Obituary: Vernon Visick
Minister, teacher, ethics expert, tireless organizer
Vernon Mansell Visick died peacefully in his sleep on June 18, 2017 in Ontario after a brief kidney infection. He was 78.
Mr. Visick was born in Spokane, Washington. He was the son of John Francis Visick of Long Beach, California and Lorraine Visick (nee Paulson) of San Dimas. He was the eldest of five brothers and one sister in an Evangelical United Brethren pastor’s family. He visited Pilgrim Place in Claremont—his most recent residence—as a seven- and eight-year-old when he spent his summers at Camp Bethel in San Dimas, which his grandfather founded.
He attended public schools in California, started college at Westmont College in Santa Barbara and graduated from Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington. He intended to go to law school, but his time in college raised ethical questions that “could only be settled by some serious theological studies,” he said, and he decided to take a break for a year to study theological ethics. He never went to law school, instead graduating from Evangelical Theological Seminary in Naperville, Illinois. He was ordained in 1964 in the United Methodist Church.
Mr. Visick then went to the University of Chicago Divinity School to study pre-ministerial development. He focused on ethics and society, and religion and personality in order to develop strategies to understand and help resolve whatever conflicts students might be dealing with that impeded their spiritual growth or occupational choice.
With his master’s degree in hand, he went on to become campus minister at the University of Wisconsin–Madison to serve an ecumenical campus ministry, centered at Pres House, with a Danforth Study special assignment to study religion, politics and student development around spiritual and ethical issues. He worked there from 1975 to 1998, and earned the Francis Asbury Award for “creativity in campus ministry programming” in 1996.
His PhD thesis at the University of Chicago Divinity School was on ethics and society. This topic was also the focus for the many seminars, workshops and events he nurtured and created, as well as in his writings.
Mr. Visick taught courses on Christian realism and problem-centered courses on topics such as the ethics of population growth, the ethics of sexuality, ethical deficiencies of mainstream economics and more. He helped organize, and then led for 15 years, the Agenda for a Prophetic Faith in Madison, Wisconsin. It was the largest and longest-running series of lectures on religion and politics in the US. He even served as an academic consultant on “Hellfire: Journey from Hiroshima,” a film focusing on the lives and art of the Japanese atomic artists Iri and Toshi Maruki.
Propelled by the prophetic voice he found in the work of Paul Tillich, Mr. Visick gravitated to people who were concerned about ethics and helped others to seek the prophetic element in their own efforts, family shared.
From 2003 to 2008 he was director of New College-Madison, an “experiment in prophetic ministry,” which highlighted the ethical issues that arise between the church and the research university, looking at the larger issues and implications of what is being taught.
Mr. Visick was also a fellow at the AuSable Institute for Environmental Studies, and a longtime friend, colleague, and advisor to its director Cal DeWitt, with whom he shared a love for discussing the design and nature of institutions, and with whom he founded and led the Academy of Evangelical Scientists and Ethicists.
He was vice chair of Wisconsin’s official state ceremony honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., now in its 37th year. He had served in this capacity since 1987. It remains the oldest official state ceremony honoring the life and legacy of Dr. King.
Mr. Visick was a stalwart supporter of Progressive Christians Uniting, being especially active in the Pomona Valley chapter with the lectureship of Agenda for a Prophetic Faith. He was one of the founders of the inland valley chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby as well as a key organizer of the 2015 conference “Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization,” initiated by John Cobb. During his frequent return visits to Madison for the Oshkosh Air Show, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and other events, he was a regular at Geneva Campus Church where he refreshed relationships with numerous longtime friends, including many staff of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
Mr. Visick continued his interest in environmental, economic, and political ethics while at Pilgrim Place, and had several personal projects. These included pursuing his pilot’s license, learning how to tear down and rebuild a Saab 900 motor, working on his still and video photography and renewing his Nautilus workouts. He also was a fan of male vocal groups (his father had sung in the Navigators Quartet) and Gilbert and Sullivan in all forms.
He had a high regard for Reinhold Niebuhr and the prophet Jeremiah as trustworthy guides for these unnerving days. He was an organizer’s organizer, and a true and loyal friend, his family shared. His companionship, thoughtfulness, passion for justice, keen sense of humor and sharp intellect will be sorely missed. He had a great heart for the “least of these.” He was always pushing all of us to do better. We have lost a great giant of justice for the planet.
Mr. Visick is survived by his brothers John Visick and his wife Christine, Paul Visick and his wife Jackie; sisters-in-law Janet Visick and Holly Gault; his four nephews David, Matthew, Peter and Joshua; and two nieces, Sharon Swain and Jennifer Visick.
A memorial service will be held Wednesday, July 12 at 3:30 p.m. at Pilgrim Place’s Decker Hall in Claremont, with a reception to follow. A service will also be held in Madison, Wisconsin.
Gifts in lieu of flowers may be made to the following charities in memory of Vernon Visick: Citizens’ Climate Lobby at citizensclimatelobby.org; Agenda for a Prophetic Faith at agendaforapropheticfaith.com; or the Academy of Evangelical Scientists and Ethicists at aeseonline.org.