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Richard Kimball, 72; his ministry not limited by church walls

Rev. Richard Kimball, in a lighter moment during the wedding of Kim and Bob Porter. Rev. Richard Kimball, in a lighter moment during the wedding of Kim and Bob Porter.

In his career as a minister and teacher, the Rev. Richard George Kimball did much more than lead congregants in the tenets of the Unitarian church. He practiced what he preached and taught by example.

For four decades he worked out in the community, as well as inside the church. He counseled and offered support to people with disabilities in group homes, said Gerry Wright of Jamaica Plain, a direct care worker in Boston with agencies that help homeless teenagers.

"He was a man rich in humanity," said Wright. "He was living the Gospel with everyone he met."

The two men were students at Boston University when they met in the late 1950s. Rev. Kimball presided at Wright's wedding, as he did for so many friends and so many strangers.

A man with a genuine interest in people, he did not remain a stranger for long, however. He spent time with each couple prior to their wedding so he could better personalize the ceremony. And he put the same concern into funerals, going to the home of the deceased to learn more about the individual so he could personalize his eulogy, friends said.

Rev. Kimball was in Westerly, R.I., last month to perform a wedding when he died unexpectedly on June 23, hours before the ceremony. He had attended the rehearsal the night before and retired to a bed-and-breakfast. When he did not arrive to perform the ceremony at 2 p.m. the next day, it was discovered that he had died during the night. The wedding was performed by another minister who had been at the rehearsal and had listened to Rev. Kimball interact with the couple.

The cause of death, said his former wife, Dierdre of Jamaica Plain, was arteriosclerosis cardiovascular disease. Rev. Kimball was 72 and lived in Jamaica Plain.

Rev. Kimball served in a number of area churches. From 1990 to 2001, he was at First Universalist Church of Essex, said its current pastor, the Rev. Art McDonald.

"Richard was a very jovial fellow who bonded nicely with the parishioners," he said. "He had a great loving heart."

Longtime member of First Universalist Fran Pierce, with her husband, Roger, started One World Coffeehouse in the basement of the church to raise funds, and Rev. Kimball was always there to help out, she said.

"Dick was very sociable and loved to talk to people," she said.

Teaching had long been a big part of his life and he did much of that as an adjunct professor in behavioral science, history, and other subjects at Bunker Hill Community College for the past 10 years.

"He was perpetually inspired by the quality and diversity of staff and students engaged in improving themselves and the world around them," Dierdre said. He lived most of his adult life in Cambridge and Boston, she said, where he indulged "his love for books, libraries, universities, and people."

His love for learning was contagious, said Judith Graham, staff associate at Bunker Hill. He tutored students in any subject, she said.

"Richard was a spiritual person and a very humble person," Graham said. "He loved the different ages and ethnic backgrounds of the students."

And he was popular with them.

"Richard was easygoing and nonjudgmental," said Mark Fisette of Malden, a former psychology student. "He talked to us as individuals and made things understandable."

Fisette said he also appreciated Rev. Kimball's "dry British sense of humor."

Another former student, Mugunthan Thangarajah from Sri Lanka, who took a class on Western civilization, said Rev. Kimball "gave great respect to students."

"If one came to class not well prepared, he would talk about the events and made us understand them even better," Thangarajah said. "He always encouraged us to do better."

He was born in Fitchburg to accountant Charles Tarbell and Ivonnetta (Bickford) Kimball. He graduated from Fitchburg High School in 1952.

He was able to go on to higher education, his former wife said, with partial scholarships from the Unitarian church in Fitchburg. He made money to pay for the rest of his expenses by waiting on tables and doing historical research.

Wayne Ferson of Hampton N.H., also belonged to the Fitchburg church. Even back then, Ferson said, Rev. Kimball, whom he called his best friend, seemed meant for the ministry.

"Dick was a people person," he said. "He'd talk to you about 10 minutes and know all about you. He brought the Bible to life by equating it with people he knew."

Rev. Kimball earned a bachelor's degree from Tufts University in 1956.

In 1959, he received a master of divinity from Harvard Divinity School and a master's degree in education from Boston University in 1967.

A lifelong Unitarian-Universalist, he was ordained in June 1959 at Arlington Street Church in Boston, where he had served as an intern while in divinity school.

He and Dierdre married in 1970 and had a son, Jordan, two years later. They divorced in 1986, but remained good friends.

In addition to serving in a variety of churches in Greater Boston, he spent a year serving at a church in Stockport, England, his former wife said.

"He adored England," she said. "Its people and its pomp and circumstance."

It was only the lack of central heating he disliked, she said.

Through the years, Rev. Kimball also worked for human service agencies and as a counselor, said his former wife.

She described her him as "an unabashed liberal and optimist, hopelessly addicted to the news" and "an avid proponent of progressive environmental policies."

What made Rev. Kimball special was his ability to connect with people and to inspire, said friends.

"Richard could turn tragic losses into inspirational lessons for living," said his friend, James Lesnick of Jamaica Plain. "When you were talking about something, he might quote someone from literature or a philosopher."

Another friend, the Rev. Terry Burke, minister at First Church in Jamaica Plain, said his influence was keenly felt.

"It's clear that Dick had touched deeply the lives of many," Burke said. "He was a deeply empathetic person. He was instilled with an exceptional grace, which inspired human relations. He felt the world could become a much better place if there was more good will among people."

In addition to his former wife, Rev. Kimball leaves their son, Jordan, who works for Action Against Hunger in Kissidougou, Guinea.

A memorial service will be held in Goddard Chapel at Tufts University at a later date.

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