March 18, 2007April 22, 2007Meeting Report

April 6, 2007

Bill Potts

A Humanist Journey

Bill Potts, 1944 (Photo by SPOT)

Bill Potts, whose photograph here was taken in 1942 by his Uncle Arthur, a famous cartoonist (known as SPOT), made his presentation at the April 6 meeting.

Bill grew up in England, where the established church, the Church of England, is taken for granted—and, these days, largely ignored, except as the de facto venue for the three major rites of passage, which, in true English vernacular, Bill refers to as “hatches, matches and dispatches.”

Bill remembers that he didn’t cry when his mother died, in 1942, because he believed she had gone to a better place. Only five years later, he discarded that belief and, indeed, all belief in a deity.

The prelude to his epiphany occurred during a scripture class (mandatory, one period per week) at Scarborough Boys’ High School. The boy sitting next to him whispered, “You know, I don’t believe in God.” Initially startled, Bill thought it over in the ensuing weeks and concluded that, absent any evidence (and he’d seen none), the idea of a god didn’t make a great deal of sense. He had become a nonbeliever, but was still a long way from becoming a Humanist—and from knowing that a humanist movement existed.

Following their mother’s death, Bill and his sister had been sent to live with their Aunt Mabel in Scarborough. Their father, a Chief Scientific Adviser with the British Admiralty, stayed in the south of England, continuing to fulfill his wartime obligations. On his return, at war’s end, to his original occupation as a Physics teacher, he stayed at Aunt Mabel’s house too (the family house having been leased to relatives until 1948). Aunt Mabel, probably the only Christian in the family (although not a church-going one), had since 1943 made Bill go to Sunday school. One frosty Sunday morning, Bill’s dad awoke to the sound of Bill screaming as Aunt Mabel tried to push him out through the garden gate. He asked, from the bedroom window, what was going on. Aunt Mabel shouted, “Billy wont go to Sunday School.” Bill’s father’s angry response was, “Kick him out of the house on a Sunday if you like—but don’t tell him to go to Sunday school!” Thus ended the last vestiges of Bill’s regular exposure to religion.

Bill emigrated to Canada, specifically Montreal, in 1957 and, in 1960, married Elaine, whom he’d met at the YWCA. Because the Province of Quebec allowed only ministers and priests to perform weddings, they chose a United Church of Canada church, near where Elaine lived. Prior to the wedding, Bill and Elaine had one or two meetings with the minister. At the first meeting, Bill declared that he was an atheist, to which the minister replied, “I don’t know why you’re getting married, then.” Bill patiently explained that the Christians didn’t invent marriage. It should be noted that, at that time, Bill was aware there was a Unitarian church, but was unaware that it wasn’t just another brand of Christianity.

After moving to Toronto in 1960 and starting a family, Bill and Elaine discovered humanism. That discovery was made about 1964 or 1965 in, of all places, the now defunct Weekend Magazine, the Canadian equivalent of Parade. The cover bore the title of the featured article—Sunday School for Atheists. The article described, at some length, the activities of the Montreal Humanist Fellowship. It also discussed the Toronto Humanist Association (THA) and provided some contact names. Bill immediately followed up and, a couple of weeks later, Bill and Elaine found themselves in a meeting in someone’s basement (a typical Canadian meeting place), along with about fifty others (big basement!) who had read the story or who were already THA members.

Needless to say, Bill and Elaine joined the THA and became frequent attendees at meetings. At some point, in common with some of his Humanist colleagues, Bill joined the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA). In 1967, Bill and others went to the CCLA annual meeting, and discovered that the nominating committee had nominated less than a full slate for the board. That was immediately corrected, with Bill being nominated from the floor and subsequently serving for four years on the board, along with a number of very well-known Canadians.

In 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated. Don Heights Unitarian Congregation, in Scarborough, Ontario, decided to hold a vigil and requested that the THA provide a speaker. Bill was the choice and, along with Ken Helms (who spoke to HAGSA last year) and one other person, talked about MLK and the significance of his life and death. Realizing that the Unitarians had a good program for children and good adult social activities, Bill and Elaine decided there and then to become members. Bill was eventually elected to the board and became vice president and program chairman. Bill and Elaine also remained members of the THA and, after a one-year hiatus in Sudbury, in northern Ontario, rejoined the THA where Bill was eventually elected president.

Bill, Elaine and family moved to California in April 1977. During several business trips, Bill had made contact with the Humanist Community of San Jose (HCSJ—now, simply, The Humanist Community) and they joined the AHA and the HCSJ on arrival. Bill served on the board for a couple of years, but because of his frequent travel, declined to accept any of the more onerous board positions.

In his last four or five years in San Jose, Bill did duty most Saturday mornings as an escort at the Mar Monte Planned Parenthood Clinic in San Jose.

Their move to Sacramento, in March 2001, brought changes. Bill had already contacted Anna Andrews, and he and Elaine joined HAGSA immediately. Bill eventually succeeded Margo Gunnarsen as president in March 2002 and is now in his sixth term.

Bill’s talk included interesting sidelights, including his appearance on several TV shows—local, national, and syndicated—and his chairing of a benefit dinner at the Toronto Sheraton Centre hotel in honor of three gay men: Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, USAF, a Toronto Jockey Club steward, and a teacher from Saskatchewan. Other than a TV crew, Bill was one of only four known straight people at the event, the others being Barry Cohn, the Deputy Attorney General of Pennsylvania, the Jockey Club steward’s lawyer, and the lawyer’s wife.

Shortly before moving to California, Bill also attended the 1976 AHA Conference in Amherst, NY, where he was seated at the head table at the awards banquet—next to Humanist of the Year Dr. Jonas Salk. Since then, he has attended over a dozen AHA conferences. (AHA awards banquets no longer have a head table.)

During the questioning at the end of the meeting, Bill was asked what books may have initially influenced his views on religion. His answer: Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian, which had been recommended to him by his father.

Report prepared by Wayne Luney (assisted somewhat by Bill Potts)


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