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Christian Ethicist William Waldo Beach Dies at Age 84

Christian ethicist and retired Duke University Divinity School professor William Waldo Beach died Thursday at The Forest at Duke in Durham after suffering a stroke. He was 84. Beach, professor emeritus of Christian ethics, was the Divinity School's longest tenured professor when he retired in 1986 after 40 years of teaching. He was also an accomplished musician, singing with the Durham Civic Choral Society for more than four decades, composing original songs and writing two books about lesser known Christmas carols. "Waldo Beach was a wonderful colleague, scholar, teacher and friend," said L. Gregory Jones, dean of Duke Divinity School. "He was a prophetic pioneer on civil rights; a hymn writer and lover of music; and a faithful and dedicated church man who loved his family deeply. He leaves an extraordinary legacy of ethical commitment and friendship." Born in Middletown, Conn., Beach earned his bachelor of arts degree from Wesleyan University in 1937 and his bachelor of divinity from Yale University Divinity School in 1940. Four years later, he received his Ph.D. from Yale's Graduate School. Beach began his academic career in 1942 as associate professor of religion and pastor at Antioch College in Ohio. A year later, he married his wife, Mary, who was then assistant dean of women. The couple moved to Durham in 1946 when Beach joined the Duke faculty. His work over the next four decades centered on promoting awareness of the social implications of the Gospel for race relations, ecology, technology and economic issues. From 1959 to 1969, he served as Duke's director of graduate studies in religion. A civil rights advocate, Beach was active in the 1950s in the Intercollegiate Christian Council, which was made up of students from Duke, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and what was then known as the North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University). He led a quiet protest against the Duke Chapel's then-traditional segregation of white and African-American worshipers when the eminent theologian Reinhold Niebuhr preached on campus. Beach presented the Divinity School's petition for integration to the Duke administration in the late 1950s and supervised the Ph.D. dissertation of the first black student who earned a doctorate in Duke's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Beach's classes on the church and state, social ethics and technology and ethics were very popular, said D. Moody Smith, George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at Duke and a student of Beach in the mid-1950s. Beach also was a sought after preacher and lecturer on college campuses, Smith recalled. "His death really marks the passing of a generation of scholars in our school," Smith said. "He and a number of others from that era really established Duke Divinity School as a place for serious theological study." Beach wrote and edited eight books, including the highly regarded 1955 book, Christian Ethics: Sources of the Living Tradition, which he co-edited with his mentor and former teacher, H. Richard Niebuhr, Christian Ethics in the Protestant Religion (1988) and Conscience on Campus (1958). He also wrote numerous articles for scholarly journals, including Christianity & Crisis, Duke Divinity School Review, Drew Gateway and Union Seminary Quarterly Review. Beach was a longtime member of Durham's First Presbyterian Church. In addition, he served on the Wesleyan University Board of Trustees and was a member of the American Academy of Religion, American Society of Christian Ethics, American Theological Society and Council on Graduate Studies in Religion. He was a fellow of the Academy of Independent Scholars and the Society on Religion in Higher Education. Beach's wife, Mary, died in April 1999 after an extended illness. He is survived by three children, Dr. Richard Beach of Minneapolis, Minn.; Margot Sullivan of Gladwyn, Pa.; and Elizabeth Ann Beach of Chelmsford, Mass.; and five grandchildren. A memorial service will be held on Monday, Jan. 15, at 1 p.m. in the Duke Chapel. A reception will follow in the Alumni Memorial Common Room in New Divinity