In Memoriam: Austin H. Armitstead
December 30, 1924 - February 20, 2009
The phone rang this morning (February 21st). As soon as the voice on the other end identified itself as Alan Armitstead's, I knew the purpose of the call: to report the passing of his father, our dear friend for many, many years, colleague in the United Methodist itinerancy, avid Mets fan, newspaperolic, high average bowler, loving father, devoted husband, octogenarian Austin H. Armitstead. He had been incapacitated by a stroke eight years ago; and over the course of time his physical stamina slowly diminished until these past several months when he was bed-ridden. Providence watched over him, providing him with a nurse (his own Bianca) and her helpers (sons and daughters-in-law), and granting him the good sense to move to Suffolk, Virginia, and a senior residence near to his sons residences.
On August 20, 2005 I posted on this website a tip of the hat in Austin's direction. You may read it by going to A Few of My Favorite Parsons. Austin, appropriately, leads the list.
Several months ago, when Austin's health had taken a turn for the worse, the family sent us an alert to his failing condition. I was asked if, when the time came, I would prepare a eulogy. Here then is my tribute to Austin:
This past May Betsy found StubHub and bought tickets for six of us for Shea Stadium on a Saturday afternoon. CitiField was well on the way to completion, beyond left and center fields. A large sign with numbers on it counted down the games left before Shea was history. My thoughts turned, as they always do when I am in that space, to Austin. I checked the foul pole at the right field line field level seats, just to make sure my friend wasnít there.
We shared many high times in those environs. Like the two or three games of the New York Titans/Jets, before Namath, when Austin somehow managed to get free passes No. 8 and No. 9 (the first seven went to Cardinal Spellmanís office), and we sat more or less where the apple now rises with every Met homerun. Or the night we watched Nolan Ryan (his mother-in-law was Austinís parishioner at Bay Ridge UMC) strike out the Milwaukee Braves in the last inning of the pennant series in 1969. That was the same night Austin broke a tooth on one of the hard roll roast beef sandwiches I brought along for our sustenance. And more recently, in October 2000, the Subway Series, Austin made room for me in the handicapped section of Shea as we delighted in the only game the Mets took over the Yankees.
Wonderful memories. So I think it only appropriate that Shea should be history when the Mets No. 1 Ecclesiastical Fan is going the way of all flesh. The coincidence maybe isnít. Think ďGrandfatherís Clock.Ē Only Austinís trophy isnít a clock but a stadium. He was there at its birth and when Austin goes to his eternal reward, the stadium will be no more. You may think this comparison is a stretch; but, consider, in what place, other than home and church, has Austin spent as much time as in the green cathedral near the old Worldís Fair grounds?
Austin joked that humility was his best sermon. Many a joke in earnest. He certainly saw himself as supporting cast, not the star; the king-maker, not the king; or better, the bishop-maker, not the bishop. His memory album on the wall and in his heart is stuffed with those whom he helped along the way. Like John Lindsay, mayor of NYC, at whose inaugural ball Austin included me. We had ringside seats and got a close up look at Salvador Dali.
During these last several years, as time was running out for Austin, he put together his memoir. He took as the theme of his life the epigram by Edwin Markham:
He drew a circle that shut me out--
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
Austinís gospel was the inclusive circle. He practiced it wherever he served the church, but most notably at Community Church in Jackson Heights. While pastor there he discovered the perfect symbol for that gospel, the lapel pin people up and down Long Island and around the world wear as a gift from Austin.
One final personal note: I have been heard to say on numerous occasions that wherever Austin is, Bob Howard wonít be far behind. HCA and CFA of the New York Annual Conference. George I. Seney Society. Brooklyn Division of the Protestant Council of Churches. Brooklyn United Methodist Church Home. Even bowling! in the Bay Ridge Church League, where he had a 180+ ABC average and I never managed to get above 156. I tagged along and Austin promoted me, again and again.
My friend Austin, I know what he will be ordering at the great banquet feast of heaven, a Sizzler steak, go easy on the onions and never, no never, put a fresh tomato slice on his plate. My friend Austin, I know what he will be peering out the window of the Fatherís House to see, how his beloved Bianca and their children and their spouses and children are doing, casting a glance more than every once in a while toward Corona Queens and that new ballfield.
Iíve written a couple of wedding messages this week, for a ceremony now past and one coming. In them Iíve stressed the need and the wisdom of living in love not only with each other but with all others. Austinís Amen to that sentiment echoes all the way to West Hartford. He lived and loved and was loved and shared that love, in a robust life and ministry; but nowhere more certainly than in his last days, when, held in the embrace of a helpmate of nigh unto sixty years, with children as ready to help him as he was them when they were young and not so young, he slipped away from us.
But not too far away and not too long. Hey, wherever Austin is, can Bob Howard be very far behind. Pal, save a place for me.