people who raised you, most of those beliefs stick with you.  This is so in my case as you’ll find out.

I was born in Appleton, Wisconsin.  Appleton was 32,000 people when I was there, all white, there were no racial problems, a very secluded location in east central Wisconsin.  It was a very nice place to grow up the first 18 years of my life, relatively conservative.  My father, who had some very definite beliefs, was a conservation, pro-management, United Methodist church-goer, and was definitely Republican.  He made his beliefs very well known.  I was the third of three children and when I was three years old, my mother, whose name was Margaret, died.  I don’t remember her.  Gerda’s middle name, by the way, is Margaret, named after my real mother.  A year later my father married another woman who had three children so when I was four, all of a sudden, we had six of us in one house.  Twenty years later, people would come up to me and say, “Oh, I know who you are.  I remember your mother, Margaret, very well.”  It was something that happened very quickly – she was alive and well one day, sick the next day, and dead the next day.  It was very sudden.  What it does is leave you with a very deep feeling of : “Gee, I want to make sure my world is intact; Gee, I’m very concerned about my own kids in case I can’t be here tomorrow.”  A month ago when my boss died and left two little kids, five and eight, I was very shaken inside.  It had a real deep meaning for me.  I think it would to any other father but it had additional meaning to me.

I grew up in this environment.  Every Sunday we were regimented; my step-mother ran the household like a sergeant.  Everything was done on a routine schedule.  We went to the Methodist church every single Sunday and we were there 52 Sundays of the year without fail and no deviation.  There was no stopping for anything.  After a while, I liked going there; I actually enjoyed going there.  I know some of the people in the congregation get up and say, when they were in Protestant faiths, they ran into ministers who turned them off, who threatened them or told them terrible things, that you would go to hell if you didn’t do this or that.  None of that happened at the Methodist church.  The two primary ministers I had contact with when I was growing up were kind, compassionate people.  They cared about and were very concerned about other people.  They were true ministers in the sense of what a minister should be and I remember my sixth grade confirmation the minister said, “This is it.  You better be sure what you’re doing, you only have one life to lead.”  Again, he was not telling us we would get into the promised land if we believed all this stuff.  So I would say these people were relatively liberal Protestants.  They conveyed to me that they really believed in people, believed in helping other people.  One of my sisters graduated from college, moved to Puerto Rico and became more or less a Methodist missionary, helped out in a mission school quite a few years ago.  So all this left quite a residual with me.

I went to a liberal arts Protestant college where we had chapel every week and chapel was boring.  But at college I met Judy.  My mother’s goal in life was to get all six kids married, get them out of the house.  She, of course, was a fanatical housekeeper.  So after meeting Judy and going with her for a few months, I went home and told my mother about the girl I had met.  I described Judy to her and she said, “Gee, she doesn’t sound very good.”  This was a sign, this was a real sign because I said, “This is it!  I’ve found the way to live.”  She was the right woman.  In fact, I was interested in politics and so was she, so we could always talk about that.  But, on top of that my mother didn’t think she was right so that made it perfect – she was ideal.  My mother made living at home very uncomfortable, you could never sit down.  Judy, the 15 years I’ve lived with her, made it very comfortable.  [Judy:  I let him sit down.]  We did get married in the Methodist church.  Judy was a Presbyterian but we got married in my church for logistical reason – we were both very practical.

We had never heard of the Unitarian church but when I was in the Navy in 1970, Judy got me to go to this Unitarian church.  At this time I was becoming very political.  I had fairly deep political faiths and a long-standing tradition of discussing them with my father, with everybody.  I was very active in Republican functions.  But by 1970, I had drifted, I was more moderate at the time and in Illinois there was a U.S. Senate race going on.  The candidate who was running was criticizing principles I deeply believed in so I went and worked for his opponent, who happened to be Adlai Stevenson III.  I was committed to seeing that his guy got elected.

