John Sidney Hadsell (1921-2016)


The Rev. Dr. John Sidney Hadsell – visionary, educator, mentor, co-author of a seminal book on his beloved San Francisco Theological Seminary and a veteran of the Bay to Breakers race – is a man whose passing must be mourned but whose many accomplishments in service to his profession and his church merit celebration.

Dr. Hadsell died May 3 of a brain tumor at Piedmont Gardens in Oakland. He was 94. A memorial service was held at 3 p.m. May 29 at Montclair Presbyterian Church in Oakland, where he was a longtime member. More than 200 people attended, gathering to hear seven speakers and the church choir pay tribute to Dr. Hadsell’s life.

“John was a ‘people’ person, an egalitarian who always was extraordinarily cheerful and welcoming to everyone,” said the Rev. Talitha G. Phillips, associate pastor at Montclair. “He also was a force in our church, and we appointed him our theologian-in-residence to honor him for his participation.” She noted that recently, he had established the Hadsell Futures Fund at the church “to find speakers to address progressive Christianity and its future,” a program that will continue.

Though Dr. Hadsell’s most recent title at SFTS was professor emeritus, his vision helped propel the growth and development of the seminary. Hired in 1970, he became director of the Advanced Pastoral Studies program. He initiated the Doctor of Ministry program and developed the international component, forging partnerships with churches and theological institutions in Korea and Australia.

For many years, it was the largest D.Min. program among all the theological schools in North America, and is still among the largest today, drawing students from all over the world. Also, with SFTS professor Roy Fairchild, Dr. Hadsell originated the Master of Arts program in Education for Human Values, a program for lay people that was later known as the MA in Values. Dr. Hadsell retired in 1987 as Professor of Continuing Education.

“With John Hadsell’s passing, faculty life has suffered a great loss,” said the Rev. Jana L. Childers, Dean of SFTS. “Not only did John create one of the strongest new degree programs SFTS has ever had, but as a tireless champion for congregational ministries, he shaped the culture of the seminary.”

Childers added, “John was the best kind of educator, fueled by a belief in his students and gifted with deep and long patience. John’s love for the church knew no geographical bounds. Among the many gifts of his three-plus decades of service to SFTS are rich connections he created between the seminary and the global church. A man who transcended his times, he will be sorely missed in ours.”

In retirement, Dr. Hadsell teamed up with Robert B. Coote to write “San Francisco Theological Seminary: The Shaping of a Western School of the Church, 1871-1998,” which was published in 1999. To this day on the SFTS campus, the 324-page volume is often consulted, and is affectionately known as “the Coote and Hadsell.” Coote, who taught Old Testament at SFTS from 1975 to 2010, said it took eight years to write the book.

The two men were colleagues, but also friends for over four decades. “This is a sad loss,” said Coote, who lives in Kensington. Since retiring, the men had met for lunch every other month. Coote recalled that when he and his wife, Polly, first came to SFTS, the Hadsells were their next-door neighbors. “John, who was quite fit, had a jogging group,” he said. “When John was 60 and Polly was 40, the two ran twice in Bay to Breakers in San Francisco, once with the crowd and once much earlier.”

As an educator, Dr. Hadsell was “demanding and firm,” Coote said, but he continuously affirmed people’s abilities and contributions. “He also had a calm awareness that surprises in life all can be taken in stride. John was a multifaceted individual, highly creative and also pragmatic in terms of education, and mild-mannered in a positive sense — he did not talk about himself. He also had a wonderful sense of humor.”

Rowdy headwear often served as Dr. Hadsell’s outward expression of that sense of humor. Jim McDonald, SFTS President, said, “John’s hats were a reminder that life should be always a bit outrageous, that personal style and embracing our inner child were always to be encouraged — an encouragement that we serve a God who glories in our diversity and that nonconformists are a sign of the Holy Spirit, and that we should live our lives with all the color and flare we can muster.”

Dr. Hadsell was named a Distinguished Alumnus at SFTS in 1997. Two years later, he and his wife, Virginia, established the “Faith and the Common Good” lecture, an annual event intended to provide a forum for lay individuals motivated by their faith and doing good in the world.

Born October 29, 1921 in Berkeley, John Hadsell attended University High School in Oakland, the University of California-Berkeley and SFTS, where he earned his Bachelor of Divinity in 1954. He then earned his Doctorate in Education at Teachers College at Columbia University in New York.

During World War II, Dr. Hadsell served as an officer aboard the USS Washington, a Navy battleship. He later worked in Napa as an executive with the Boy Scouts of America. He served as Presbyterian campus minister at San Francisco State University and at Westminster House, the defunct Presbyterian center at UC-Berkeley. He also served as a pastor and teacher in Hawaii, Ohio, Georgia and South Korea.

Dr. Hadsell is survived by his daughter Heidi Hadsell, president of Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn.; and four grandchildren: Cyrus Farivar of Oakland; Alex Farivar of Santa Monica, Calif.; Nena do Nascimento of Maputo, Mozambique; and Martin do Nascimento of Austin, Texas. Dr. Hadsell’s wife of more than 65 years, Virginia T. Hadsell, died Sept. 7, 2011. The two met as youngsters in Sunday school at First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley. His daughter Sydney Hadsell Farivar died Feb. 18, 2010.

At the memorial service, McDonald shared a quote by E.B. White, who wrote, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

McDonald continued, “Savor or save—I suspect that John woke up every day with the dilemma of E.B. White on his heart and mind. I’m going to miss my comrade John. But I will always be inspired by his vision, his spirit and his fierce determination to make the world a better place.”