Gary O: Voice of Putnam

            If you want to meet someone who loves their job, talk with Gary Osbrey. “Gary O,” as he has been known since high school, is co-owner (with his wife Karen) of WINY, the radio station in the heart of Putnam. On the morning I spoke with him, Gary was brimming with excitement. “I just flipped the switch,” he said excitedly, “We’re now broadcasting on FM as well!”  It was fabulous news for this hard working disc jockey who had always dreamed of owning a radio station.

            The pieces of Gary’s life seemed to have come together to lead him to this time and place. Growing up in Coventry RI meant that he was able to attend the only high school in the state with a student-run radio station. Getting a job at WINY (which he imagined would be a short-term experience) introduced him to the attractive station secretary, Karen. They married in 1987. All along, his goal was to own a radio station before he turned forty. On May 31, 2001, just months before that milestone birthday, that dream became a reality.

When Gary reflects on the path that led him here, he shakes his head in wonder at what he describes as the blessings of his life. 

            “I never have to hit the snooze button,” Gary confided, “I’m always glad to come to work.” He’s at his desk by 5:15 a.m. every morning, ready to greet early-morning listeners with a full range of news, sports, and updates on local events. The purpose of a local radio station, Gary says, is to provide news and information and to promote and celebrate the community.

Gary accomplishes that with his enthusiasm and welcoming spirit. His morning talk show is always booked with people eager to share their news. On any given morning, a listener can tune in to high school students describing sports, music, and arts, representatives from the hospital talking about health campaigns, religious communities sharing upcoming events, or politicians outlining legislation that will impact northeastern Connecticut. Life moves at a breathtaking pace as WINY fosters a sense of community in the Quiet Corner.

Gary’s influence and enthusiasm doesn’t stop at his office door. He is a visionary who can help others imagine the possibilities of new ideas. Not everyone who visits Disney World immediately thinks of Putnam CT, but Gary did. Disney’s Light Parade inspired Gary to introduce the idea of the Dazzle Light Parade to his small town. Now seemingly an institution in Putnam on the weekend following Thanksgiving, the idea was initially met with skepticism. Who would want a parade in chilly November? Gary’s perseverance led to the first parade in 2002, when 65 groups and organizations lit up the streets as they walked by appreciative crowds. In 2018 there were 145 entries in what is now a cherished holiday tradition.

That same ability to envision something new led to Gary’s suggestion of the Putnam River Fires. Some folks might have been discouraged when that idea was tabled year after year by town leaders. Not Gary. Finally, as part of Putnam’s 150th anniversary in 2005, the first River Fire glowed on the Quinebaug and drew crowds to the river for music and entertainment. Another beloved tradition was born.

When someone tries to compliment Gary on his accomplishments, he brushes that off saying, “You think I’m busy?  You ought to see my wife!” And it’s true – Karen is involved in multiple community organizations and events, determined to improve the lives of people in Putnam and the surrounding area. Among her many responsibilities, she is the president of the Putnam Arts Council, a member of the Quinebaug Valley Community College Foundation, and president of the Putnam Building Committee which will oversee the construction of the new town hall and library.

This hard-working, dedicated couple recognizes the need to also take care of themselves. Sunday evening dinners are a priority as they carve out time in their busy schedules to reconnect and plan for the upcoming week. An annual “winter hibernation” getaway weekend provides much-needed down time as they unplug and unwind. They seem to realize that the only way they can keep doing the work they love is if they take care of themselves and each other.

“All I want is to live a purposeful life,” Gary explains. This includes quieter activities that also offer a profound impact. Look for him at 7:00 a.m. on Saturday mornings at the Main Street Grill for Bible study and reflection. This group, which is open to anyone who wants to show up, asks the question, “Where have you seen and experienced God this week?” Together they marvel at how God’s love and guidance weaves in and through their lives.

Through his faith, hard work, and dedication, Gary Osbrey enriches the lives of people in northeastern Connecticut.

You can listen to WINY at 1350 AM and 97.1 FM.

Conversation with a LGBT Trailblazer: The Rev. Alice O’Donovan

Alice

God says, “I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…You are precious and honored in my sight, and…I love you.” (Isaiah 43)

Do you remember 1988? 

  • The L.A. Dodgers won the World Series.
  • Lloyd Bentson informed Dan Quayle, “Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.”
  • George Bush assured us, “Read my lips: no new taxes.”
  • Nike told us to “Just do it.”
  • Lemon-flavored Snapple iced tea was introduced.
  • A plane was shot down over Lockerbie Scotland, killing 270 people.
  • Popular movies included Rain Man, Big, and Beetlejuice
  • Some top TV shows were The Cosby Show, Cheers, and Murder, She Wrote.

