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Charles Mayer was the campus pastor at Capital University from 1976 to 1990, but he was a product of this institution from the day he started Capital as a student.
Charles was not only a first-generation college attender, he was a first-generation American born to German refugee parents. His parents had third- and sixth-grade educations, and they had little idea of what it meant to send a child away to college. Consequently, they dropped him off in the middle of Main Street with a formal pat on the shoulder and drove back to Cleveland. Soon, Charles realized that school would not begin for another week. Somehow he found the home that was to be his future room arrangement, and the house parents generously allowed him to move in that night.
He studied at Capital as a pre-seminary student. He took one detour from his four years in Columbus, when he and his roommate, John Schramm, decided to spend a semester at Texas Lutheran College. For a boy who had never been out of Ohio and only barely out of Cleveland, this was monumental. Texas was a whole different universe. He referenced that experience often throughout the remainder of his life.
He returned to Capital where he ran track and played football. As he told it, he was knocked out on the football field, and when he woke up he said he thought he would join the Men’s Glee Club. Which he did.
After graduation, he went across the street to enroll at the Lutheran Seminary that was then connected with Wittenberg. He married his first wife, Nancy Weber (class of ’55), while she was still an undergraduate student at Capital. Pastor Mayer served parishes in Ohio – in Warren and Dayton and Cleveland Heights – before being called as pastor of the University. The 20 years he spent on campus was the longest period of his ministry. His two sons, Tim (’82) and Douglas(’80) attended and graduated from Capital University.
In addition to leading Sunday worship services and mid-week Vespers, Pastor Mayer could be found riding his motorcycle or bicycle to and from school. If a student or faculty member was lucky, they might be invited aboard his small sailboat. He led a group of students to the Bahamas over a break, and took students to spend time on a working farm run by parents of a Capital student in rural Ohio. Thus, he expanded the vision many students had of ministry and living a life of devotion to something bigger than themselves. During the wars in the Middle East, Pastor Mayer had special services, and he was part of teach-ins during that period.
Charles was a voice of reason in campus community conversations. His was an open door for students who had the sorts of large and small problems that students have. He was also the confidant of numerous faculty as they balanced their personal lives with their work on campus. He played on the faculty volleyball team and played basketball at lunch with faculty and students.
Just as he had pressed for justice and change in his parishes, through the fighting of redlining and racial integration, Pastor Mayer initiated two practices that were groundbreaking for Capital.
The first was his recognition of the interdenominational makeup of the student population and the need for Catholic worship opportunities on campus. He opened the once-traditional Lutheran services on Sunday morning to include an opportunity for all students to worship together. As he said at the time, “We will do together the things we can share, and do separately the things that are unique and important to all.”
Second, he supported and sponsored gay and lesbian students on campus while also being the sponsor for Lutherans United, a group of young adult LGBTQ youths that met on the campus of Ohio State University. When it was not popular or, indeed, acceptable, he met with and comforted those with AIDS. And he worked with Scot Dewhirst – an attorney who was on the faculty of Capital’s Law School until his recent death – to allow gay and lesbian students to commit to each other legally and then celebrate that commitment with a faith-based service.
Pastor Mayer was part of a group known as Caregivers. It was comprised of administrators who counseled students, and its goal was to ensure that student needs were met and that duplication wasn’t getting in the way of student health. As a group, they sometimes lobbied on behalf of issues such as accessibility to contraception. The group included the school psychologist, the head of the Nursing School, the director of Minority Students, and the director of International Education.
I was the director of International Education at that time. A part of the role of that group was to support each other in roles we knew were demanding and sometimes emotionally exhausting. Charles and I had been friends for many years. His seminary roommate had been my pastor; Charles and Nancy lived on the same street as I; Charles took my sons to Capital basketball games; and I listened – as part of the Caregivers – as Charles talked of his pain in losing Nancy.
Pastor Mayer was known as Chuck throughout his time at Capital. When Charles and I eventually married, we became partners working for the University in a different capacity. Together we developed and ran the Study Abroad and Service Internship Program and taught occasional religion courses and led independent study courses.
Chuck became Charles, which he felt was more suited to the British-like, formal atmosphere of Jamaica. He drove the van all around the windy, narrow roads on that beautiful island. In addition to Capital students, and especially nursing students, the program welcomed enrollees from many other universities, including Harvard, Yale, University of Rhode Island, Washington University, and the University of Santa Barbara. The program ran for four years and was eventually taken over by the University of the West Indies, which had been the Jamaican sponsor.
Charles and I moved to Virginia. For the most part, he remained retired, though he often did supply preaching for pastors in the area. For a year he was the interim pastor at our small semi-rural church, Apostles Lutheran in Gloucester, Va. In 2016 we moved to Tacoma, Wash., to be near some of our family. Charles never lost his sense of humor, his twinkle in the eye, his concern for social justice.
He died on May 23, 2020, at age 89 – as he had always lived. After he did the dishes, he sat in his favorite chair and – without fanfare – died.
He was a credit to the University that raised him, and he in turn added credit and value to the University he served for the bulk of his professional career. All who knew him will have an image of him or a story of what he brought to their life.
As a pastor friend wrote, “What a life Charles lived! He was a visionary seeking to have what the Kingdom intended to be, happen now … as a white male he used his privilege to be the voice of those suffering injustice to seek justice for them and to give them power as a result … as a straight man he used his privilege to be the voice of all of us LGBTQ+ folks who needed allies in power to speak for us when we couldn’t be visible or empowered.”
His memory will live on, and his spirit will inspire those of us fortunate enough to have known him.
Click here to read the obituary for Charles Mayer.