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Paul Sawyer dies at 75; Unitarian Universalist minister, peace and social justice activist

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The Rev. Paul Sawyer, a Unitarian Universalist minister and peace and social justice activist whose landmark, onion-shaped former sanctuary in the San Fernando Valley was the site of one of the Merry Pranksters' famous "Acid Test" gatherings in the 1960s, has died. He was 75.

Sawyer, who most recently was minister of Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, died June 23 at his home in Pasadena after a four-month battle with pancreatic cancer, said his wife, Susan.


FOR THE RECORD:
The Rev. Paul Sawyer: The obituary in the July 11 California section of the Rev. Paul Sawyer, a Unitarian Universalist minister and activist who was arrested for blocking the gates of San Quentin State Prison in 2004 before the execution of convicted quadruple murderer Kevin Cooper, said that Cooper was executed in 2004. Just hours before his scheduled execution, Cooper won a reprieve from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on a technicality. In November 2009, Cooper lost his last appeal when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review his case. He remains on death row. —


An inspiring and persuasive speaker with a deep, resonant voice, Sawyer was known as a passionate advocate for social justice who believed that one's values weren't worth anything unless one was prepared to go to jail for them.

Over the last five decades, he was a leader in scores of nonviolent civil actions against war, nuclear power and the death penalty. In the process, he frequently was arrested. "I stopped counting at 60," his wife said.

Sawyer's arrests included those for blocking the gates at San Quentin State Prison for almost every execution in California since the state resumed the practice in 1992.

"We'd be out here whether he was guilty or innocent, because it is wrong to take another human life," Sawyer told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004 before the execution of Kevin Cooper, a quadruple murderer.


FOR THE RECORD:
The Rev. Paul Sawyer: The obituary in Sunday's California section of the Rev. Paul Sawyer, a Unitarian Universalist minister and activist who was arrested for blocking the gates of San Quentin State Prison in 2004 before the execution of convicted quadruple murderer Kevin Cooper, said that Cooper was executed in 2004. Just hours before his scheduled execution, Cooper won a reprieve from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on a technicality. In November 2009, Cooper lost his last appeal when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review his case. He remains on death row. —


Paul Sawyer was a lion, he was a poet and he was an activist, and he was probably one of the most dedicated people for making the world a better place than anybody I ever knew," said '60s icon Wavy Gravy, a longtime friend who was arrested a number of times with Sawyer at San Quentin.

Born June 27, 1934, in Lynn, Mass., and reared in Saugus, Mass., Sawyer attended Phillips Academy in Andover before graduating from Harvard College with a degree in social psychology in 1955.

After graduating from Starr King School for the Ministry, a Unitarian Universalist seminary in Berkeley, he became minister of the Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Van Nuys in 1958.

Under his leadership, the congregation participated in the founding of the Fair Housing Council in the San Fernando Valley.

During Sawyer's tenure, the church also built the distinctive Sepulveda Unitarian Universalist Society building in what is now North Hills.

That's where the Merry Pranksters arrived in their psychedelically painted, converted 1939 school bus in February 1966.

Sawyer first met Pranksters leader Ken Kesey, the author of " One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," when Kesey and the Pranksters showed up at the annual California Unitarian Church conference at Asilomar State Beach on the Monterey Peninsula.

As Sawyer recalled in his recently published book, "Untold Story: A Short Narrative History of Our Time," Prankster Ken Babbs called to ask if they could put on an Acid Test at his church the next evening.

"I said he could as long as he didn't give out acid to the audience," Sawyer wrote, describing an Acid Test as "a happening of music, dance and costuming where participants got high on LSD (which was not yet illegal)."

(Kesey was in Mexico at the time, having fled the state after a second offense for possession of marijuana and violating probation.)

In his 1968 book, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," Tom Wolfe described Sawyer's church as a "marvelous modern building shaped like a huge Bermuda onion" and forming a towering dome with "fantastic acoustics."

"So the Pranksters moved in and wired and wound up the place, and hundreds arrived for the 'happening,' partaking in Prankster magic and pineapple chili, which was a concoction the Pranksters served," Wolfe wrote.

As Beat movement legend Neal Cassady and Wavy Gravy (then still known as Hugh Romney) stood at microphones and spontaneously bounced words and thoughts off one another, people were "dancing in the most ecstatic way and getting so far into the thing, the straight multitudes even, that even they took microphones, and suddenly there was no longer any separation between the entertainers and the entertained at all, none of that well-look-at-you-startled-squares condescension of the ordinary happening," Wolfe wrote.

"Hundreds were swept up in an experience, which built up like a dream typhoon, peace on the smooth liquid centrifugal whirling edge…."

The "dream typhoon" had one drawback: The pineapple chili that Wavy Gravy's wife had made, he recalled, burned on "the church's hot plate, and they flushed it down the toilet, and it plugged up their whole plumbing works."

Susan Sawyer said her husband "was not part of the ongoing [Pranksters] troupe," but he often traveled on their bus, including going to Woodstock with them in 1969, and remained friends with Kesey until his death in 2001.

After he left the Valley church in 1966, Sawyer ministered in Seattle; Salem, Ore.; Berkeley; Pittsburgh; Plainfield, N.J.; and Pasadena.

He and his wife also established Unitarian Universalist fellowships in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia, in the early 1990s before Sawyer became minister at the church in Pasadena in 1996. He remained there until 2004, when he became emeritus minister.

Sawyer, who was a scholar of American Transcendentalism and ancient Chinese texts, was a founder of the Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace. He also served on the boards of the United Nations Assn. and the Jackie Robinson Center in Pasadena and served on the city charter reform task force.

In addition to his wife, Sawyer is survived by his children, Sharlyn, Shanda, Katherine, Adam and Alexander; a sister, Charlotte Lacey; and a brother, Alan.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Sept. 25 at Sepulveda Unitarian Universalist Society, 9550 Haskell Ave., North Hills.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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