In 1988, our country was in the midst of the AIDS crisis, a still little-understood disease that was causing terror and panic across the land. By 1988 over 81,000 cases of AIDS had been reported; over 61, 000 people had died.1

In 1988 Alice O’Donovan made history in the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ by being the first openly gay person to be ordained.   It isn’t easy being first. I admire the courage and tenacity that enabled Alice to be a trailblazer and to answer the call to ministry. She was a pioneer and that is never an easy task.

When she and I met recently at a local restaurant to share a delicious lunch of Pad Thai, she reflected on the challenges and blessings of her path to ordination. Even after all these years, the pain and the joy of those memories can bring tears to her eyes.  Along the way she encountered ignorance, intolerance, betrayal, and a myriad of hurtful comments and actions. She also experienced the grace, kindness, care, and encouragement of people who recognized her gifts and supported her calling.

Every time there was a roadblock or challenge to her vision to pursue ordination, God seemed to place a messenger who delivered enough encouragement and grace to enable her to continue.

I am amazed Alice didn’t give up; I am inspired by her faithfulness.  Her home church refused to write the required letter of recommendation for her. The board of deacons instructed the minister to dismiss Alice from their congregation because of her sexuality.  Without a home church, there is no path to ordination.  When the Conference Minister heard about the church’s refusal, he encouraged Alice to persevere because, he said, it was clear that “she had all the requisite gifts to be an excellent minister.”  The Congregational Church in Storrs welcomed her in and invited her to be part of their church family; they were proud to sponsor her as a candidate for ministry.

Then there were the logistical challenges – Alice had to commute over 170 miles each week to take classes at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge. Coming from a busy household with three young children, that seemed completely overwhelming.  A member of her new home church pulled her aside during coffee hour one Sunday. She offered to watch the children and prepare a meal for the time-stretched family every week. This kindly soul looked Alice in the eye and said, “You belong in seminary.” Thank God for people who have both the insight to discern the gifts of others and the practical wisdom to lend a helping hand.

After years of taking classes, writing papers, doing field work, completing requirements, and putting thousands of miles on her car, Alice was finally ready for her Ordination Council.  One minister informed her that he would be attending but planned to vote against her. “It’s too bad,” he said, “you’re so well-qualified and you have all your ducks in a row.  But  you’re gay.”     With that pronouncement on her mind, Alice presented to the Council her paper describing her thesis based on the Apostle’s Creed. The Dean of the Yale Divinity School would later request a copy of her paper to use as an example for future students who needed to clearly define their faith.

The Ordination Council was comprised of a series of questions and answers about Alice’s faith and theology. It also included some who objected to her candidacy and who asked her to declare her sexuality in front of the crowd gathered for that momentous meeting. Finally Alice was asked to go to another room so the community could vote. When she re-entered the sanctuary, the assembly rose to its feet to applaud and cheer as she walked down the long center aisle of the church. Her candidacy had been approved by the voting members, 21-7. Alice O’Donovan could be ordained.

Her first call was to a small, rural church with no running water in Peru, Vermont. In her typical self-deprecating way, Alice maintains that the “minister no one wanted got the church no one wanted to serve.” Yet together they shared the Good News of a God who cares, welcomes, heals, and renews.

In the years since 1988 Alice has served a number of churches.  She compares her different calls as a pastor to the experience of trying on a series of shoes; each successive one fit slightly better than the previous one. I wish her ministry was considered newsworthy simply because she is an excellent preacher and a compassionate caregiver.  Too often, however, it was her sexuality that drew people’s attention.  When she became the pastor of the South Windham (CT) Congregational Church in 1991, the New York Times covered the story and put her picture on the front section of the Connecticut Section.

Alice continues her ministry even as she enjoys semi-retirement. Later in October, she will be the guest preacher when the Westfield Congregational Church in Danielson CT marks its 300th anniversary. Every year she presents a workshop at the True Colors conference, a statewide gathering of LGBTQ youth held on the UConn Campus. She poses the question, “Is the Bible the word of death or the voice of hope for the LGBTQ community?”  She says that the answer to that question is “yes.”

Alice wisely observes that people can prove or disprove almost anything using Scripture; the problem is not God – it is how people misuse the Bible. The most important thing to remember, she says, is that God loves you.  Always.

That has been the ministry of Alice O’Donovan. She has lived out her conviction that all of us are called to serve God.  She says, “Conversion is my favorite game. I want everyone – really, everyone – to know they are loved by God.”   She has watched the world change since 1988 and she has been part of that change. The world – and the church – is a better place because of her compassionate ministry.

1 http://www.amfar.org/thirty-years-of-hiv/aids-snapshots-of-an-epidemic/  Captured October 2, 2015