Generosity is a transformative act. Martha Atherton (Doctor of Humane Letters Honoris Causa 2011), affectionately known as Marty, understood the power of generosity that affirms the good labor of liberal religious ministry, empowers the present moment of an institution to live boldly into its mission, and sustains the living tradition of Unitarian Universalism into the future. Marty, who transitioned from this life on October 11, and her husband Bob (d.2009) were committed to supporting the Unitarian Universalist ministry. They were also champions of Meadville Lombard Theological School and its role in preparing religious leaders grounded in this living tradition.
Marty's generosity was a faith commitment to nurturing excellence in UU theological education. Through the establishment of the Atherton Scholarship, she helped recipients pursue their calling in ministry. Her reach was also one that promoted ministers’ education to expand into an interculturality; her support made it possible for select international students from diverse religious traditions to attend a summer program at Meadville Lombard.
Her passion for the school motivated her to be an active agent in pursuing its sustainability. She issued a challenge grant to other Unitarian Universalists that brought over $300,000 in new donations to Meadville Lombard. Marty's commitment to the school was evident in her transformational gifts that have assisted Meadville Lombard’s facility needs from 2011-2021.
More than a generous philanthropist, Marty was a friend of the Meadville Lombard. She was very much a part of our learning community, present in our classroom, events, and activities. We celebrate Marty Atherton’s life of faith and generosity that transformed the school, and that, through our students and alums whom she supported, brightened the future of the Unitarian Universalist ministry.
Meadville Lombard has planted a grove of trees in her memory.
Elias Ortega, President
From Rev. Dr. Lee Barker, President Emeritus
Gratitude. Generosity. Vision. Those were the spiritual attributes that brought Robert and Martha Atherton to the doorstep of Meadville Lombard many years ago. Bob died in 2009, and with Marty's passing last month, there is a great reason for us to celebrate her life for, along with Bob, she made a transformational financial gift that reinvigorated the school and launched it on its current trajectory.
Their commitment to the school began with their love for their Unitarian Universalist church in Palatine, IL. They received so much from that community over the years: new ideas about how best to embrace people of different religions and cultures, comfort in times of loss and disappointment, and the joy that comes in seeking to live out of one's highest values. Their church shaped their lives to goodness, and they wished to make that opportunity available to others.
In her unassuming way in the last ten years, Marty became an essential member of our community. She was a student in the classroom, a champion of growing the archival collections, a consistent attendee of school events and programs, and a good friend to many.
Marty will be missed, but all the school's future successes will be born of her love. The newly formed ministries, the spiritual growth of students, the acts of justice carried out by graduates—all will be anchored by Martha Atherton's generosity and gratitude.
From Dr. Nicole Kirk, Associate Professor, Rev. Dr. J. Frank and Alice Schulman Chair in Unitarian Universalist History
Marty Atherton was a dear and generous friend to Meadville Lombard, Unitarian Universalism, and her beloved Countryside Church in Palatine, Illinois. I first met Marty when I interned at Countryside Church in 1996. She was a great supporter of women's leadership and took a particular interest in supporting me in my faith formation as a minister. Her care and attention meant a lot to me as a young woman and minister in formation.
Marty and her husband Bob not only ran their business together, but they also invested their time, money, and energy in Unitarian Universalism, Countryside's internship program, women's leadership, interfaith and international programs, and education. Marty and Bob believed in the work of Meadville Lombard. They enthusiastically gave to the school so that our training for religious leadership could reach more students and help shape a Unitarian Universalism for the future.
Every Christmas, I looked forward to their annual letter describing what they had done that year; it was always about relationships. They nurtured local, international, and interfaith friendships that spanned the years. We share in mourning with all whose lives they touched. May Marty rest in peace with her beloved Bob.