G. Peter Fleck (February 26, 1909- February 27, 1995) was an international banker and venture capitalist who was a major presence in Unitarian Universalist denominational affairs. He was a lay preacher, member of local and national governance boards, author of three books of inspirational essays, and, late in life, an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister.
Peter was born in Amsterdam to parents who had immigrated to the Netherlands from Cologne and Prague. His parents, non-practicing Jews, brought him up without formal religious education or affiliation. After attending the Amsterdam Lyceum, he studied banking at the International Trade Institute in Vienna. He served banking internships in England, France, Germany, and the Netherlands; then worked for a private bank in Amsterdam. He was already a vice-president when he married Ruth Melchior in 1938. The couple escaped from Amsterdam in 1941 and reached New York City via occupied France, Spain, and Cuba.
In New York Fleck resumed his financial career, working at a Dutch bank owned by the Rothschild family. After the war, he founded the Amsterdam Overseas Corporation with the backing of the Rothschilds. He was close to the two Barons Rothschild and became one of their most trusted advisers. He went on to serve as chairman of the New Court Securities Corporation that he helped found in 1967. New Court helped with the initial financing of companies such as Litton Industries, Texas Instruments, and Federal Express. As the firm grew it evolved through a number of name changes and is now Rothschild, Inc., an investment management, venture capital and merchant banking business.
In Amsterdam Fleck had attended a Dutch Remonstrant (liberal Protestant) Church. Searching for something similar in New York, he encountered Unitarianism for the first time at the Church of All Souls. In 1947 the Fleck family, now including the first two of their three daughters, moved to central New Jersey. They joined the First Unitarian Church of Plainfield and were soon active members. In 1953 the minister, H. Mortimer Gesner, Jr, invited Fleck to preach on Layman’s Sunday. Recalling that service in his last book, Come as You Are, Fleck said, “I experienced for the first time that one preaches God’s word-and not one’s own. In the pulpit you are a conduit for something that is beyond you. . . . What is being done is being done through you, not by you.”
Fleck discussed these feelings with Gesner, who encouraged him and offered to serve as his teacher and mentor. Because of his growth as a preacher under Gesner’s tutelage-with the signature Dutch accent he never quite lost-he was increasingly in demand over the next several years. Besides preaching regularly in Plainfield, he filled pulpits as guest minister in churches throughout the Northeast, and even further afield.
In 1960 Fleck was elected a Trustee of the American Unitarian Association. After participating in the consolidation with the Universalist Church of America, he was a Trustee of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) until 1967. He served as Trustee of Meadville Lombard Theological School, 1966-73. That year, now retired from his career with the Rothschilds, he and his family moved permanently to their summer home in South Orleans on Cape Cod where they became full-time members of First Parish Brewster, their vacation church for many years. He was re-appointed as a Trustee of Meadville Lombard in 1974 and served as Board Chair until 1979. During these years he continued his lay preaching, though at a reduced level.
In 1969 Fleck was awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters by Starr King School for the Ministry and in 1973 Meadville-Lombard School for the Ministry awarded him an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws. In 1979, when Fleck retired as Chairman of the School’s Board of Trustees, Meadville-Lombard named a campus building after him.
Once again able to spend more time in his beloved Cape Cod home, Fleck busied himself reviewing, editing, and adding new material to some of his sermons for publication as a book. In this book, The Mask of Religion, 1980, he explored, in elegantly clear terms, the role of reason and science, limits on the concept of progress, the lure of other (Eastern) religious traditions, the influence of our Judeo-Christian heritage, and the ways we can interpret that heritage to build our own spiritual home. “We are in danger of failing [the Judeo-Christian heritage],” he wrote, “by assuming that this heritage claims to represent the truth of religion when in reality it represents the story of that truth, the metaphor about that truth. That metaphor demonstrates in history what is beyond history. It speaks to us in terms we know about things we do not know. It uses words for things that cannot be expressed in words, concepts for things that are inconceivable, images for things that are unimaginable. It addresses the truth by suggesting it and pointing to it, by evoking it and implying it. Yet this metaphor is not that truth and should never be confused with it.”
At the 1983 General Assembly, with Fleck at age 74 seemingly at the end of his career, the UUA bestowed its highest honor on him, the annual Award for Distinguished Service to Unitarian Universalism, “in recognition of a life of dedication to the denomination as a lay leader in Plainfield, New Jersey, board chair of the Meadville-Lombard Theological School, chair of the Beacon Press Advisory Committee, author of The Mask of Religion, and other services to liberal religion.” This honor was prelude to yet another career.
In 1984 James Robinson, minister of First Parish Brewster, asked Fleck if he would accept ordination. Fleck hesitated, but finally said yes, provided that Robinson understood he would actively involve himself in the Unitarian Universalist ministry. At age 75 Fleck was ordained by the congregation of First Parish Brewster and appointed minister associate of the congregation. The charge to the minister was given by Dana McLean Greeley, President of the UUA during Fleck’s service on the Board. The sermon was preached by Eugene Pickett, the then current President of the UUA. Fleck continued to preach monthly at his home church until 1991. He also provided pastoral care and taught adult classes. In addition he increased his already frequent preaching at four other Cape Cod Unitarian Universalist churches: the Provincetown Meeting House, where he was Honorary Pastor; the Chatham Fellowship, where he was Minister in Residence; the Falmouth church; and the Barnstable church. He performed other ministerial functions for these congregations. His ministry drew to a close in 1992.
During these final years of incredibly busy and rewarding ministry, Fleck completed two more books. In 1987 he finished The Blessings of Imperfection: Reflections on the Mystery of Everyday Life, and in 1993 Come As You Are: Reflections on the Revelations of Everyday Life. In the latter he reflected upon aging and mortality: “Inevitably, growing old means losing our witnesses, and, in a way, losing our life. When there is no longer anyone to check with about a forgotten name, no one to discuss distant events, it means that the past dissolves. But at least I have written these words about my witness, and perhaps in some small way they will outwit the passage of time. I know it will be at best for a short while only, beyond which looms the inscrutable mystery.”
Family and personal data were supplied by Fleck’s wife, Ruth M. Fleck and his oldest daughter, Dr. Ann Fleck-Henderson. The photo was taken and is courtesy of Ruth M. Fleck. James Robinson, Minister of First Parish Brewster Unitarian Universalist Church, 1982-2002, provided personal recollections of Fleck’s career as a minister. Information about Fleck’s work for the UUA is in the Wiggin Library of the Meadville-Lombard Theological School in Chicago, Illinois and at the UUA Office of Information and Public Witness. The Order of Service for Fleck’s ordination ceremony and two very informative newspaper interviews with Fleck from The Orleans Oracle (December 10, 1987), and The Cape Codder (December 15, 1987) are at the Andover-Harvard Divinity Library. There are obituaries in The New York Times and The Boston Globe.
Article by Walter Herz
Posted August 15, 2006