As clergymen go, the Rev. Douglas Allen Dunderdale was big — towering in stature, a commanding presence at the pulpit, prominent in community projects that led to healing of underprivileged citizens of the East End the past three decades.
And then there were these huge hugs given for many of the past 60 years inside and outside of numerous Pittsburgh churches by the broad-shouldered, 6-foot-3, Presbyterian minister sometimes known as “Huggin’ Doug.” His long arms enveloped longtime friends and church newcomers alike, and those on the receiving end felt his heart as much as his hands.
“You knew this was not an affectation,” said Joan Millar, a former elder at Eastminster Church in East Liberty. “He was genuinely glad that you were there, and to hug you was his way of saying, ‘I’m glad you’re here, and I like you.’ ”
Rev. Dunderdale, whose leadership of Eastminster from 1980 to 1994 made a big impression like his pastorship reviving Bellefield Presbyterian Church in Oakland from 1968 to 1977, died Sunday from skin cancer at The Willows nursing home of Presbyterian SeniorCare in Oakmont.
The former Highland Park resident was 89. He lived with his wife, Elinor, the past two decades at an 1800s farmhouse in Rural Valley, Armstrong County, from where the minister still frequently commuted to Pittsburgh for church-related work in semi-retirement.
His combination of devotion to God and community involvement, with positive energy and humor used liberally in both, made Rev. Dunderdale popular among leaders in other denominations as well as for bridging divisions between the Presbyterian Church’s conservatives and liberals. He was a social and theological conservative, but one committed to uplifting those who were disadvantaged.
After leaving Eastminster, he was elected to serve as moderator of the Pittsburgh Presbytery, coordinating the activities and planning of the church’s decision-making body. Within the presbytery, he led an effort to widen its reach to the black community and create more positions for minorities within the church.
When a wide range of Christian churches came together following the 1993 Billy Graham Crusade in the city to create Pittsburgh 2000, an effort to combine their resources for community improvement projects, he was chosen as the first executive director.
Such missions were a far cry from Rev. Dunderdale’s difficult early life, in which an alcoholic father moved the family around the country numerous times while doing prison guard work, before abandoning them when the future minister was in his teens. It was only after a move to California, where he felt a close connection to the pastor and congregation at South Hollywood Presbyterian Church, that his religious faith became central to his life.
He obtained a history degree at the University of Southern California and ran the car-parking operation for the Brown Derby restaurants around Los Angeles before deciding to become a minister. After attending New York Biblical Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary, his first position as an assistant minister was at historic First Presbyterian Church, Downtown, where he would also return part-time in retirement.
While he would also serve churches in Phoenixville, Chester County, and Orange, N.J., his work at both the Bellefield and Eastminster churches was striking.
In the late 1960s, Bellefield was languishing with an older, dwindling congregation, even though it was right across the street from the University of Pittsburgh. He and his associate ministers made a determined effort to attract students, and before long they had 100, and then 200 or more, showing up — including for 11 p.m. weeknight sessions that seemed to suit the young adults’ schedule.
“They filled that sanctuary,” said the Rev. James Moran, one of those young attendees. “Doug made the Gospel relevant … and not only was his preaching important, but he made himself available to everyone for counseling.”
Rev. Dunderdale would arrive early at the church to do his ample reading and other work as most people were just waking up. He was thus available to anyone who needed him during the day, and Rev. Moran, now pastor at Cranberry Community United Presbyterian Church, said Rev. Dunderdale’s guidance influenced probably two dozen young people like himself during that turbulent era to make full-time careers of church-related work.
After a stint in New Jersey, Rev. Dunderdale arrived in the early 1980s at Eastminster in the heart of East Liberty, when the neighborhood was going through hard times. A young family physician, David Hall, went to see Rev. Dunderdale about his hope of setting up a Christian-based clinic to provide health care for those lacking sufficient resources for proper treatment.
“He grabbed me by the arm and took me down to the basement of the church, where there were two big rooms,” Dr. Hall recalled. “He said, ‘You can have the space, and you can start it.’ ”
Rev. Dunderdale used his connections in the religious and foundation communities to help raise the necessary funds to open in 1982 with a single doctor and nurse seeing patients, regardless of ability to pay. The East Liberty Family Health Care Center, with the minister as longtime board chairman, grew into two new medical offices in East Liberty and Lincoln-Lemington, plus a dental clinic. A medical staff of 10 doctors and nurse practitioners now receives some 25,000 patient visits or more a year.
With the same mindset of seeing his religious calling as one to serve more people than just the parishioners within his church, Rev. Dunderdale was the catalyst behind creation in 1989 of the William & Mildred Orr Compassionate Care Center. At its East Liberty site, it provides beds for low-income people who need help recuperating after coming out of the hospital, such as the homeless and those who lack supports while living on their own.
“He has had a great passion for healing,” Dr. Hall said. “He kept raising the vision that said we dare not treat people like they’re just slabs of flesh, that we really need to care for and embrace people with a vision of whole-person care.”
That’s not to say that Rev. Dunderdale was soft. On the racquetball court, he was known to be cut-throat even into his 70s, not beyond the rather un-Christian act of swatting balls into the backsides of opponents who got in his way. One of those was his son, David, who found the man’s “larger than life” presence also intimidating in other ways.
His father’s level of dedication and impact kept David in early adulthood from wanting to follow in those large footsteps. He eventually changed his mind, with a lifetime’s awareness of how much help Rev. Dunderdale had delivered to people at the most critical times in their lives.
“He just recognized and taught the infinite worth of every individual person, that everyone demands your respect, your time,” said David, now a Presbyterian minister in Durham, N.C. “And those things he said on Sunday morning he lived out at home with his own family.”
In addition to his wife and son, Rev. Dunderdale is survived by an older son, Douglas of San Francisco; a daughter, Katrina of Verona; a sister, Georgia Heller of Charlotte, N.C.; and six grandchildren.
A memorial service will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at Hebron United Presbyterian Church, 10460 Frankstown Road, Penn Hills.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Rev. Douglas A. Dunderdale Memorial Fund, East Liberty Family Health Care Center, 6023 Harvard St., Pittsburgh 15206.
Gary Rotstein: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1255.