Ted Sumner, Novelist’s Son;
Wife, 3 Daughters Survive
COOPERSTOWN – Frederick “Ted” Sumner sailed away on Jan. 15, 2017, with family by his side, at Bassett Hospital, Cooperstown.
He is survived by his “favorite and only wife,” Sarah Cunningham Sumner, daughters Tara, Nicole and Sasha Sumner, grandchildren Alexander and Chloe Ford, nieces Meg Cutler Chandler, Gail Cutler, and Nancy Caroline Gamard, nephews George and Bill “Ibrahim” Gamard, and many great nieces and nephews.
Ted grew up in Ithaca and Jackson, Miss. He was the fifth child of Cornell Professor and Nobel Prize winning biochemist, James Batchellor Sumner, and Southern author Cid Ricketts Sumner, the author of the Tammy books (played by Debbie Reynolds in the filmed version) and Quality. Filmed as “Pinky,” and directed by Elia Kazan, this was one of the first films to confront interracial relationships and depict them openly.
Ted attended the Berkshire School in Sheffield, Mass., and distinguished himself early as a tree climber and class clown (Teacher: “Ted, have you ever had a serious moment in your life?”), finding unconventional ways to solve math problems, win ski races and amaze his friends.
He served in the Navy as a radioman in World War II, going AWOL to chase climbing goats in the mountains of Hawaii. He was forgiven for this infraction because it wasn’t girls he was chasing.
Ted was part of the 1950 Cornell University class that swelled with veterans on the GI Bill. They rejected the racially segregated college culture and founded Watermargin, the first interracial, interreligious cooperative college housing in the U.S. Ted’s involvement with Watermargin influenced him to change his major to sociology.
Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Watermargin and sat next to Ted at dinner. She remarked that her husband Franklin Roosevelt had had a Packard Touring Car just like the one she had seen parked out front. Ted admitted that it belonged to him. Many old cars, politics, pranks and parties dominated these years, capped by a motorcycle trip to Florida, where Ted was arrested and jailed for drinking out of a “Colored only” water fountain.
In the mid-1950s, Ted gave his banjo to his friend, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, a protégé of Woody Guthrie. In a stroke of genius, he invited Sarah Cunningham, as moral support, to a dreaded lunch arranged by his father with a certain Miss Flickinger, J.B. Sumner’s research assistant in the Cornell Microbiology Lab. Sarah won over both his father and Ted, and they were married in 1954.
At their wedding, his father worried: “A rolling stone gathers no moss” to which his mother replied, “Well, he’s picked up some pretty good moss today!” His beloved dog, High Noon, became the first member of the family. Ted and Sarah went on to be known as “the lovebirds of Otsego County,” in a 65-year romance that touched all who knew them.
Ted and Sarah spent their child rearing years in Duxbury, Mass., New York City, Springfield Center and Rome, Italy, making pottery, sculpture, and illustrating school readers for the French Trent School, in New York City. In Italy, Sarah continued her career as a violinist/composer, with Ted as the primary parent and part-time oil painter. They joined the Society of Friends, and continued to attend Quaker meeting in Haverford, Pa., where they settled in 1968. As a father, Ted provided his children and their playmates with every kind of play imaginable, most notably his 90-foot swings at the north end of Lake Otsego.
In his late 40s and onward he worked as a tree surgeon and pursued a wild array of inventions whose main functions were fun and health: The Twirly Bop, Chewies, the Sea Horse, the Bubbler, and the Massage Machine. With Sarah’s career move to Ann Arbor, Mich., in the 1980s, Ted became highly active in the Ann Arbor Friends Meeting. He was proud of his counseling and contribution to a halfway house for teens, creating a set of swings that said “For a Safe High” in reverse, on the swing seats.
Ted and Sarah continued their protests of war, nuclear testing and the militarization of space with humor and wackiness, e.g. the umbrella with a missile sticking through it (Reagan’s “Star Wars” anti-missile plans), and the sign on his dog: “This K9 is against the B1 (bomber).” Upon their return to Otsego County, Ted and Sarah joined the Butternuts Quaker Meeting – a wonderful community of support and activism. Their years in a writers’ group with members from Cherry Valley and other Otsego towns, also provided a creative outlet for decades of poetry and stories. For the last several years they lived at The Plains at Parish Homestead, and most recently, Hampshire House Assisted Living, in Oneonta, where Sarah currently lives.
Ted’s irrepressible high-jinks, wittiness and storytelling touched all whose paths he crossed. We will miss him.
A Quaker service will be held at 2 p.m, Sunday, March 5 at the First Presbyterian Church, 25 Church St. Cooperstown, in the chapel. A memorial will be held on July 2. For information, contact Nicole Sumner, 607-643-1322.
“The beautiful kicks out of life I’ve gotten. I realize how lucky I’ve been. It’s almost as though somebody up there likes me, and Sarah!”