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Issue Date:  January 20, 2006

Noted religion journalist dies at 71

Friends recall Tracy Early's ecumenism, faith and 'good cheer'

New York

“Tracy Early was a wonderfully paradoxical man,” recalled his editor of many years Thomas Lorsung at a memorial service for the journalist Jan. 7 in Christ Chapel at Riverside Church here. An ordained Baptist minister, Early reported on the Catholic church “as if he were a daily communicant,” said Lorsung, retired director of the Washington-based Catholic News Service.

Early, 71, died Dec. 16 at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York after a five-month illness. He was buried Dec. 22 in his hometown of Snyder, Texas.

Jim Lackey, general news editor at CNS, called Early “the face of Catholic News Service in New York City … not only for the years of coverage he gave us on numerous important stories, but also for being our ambassador.”

“He had the ability to take complex events in the church and society and interpret them for readers with grace and wit. The Catholic press will miss him, its readers [will miss] his excellent prose,” wrote CNS director Tony Spence following Early’s death.

Early’s byline appeared in NCR for more than a quarter-century and also ran in World Council of Churches’ publications from Geneva; in Religion News Service, The Christian Science Monitor, The Tablet of the Brooklyn diocese, and several Protestant news outlets.

“Coming from an unglamorous Scurry County, Texas, he thrived in glittery Manhattan, even to the point of being able to live in a rent-control apartment,” Lorsung said. “A freelance writer in a pricey city, he refused any safety net of predictable compensation, saying he wanted a daily challenge to make a living by working hard and constantly.”

His friend, the Rev. Charles Brewster, spoke of Early’s humility, understatement, humor and simple lifestyle. Paid by the article, “the amount was barely enough to keep the wolves from the door,” said Brewster, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Forest Hills in Queens.

Brewster urged Early to take a camera along on assignments to boost his income. But the writer was offended, he said. “His work was his writing. It was straightforward, precise and always accurate.”

Early was loath to talk about himself, Brewster said. “He knew he did his work well. He didn’t need anyone to confirm it. He just needed the check in the mail.”

The journalist’s friend and travel companion, Doris Dyke, recalled Early as “steadfast in relationship with Christ” and his worship of God through prayer, liturgy and study of Biblical theology. The pair had met at New York’s Union Theological Seminary in 1960 when both were working on doctoral degrees in theology.

In her remembrance, Dyke took Early’s friends and colleagues attending the service, back to the “heady time” at Union when Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich and James Muilenburg taught there; Karl Barth was a guest lecturer and John Bennett was in ascendancy. A Catholic was running for president and the Second Vatican Council was underway.

Although Dyke left New York after graduation, the pair stayed close for 45 years. In one of his many letters to her, Early wrote that his “own religious orientation seems to have more affinity for Tillich’s approach of living on the boundary between church and world, rather than Barth’s explicit evangelical commitment. But somehow I’ve wound up admiring Barth as a person much more. Barth at the end of his life was visiting prisoners and preaching the Gospel to them, while Tillich was shining with the Harvard intellectuals and taking pride in not going to church. I cannot quite see how a Christian theologian can say meeting with fellow Christians for prayer and praise and celebration of communion is optional.”

Early’s interest in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue began at Union and continued throughout his life. In 1980 the World Council of Churches published Simply Sharing, in which he probed the economic and power-sharing questions that still affect the ecumenical movement. “Most giving churches are in countries of economic power,” he wrote. “What does this imply in terms of political and cultural dominance by the rich over the poor?” Early reminded his readers, “We are all receivers, and that Christ is the one who gives everything to all.”

Fr. Jim Gardiner, who knew Early for more than 30 years, said, “He embodied ecumenism to the point that it took me several years to realize that he wasn’t Catholic. He was so knowledgeable and so respectfully inquisitive and so personally supportive and so human.” Gardiner, a Franciscan Friar of the Atonement of Garrison, N.Y., added that he would long remember Early’s “sign off” for telephone conversations: “ ‘Be of good cheer.’ That phrase, it seems to me, sums up his outlook and the Christian life as well.”

A graduate of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and Southeastern Baptist Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., the Southern Baptist Convention ordained Early in 1957. After obtaining his doctorate from Union in 1963, he spent two years as an Army chaplain and four years as pastor of a Baptist church in Urbanna, Va.

In his final days in the hospital and in a nursing home, Early had visits from Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Vatican representative to the United Nations, and from one of the cleaning women in his apartment building, who brought him white lilies. “He received both with equanimity,” Dyke said.

Many attending the memorial recalled Early’s soirees in his book-lined apartment on the city’s upper West Side. The evenings were famous for good conversation, eclectic friends, drinks, savories from the neighborhood deli, Zabar’s, and Texas barbecue that Early brought with him after trips home. In his honor, friends hosted a reception replete with Texas beef, wine from his stock and tall Texas tales of Tracy.

Early is survived by his mother, Lillian, 97, of Mason, Texas, and by his brother Grady, also of Texas.

Patricia Lefevere is a longtime contributor to NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, January 20, 2006

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