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Remembering Dr. Geddes "Guy" W. Hanson

Dr. Hanson’s life-giving hospitality profoundly bettered the lives of students
News Geddes Hanson

Dabbing tears from the corners of his eyes, Jonathan Lee Walton, PhD ’06, MDiv ’02, speaks of the late Dr. Geddes “Guy” W. Hanson, the first permanent African American professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, with the tenderness and humility that was forged around the dinner table at the Hanson home among hundreds of students over the course of 40 years.

“Since 1966, they created a space that was so big, and a table that was so expansive, that all felt welcome,” says Walton, now dean of Wake Forest University School of Divinity and a member of the Princeton Seminary Board of Trustees. “One can’t help but think of the great parable of the banquet,” he continues.

Walton says the actions of the Hansons inverted the logic of Princeton Seminary in the early 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, a time when most premier institutions of higher learning were places of exclusivity rather than inclusivity.

“The Hansons privileged those whom the larger society may have viewed as the exception,” he adds. “Whether it be the single African American woman, the single Indian American woman, the queer kid, or even the southern HBCU graduate like myself trying to figure out this new world of reformed theology that was so different from the southern Black Baptist roots that formed and shaped me. They created a condition of affirmation and inclusion [for us], and, in the process for others — even those who were in an otherwise privileged position at the Seminary — to find love and a different kind of acceptance.”

The Hanson Kids, as they are affectionately known, could be anybody, Walton pronounces, from an Andy Choy, MDiv ‘78; to a Bertram Johnson, MDiv ’96, the first openly gay African American to be ordained in the PC(USA) and now interfaith minister at Union Theological Seminary; to a Bridgett Green, MDiv ’05, assistant professor of New Testament at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and vice president of publishing for Presbyterian Publishing Corporation and editorial director of Westminster John Knox Press beginning in January 2022; to a Raquel St. Clair Lettsome, PhD ‘05, MDiv ’95, renowned preacher, teacher, and scholar; or a Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson, DMin ’81, MDiv ’73, pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City from 1992-2015.

“These are all people who would declare themselves Hanson Kids,” Walton says. “Forty years’ worth — from 70-year-olds to 30-year-olds. People like myself, who were all taught that inclusion means starting with those who are on the social margins and working your way out, not starting with the most privileged and special and working your way in,” he says.

Lettsome, the first African American to earn a PhD in New Testament Studies at Princeton Seminary, reflects on the beginnings of her Hanson childhood with the same sense of devotion.

“During my first year at Princeton Seminary, Dr. (Poppa) Hanson asked me to be his research assistant,” she says. “Soon I was invited to dinner at his home and met Mrs. (Momma) Hanson.” That’s where she learned about becoming a Hanson Kid.

“I wasn't sure how this ‘adoption’ worked, but I wanted in,” Lettsome says, “but only on the condition that I would forever be the ‘baby’ of the family. They agreed and I became ‘Baby chile’ or ‘chile.’”

Although she never was a student in his classroom, Hanson was her “rock” throughout her PhD program. “When it was taking far too long to complete my dissertation, he freed me of the weight of everyone's expectations and told me that all he wanted was for me to be happy,” she says. “If I never became ‘Dr. St.Clair,’ he'd love me just the same. He ended the conversation like he did most of ours, saying ‘Be good to yourself, chile.’”

That conversation ender was a staple for Hanson.

“Every time you talked to him on the phone, every time you visited him, the greeting would always end the same,” Walton says. “After he said goodbye, after he said I love you, after he hugged you, he would always say ‘Be good to yourself,’ and that had to be the last word he would have.”

Jacqueline E. Lapsley, MDiv '94, dean and vice president of Academic Affairs and professor of Old Testament at Princeton Seminary, remembers the deep and lifelong relationships Hanson formed with so many students as well as his commitment to ministry and the profession.

“A circle of love and concern rippled outward from the Hanson home over the decades — theirs was a hospitality that was profoundly life-giving to many,” Lapsley says. “Dr. Hanson also cared deeply about the health and vitality of congregations, a commitment he expressed in his exemplary teaching.” Lapsley says she learned so much from him as well when they co-taught in the Doctor of Ministry program. “He taught out of the deep wells of wisdom he possessed about ministerial leadership, and he firmly but lovingly pushed student-pastors to engage in rigorous theological reflection on their own practice of ministry,” she adds. “He did this because he wanted them and their congregations to thrive and flourish. And all was for the glory of God — he was a consummate Doctor of the Church.”

Hanson helped organize the first “Conference of Black Seminarians” on campus in 1968, which led to the development of the Association of Black Seminarians. With a focus on church administration, conflict, and theories of change, Hanson held various administrative and teaching roles during his time at Princeton Seminary. He was both director of the Office of Continuing Education and a cohort leader for the Doctor of Ministry program. Dr. Hanson retired as the Charlotte Newcombe Professor of Congregational Ministry in 2009. Before his retirement, the Association of Black Seminarians instituted the Geddes W. Hanson Lecture, a biennial lecture in honor of his legacy and contributions to the Seminary.

Given another chance, what would Walton say to his beloved “PTS father” and longtime friend and mentor?

“Every time you dined with him, he would always pray, say the blessing, and then look around the table and say ‘Thank you for being at my table,’” Walton says, tears again beginning to well up in his eyes. “I would just thank him for having the table. And I would thank him for being so good to us,” he says.

“I miss his voice. I miss watching him and Mrs. Hanson together,” he adds. “I miss watching them finish each other’s sentences or correct each other’s stories.”

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Latasha Milton, Class of 2018

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