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Alumni Story: Jerry Warren, '52

A New Way Of Life
By Ruth Raymond Thone, '63
Published in Nebraska Magazine, Winter 2004

Jerry Warren, class of ’52, press spokesman for President Nixon, editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune, and 2004 graduate of Virginia Episcopal Theological Seminary, grins when he quotes French novelist Colette who wrote: “I’ve had a wonderful life. I just wish I had realized that sooner.”

A native Nebraskan and graduate of St. Edward high school, editor of The Daily Nebraskan and Navy pilot, Warren knows well that backward search to explore the genesis of his late-midlife transition from well-known public figure to 74-year-old grandfather who began seminary studies two years ago in Alexandria, Va.

He can actually capture the moment this late-life passion had a name in his heart. As he prepared to lead a Bible study session at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Middleburg, Va., his wife Viviane observed: “You are always studying the Bible. You should go to the seminary.” He remembers: “And that was it. My passion had a name, and I have pursued it ever since.

“My friends from the White House days tell me they sensed the spiritual side of me 30 years ago,” Warren explains. “I’m told they saw in me a person who did not fall easily into the ‘them-versus-us’ bunker mentality that prevailed, the ultimate extension of which is ‘hate your enemy.’”

Those White House years, 1969 to 1975, found this University of Nebraska graduate serving as deputy press secretary and press spokesman to Presidents Nixon and Ford. His journalism apprenticeship took place at the Lincoln Star in college and at The San Diego Union, where he became editor in 1975, and editor of the Union-Tribune in 1992. In 1995 Warren retired from the Union-Trib, and he and Viviane bought a home in horse-lovers’ country around Middleburg, Va.

Warren is clear about Viviane’s influence on his life’s path. “She has given me the support I needed throughout and I would not have walked across the seminary auditorium stage to receive my master’s degree without her. She suffered in the process but I hope she now sees a husband who is more appreciative of her sacrifice and more attentive to her importance in my life.” I once asked Viviane how she managed with those separations. “Oh, I couldn’t do anything but support him,” she replied gently.

“He had to do this.”

Never intending his theology degree to put him in the pulpit, Warren plans “to make myself available to the rectors of the Episcopal parishes in our region for people who want spiritual direction. Spiritual direction,” he explains, “dates back to St. Ignatius and St. Teresa of Avila, one-on-one sessions to facilitate the relationship between another person and God through prayer, meditation and contemplation. We guide rather than direct.

“My decision to enter seminary was a complete surprise to me,” Warren reflects. “I grew up in a faithful Methodist family in rural Nebraska (Pleasant Dale, Greenwood, Valparaiso, Papillion and St. Ed) but like many I spent too many years wandering in my own wilderness. When I retired after 20 years as editor of The San Diego Union, I needed something to commit to. It was not as apparent to me as it was to others, that it was the church and the study of theology.

“I hope I am more authentic today than at any time in my life,” he says. “After 45 years working for a publisher who set policy for me to carry out and support, and six and one-half of those representing a president with whom I often differed, I can now represent my faith and my own thoughts at all times without worry about offending one of my masters.”

As he looks at the differences in his life now, Warren finds that “seminary has centered me for the first time in my life. I know now who I am and what is at the center of my life, to know that I am not really in charge.

“I hope I am not changed into a somber Puritan,” he adds. “My sense of humor tells me that will not happen. But I am more serious about the important things in life and less affected by the day-to-day fluctuations of news and power battles, as I used to be. I believe we in America spend too much time chasing power, money, prestige and invitations to the best parties. This becomes a type of power-worship which not only is idolatrous but is empty and unfulfilling in the long run. For me, happily, those fruitless quests are ended.”

The transition from his days of being a star attraction at the best parties, both in San Diego and Washington, D. C., to “getting in touch with my spiritual side and needing a quieter place to do that,” leads Warren’s old friends to respond: “Wow!” and “Really? Why?”

“One of my old friends, Jerry Coleman, former second baseman for the New York Yankees and current San Diego Padres broadcaster, when told I was in seminary, replied, ‘Is he nuts?’”

Eileen Lindner, editor of the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, sees two reasons: One is when achievement of a life goal leaves one looking for the next "mountain. Another is when a decisive life event – death, divorce, illness – leaves one questioning life’s meaning.”

Two of Warren’s colleagues in the Nixon administration also went into ministry. Charles Colson, who served prison time for Watergate-related crimes, became a bornagain Christian and founded the Prison Fellowship Ministry. Jeb Magruder, who did time for similar crimes, is a Presbyterian minister in Kentucky. “My guess is that they, too, had something missing in their lives,” Warren says.

In explaining his own journey, Warren concludes, “I firmly believe there is a divine providence at work that has kept me relatively safe over my long life. I need to pay some attention to that. I need to spend some of the time I have left giving back to the community. I have a good friend in San Diego who preaches that one should change professions or pursuits every ten years. I firmly believe that we all need to pursue our passions, especially in our 60s and 70s.

“If I have any regrets,” Warren muses, “one might be that I did not get to seminary earlier. But I accept that I am not in charge of the timing of my journey. It took everything I accomplished and failed at in life, good and bad things, to bring me to where I am at 74.”

Warren was ill much of the time in seminary, suffering with serious illnesses and a fractured shoulder bone while studying in Nairobi in the summer of 2003.

“I was feeling a call to that continent so I studied African traditional religion and culture at Maryknoll Institute. The rest of the trip was mission work in Tanzania and Malawi.”

Referring to his illnesses, he says wryly, “I don’t want to sound like the dying Mozart composing another masterpiece. It made it tougher but also made the experience that much more meaningful. It does help to overcome obstacles in life.

“Making the transition back to study and academic writing was much tougher than I expected,” he continues. “In journalism we gather as many facts as we can and try to jam them into a space that is always too small. In graduate school, they asked me to write 30 pages about one or two
thoughts or premises. No easy task for a 72-year-old coot,” he laughs.

In addition to learning to write with “academic depth, rather than journalistic brevity,” other challenges not faced by the mostly younger students in seminary included: The stress of hitting the books after half a century of not studying. Mucking through the math in the Graduate Record Exam. Living in the dorm, an hour’s drive from his wife, and trying to make it home on weekends. Summer’s mind-boggling Hebrew course, mid-term exams, church history and New Testament exegesis.

“I made it, but I don’t know how,” he says. Remembering how he “spent all my life working for someone else, I don’t think I was happy. I think I was never really secure in who I was as a person.”

Reporting on his new life at a Journalism School Reunion in the fall of 2002, Warren again cited his difficulty with “supporting decisions one does not believe in.”

“If you grow up in Nebraska, one of the things they teach you is what qualities you must have to make yourself a person with integrity. It is more important than how you dress. You can’t change integrity; once you have that, you have it forever.”

Going back to school offered him “a new perspective on life, how to live simply, without worry, give more and expect less,” he says. “You can’t have a lot of expectations in life because you never know what your next incarnation is going to be.

“The next step is in God’s hands”

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