Gordon Ambach

By John Rindlaub

I have known Gordon Ambach for 62 years. I haven’t seen him as often as I would have liked, but I think of him every day—as I drink my martini.

Every evening, as I drink my martini, I think of Gordon sipping his idea of a cocktail—a cup of hot water with a twist of lemon.

And the memories come flooding back.

I remember skiing with Gordon and Lucy—and how much better they were at it than I was.

I remember their joyous wedding.

I remember happy evenings at their warm, welcoming house on Stratton Mountain. Dinner in Southport. Summer concerts in Manchester. Plays at the Dorset Playhouse. Reunion lunches on Ogden Street.

I think of how much Gordon loved his family. Lucy. Kenneth. Alison. Douglas. His ten grandchildren. They were the most important things in his life.

I think of Gordon’s gentleness.

He was a genuine gentleman—a gentle man. A gentle giant.

He had a gentle, mellifluous voice. And I can’t remember his ever raising it in anger. Or swearing. Or saying anything unkind about anyone.

I think of his earnestness, his seriousness.

Life isn’t a joke. Gordon planned ahead…thought things through…was committed to his beliefs…took everything he tackled seriously. Happily, the one thing he didn’t take seriously was himself.

I think of his thoughtfulness.

William Boughton, the music director of the New Haven Symphony, says that Gordon would call him after every concert to congratulate him on the performance.

Several of his Yale buddies–Jim Downey, Jim Kingsbury, Marv Berenblum, Ken Liebman–have been here in New Haven for the past week singing in the Yale Alumni Chorus. I plan to be here next week taking a course.

Could it be that Gordon timed his departure so that we could all attend his memorial service without being inconvenienced? It would be in character.

I think back 62 years to our graduation day.

Gordon had been about everything that a perfect person at Yale could be. He’d been the chief aide of Berkeley College, played on the Berkeley soccer and basketball teams, won a varsity letter in tennis, worked on the Charities Drive, served on the Undergraduate Affairs Committee, been on the Class Council, chaired the Class Day Committee, been elected to Scroll and Key. It seemed only natural that he should be the guy leading the procession of graduating seniors in their caps and gowns—holding on high the enormous banner of the Class of 1956.

As the parade ended, there was a scrimmage for the banner. But Gordon is a big guy. And he’s strong. And he managed to fend off his assailants. And then he marched the banner into the Scroll and Key tomb, never to be seen again.

Throughout his life–in Albany, in Washington, on the boards of the Smithsonian and the Wallace Foundation and the Kingsley Trust Association and his beloved New Haven Symphony–Gordon has led people in new directions…and they have followed.

I came across a condolence note on the Internet from a woman named Joan Slafsky. She wrote:

“From the time Gordon walked into my 2nd grade classroom at John Howland School in Providence, I knew how special he was. By sixth grade when he was class president, I was sure he would be POTUS, though I may not have known those initials then.”

I can’t think about Gordon without thinking about tennis. How much he loved it. How ably and gracefully he played it. In all his years as New York State Commissioner of Education, traveling all over the state to schools and colleges and conferences, he always kept a racket and a pair of tennis shoes in the trunk of his government car in hopes that wherever he was going he could find time for a game.

Another memory: a grand party that Lucy gave for Gordon’s 50th birthday. John Stookey, who is married to Lucy’s sister Appy, gave an eloquent toast lauding Gordon’s many virtues. He ended saying, “Another thing Gordon brought to the family was the idea of being a Democrat. That was a new idea to us.”

As I said, I think of Gordon every time I drink a martini. These days I also think of him every time that I open a newspaper and read about government officials who don’t believe in government. The president’s latest assault on the Justice Department. The head of the Environmental Protection Agency who doesn’t believe in protecting the environment. The Secretary of the Department of Education who doesn’t believe in public education. They make me think about Gordon and how he demonstrated that government could be a force for good.

He was a true public servant. He devoted his life to the proposition that schools could improve lives and that government could improve schools. For Gordon, improving education was a Calvinist “calling”—a God-given vocation that could change people’s lives for the better.

Here’s another condolence note…from Allison Rowland.

“Gordon Ambach didn’t know me, but through his generosity I was able to work at the Hawaii State Department of Education while a doctoral student at Harvard. This was a monumental contribution to my learning about school systems and continues to inform how I work today. I know I’m one of the many many lives, in particular, children’s lives, that were made better because of his work.”

He didn’t know me. But he made my life better. And he made children’s lives better. What a proud legacy. What a worthwhile life.

I can only add that mine is also one of the many many lives that were made better because of Gordon Ambach.

June 16, 2018
First Presbyterian Church, New Haven