The other thing that happened was, when I grew up, my parents believed that black, Indian, whoever – all the other racial minorities, they were all equal.  There was no discriminatory language ever used.  I believed that this was always true and I believe today that everybody is equal.  You don’t prejudge anybody on their sex, or their religion, or their race.  When I had gone to the Methodist church after I got out of college, I found some people in the church were bigots.  This made me very uncomfortable so I was kind of looking for something else.  Plus, I was actively involved in this political campaign.  We showed up at this classic Unitarian church in a suburb of Chicago and what did I see in the parking lot before I even walked in the door – lots of Adlai Stevenson bumper stickers.  “This is the place!”  There were none of the Ralph Tyler Smith bumper stickers.  I like it immediately.  In the last 14 years I’ve been in the Unitarian church, I really haven’t found a bigot, I haven’t found a racial joke that offended me and that is comforting.  The people here inside this building are not bigots; that was one of the things that helped me go along with being a Unitarian.

The next thing I believed in was that the husband and wife should go to the same church.  We’ll compromise equally go to the same church.  So we dabbled in that for a year or two as I went to school then.  We never really joined but we got our feet wet.  Finally, Judy got pregnant while I was working on my second Master’s degree.  We moved to a new community out in Buffalo, N.Y. when Gerda was less than a month old.  We were 300 miles from the nearest relative, we had no family.  I took this job and was sorry for what I ran into.  I was interviewed by one person, was promoted, the guy I worked for I didn’t really like, and none of my working cohorts could I call my friends.  They had a different set of values than me; I was quite disturbed.

We discovered the Unitarian church.  It was a refuge, a haven.  Within a month we were members.  There was a smart fellow there.  He looked at me as an engineer, and he thought, “I wonder what I can do to get these people active.”  So he said, “Could I refer people to you who are interested in a Thanksgiving dinner?”  Here, Judy and I were going to be out in the middle of foreign territory.  Our Thanksgiving dinner was going to be very lonely – the two of us and Gerda just a couple of months old.  The minister had talked about the idea of having a community Thanksgiving dinner and, needless to say, he found the right person.  I happen to love to get up in front of groups and talk.  Second thing I liked was organizing things and I’m a nuts and bolts person.  Here was a thing I could design – a Thanksgiving dinner like it had never been designed before.  It was probably the best thing I’ve ever done.  All the rest of the designs I have down at the treatment plant, I hang my hat on.  But that Thanksgiving dinner by luck or whatever went off fine.

Within about two months of being in that church, we felt that we had grown up there.  We were a total part of that community, that family.  Next, Judy was concerned about what we were going to do for Christmas.  We found some people that we more or less adopted and we ate two Christmas dinners at different houses.  We got into the church extended family and were very active for three years.

The other thing that happened in Buffalo is the rest of my conversion.  At that point not only was I converted to a Unitarian but also from a Republican to a Democrat.  Another thing that happened was I worked for two bosses who were both totally inhumane people.  They were probably the worst people in the world to work for.  Within a month I went from being a pro-management person, which my heritage had been, to very pro-union.  When we moved here a few years later, the first day at work I joined the union.  The second day at work I went to the meeting to vote on the contract.  I voted no and I became the first president of that local.  I was the guy who was up there as a rabble-rouser.  What had happened was if you ever work for people like this, you go home and blame yourself.  You say it is you because you can’t get along with them.  When you see one or two people like that in a boss position you get very excited about it.  What it amounted to is part of what I believe in – a commitment to organization, commitment to other people and to things like this church.  The organizations that I am in happen to be this church, the labor union that I still have my hand in, and the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party that I believe in.  What do they have in common?  They have a commitment to people, doing things for people.  I’m also active in Common Cause and in Toastmasters, which is a group that gets you to speak in front of groups, another thing I love to do.  So, that’s what I believe in.

There is one more thing about this church that I really believe in.  The principle I believe this church should abide by to keep this place functioning properly is, under no circumstances should we put Dee Smith and Judy Ottman on the same committee.  We have the case of a diverger and a converger and it just doesn’t work.  But the essence of what I’m telling you is that my father was active in a lot of organizations with different goals than mine but I am active in similar things.  He ended up going one way and I ended up going another.  We follow somewhat in the footsteps of our parents but, no matter how you cut it, that is basically where most of your beliefs come from.