Obituary: Rev. William Paxton Arnott / Trafford pastor spearheaded church's resurgence
April 19, 1932 - July 23, 2014
July 27, 2014 12:00 AM
The Rev. William Paxton Arnott
By Sean D. Hamill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When the Rev. William Paxton Arnott agreed to take over as pastor of Level Green Presbyterian Church in 1978, he really didn't know what he was getting into.
The church's finances were shaky, its membership was dwindling, its building and grounds were badly in need of renovation. But that was not exactly how it was depicted to him during the interviewing process.
"One of my friends later said that [Rev. Arnott] told him he thought we lied to him about how bad of shape it was in in order to get him to take the job," said Bob Smith, a friend of Rev. Arnott's and leader at Level Green Presbyterian for the last 35 years.
"But he did take it and he essentially rebuilt our church," Mr. Smith said. "He completely turned it around."
Rev. Arnott -- who grew the church from about 300 members and one Sunday service in 1979 to two Sunday services and about 550 members by the time he retired in 1997 -- died Wednesday at UPMC East in Monroeville after being admitted for pneumonia 10 days earlier. He was 82.
He not only grew the church's membership, he also shored up its finances and oversaw both renovations and expansions.
But he wasn't just an administrator. At the heart of that success was a preaching style that parishioner and neighbor Isabell Ramsay said brought people in.
"He always went by the Bible," she said. "But he would bring it back into everyday life."
Virtually every sermon was punctuated by a joke or humorous tale that allowed him to showcase his hearty laugh.
That laugh was so distinctive, said his son, Brad, it served as a homing beacon of sorts.
"When we played baseball, we could look up in the stands and find him just by that big laugh," he said.
Sports was a big part of Rev. Arnott's life, not just coaching and attending his two sons' baseball games, but playing himself as an adult, once breaking his collarbone during a basketball game with a youth group.
Though he supported the Steelers, for whom he had two season tickets, he also supported his hometown Cleveland Browns.
"People here always gave him grief because he was a Cleveland Browns fan, and Ohio State Buckeyes fan," his son said. "That was in part from living in Mansfield, Ohio, [for 11 years before he moved to Trafford] but I think he also saw how successful the Steelers were and felt for the Browns and figured they could use all the support they could get; he liked the underdog."
His wife of 59 years, Gloria, said he "really loved sports, but he loved God even more."
It wasn't certain, though, that Rev. Arnott would go into the ministry until he was in college.
Raised in Akron to a Scottish immigrant father, William, and a mother, Belva, who was from Akron, Rev. Arnott almost followed his two brothers into the pharmacy business their father began.
It was at that pharmacy in the 1940s where Mrs. Arnott first remembers meeting her future husband, where he was working at the soda fountain. They began dating during Rev. Arnott's senior year and Mrs. Arnott's sophomore year in high school, but went to separate, rival colleges: Rev. Arnott to Kent State, and Mrs. Arnott to the University of Akron.
But in his second year at Kent State, he stopped taking pharmaceutical-related courses and switched to theology, graduating with a bachelor of arts before going to the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary where he got his masters in divinity.
"He just felt like God was calling him," Mrs. Arnott said.
He began his career in ministry at First Presbyterian Church in Shadyside, Ohio, in 1957, before helping found a church in Venice, Fla., in 1965, and then moving on to become associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Mansfield in 1967.
His impact went beyond his church, though.
He helped found the Hunger Pantry in the Trafford/Level Green area. And he made a point to introduce himself to anyone new to the neighborhood, always bringing his "little black book" for which he regularly was kidded.
Small enough to fit in a shirt pocket, "it was like a World Book Encyclopedia in there," Mr. Smith said.
In it, he kept a rolling list of the dates parishoners' or friends' or their spouses died, or when someone got married, or when there were potential sports events he wanted to remember so they did not conflict with a meeting.
"And if you asked him something he didn't know, he'd say, 'I'll write that down and when I get to heaven, I'll find out for you,' " recalled Lynn Gilligan, a parishioner and retired church custodian.
After he retired, he and his wife contemplated moving from Trafford, to allow his successor, the Rev. Dennis Macaleer, to be able to pastor the church without worrying about his predecessor's presence.
But Rev. Macaleer, who will officiate Rev. Arnott's funeral Monday, said their unofficial agreement was that "he could have any contact he wanted with our parishoners."
"They got double-pastor care like that," said Rev. Macaleer. "He never stepped on my toes."
Though Rev. Arnott oversaw an expansion of the church, it was for an educational wing for more meeting space. The sanctuary holds a maximum of about 300 people. Church leaders are worried it will not be enough space for his funeral Monday.
The church will be filled, Mrs. Gilligan said, because "you just felt the love through Bill and into the church."
In addition to his wife and son, Rev. Arnott is survived by another son, Mark; a daughter, Susan Nedley; a brother, Fred; seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Visitation will be from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. today at John M. Dobrinick Funeral Home, 702 7th Street, Trafford. Funeral services will be at 11 a.m., Monday, Level Green Presbyterian Church, 105 Olive Drive, Level Green.
Sean D. Hamill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2579.