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William Gage, activist preacher

BILL GAGE would walk the streets of the Norris Square neighborhood and both adults and kids would call out, "Hey, Rev!" or "Hey, Dad!"

BILL GAGE would walk the streets of the Norris Square neighborhood and both adults and kids would call out, "Hey, Rev!" or "Hey, Dad!"

The salutations were indicative of Bill Gage's dual role in the community, church pastor and father figure. As pastor of the Norris Square Presbyterian Church for 43 years, he guided the spiritual life of his parishioners. As a father figure, he was the focus of the lives of many youngsters who had no real father in their homes.

Bill was their "dad," and he filled that role with his customary love and compassion.

The Rev. William H. Gage, a preacher who took his faith into the streets of his frequently troubled and violent neighborhood, died Wednesday of cancer. He was 77 and lived in Mount Airy.

Rick Rodriguez, a social worker who was associated with Bill at the Norris Square church for a number of years, said a song from Central America - "Enviado soy de Dios" - usually sung in Spanish, summed up the reverend's mission.

"Sent by the Lord am I," Rick translated. "My hands are ready now to help construct a just and peaceful world." The song was sung in church, with Rick on guitar.

"He was a doer," Rick said. "He believed that faith is action, not just believing. He had a great love for the people of the community, especially the youth.

"He was an activist in the community. He didn't just work on Sundays; he worked during the week."

And the Norris Square community was in serious need of help. The park it surrounds was once known as "Needle Park" because of the drug-dealing that flourished there. Gangs fought for turf and gunfire exploded.

Bill's wife of 52 years, the former Frances Anne Collyer, recalled listening to bongo drums into the wee hours from the park as gangs sought to guard their turf.

"My mother called me and she could hear the drums," his wife said. "She said it sounded like I was living in Africa. But that was wholesome entertainment compared to what else was going on in the park."

But eventually the neighborhood became largely Hispanic. When the new arrivals began buying homes, the atmosphere changed. Civic organizations were formed, gardens were planted.

"He was not just the pastor of the church; he was the community pastor," said the Rev. Rodney Tilley, former pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Kensington.

"He was very much in touch with the people. He just hung out with them. People just gravitated to him.

"And he didn't hesitate to roll up his sleeves and help with building projects. He was an excellent carpenter."

Frances said she and Bill met at the 10th Presbyterian Church when she was 8.

Was there instant attraction?

"No," she said, "I thought boys were horrible."

It wasn't until they were both in college - he at Haverford and she at Penn - that they began dating. They were married in 1957.

Asked why her husband stayed so long at a church in a rundown, desperate neighborhood, she said, "He felt God's call was there. He had a number of opportunities to leave, but his ministry was there. He was devoted to the neighborhood."

Bill was especially concerned about the children of the community. He organized many trips and camping opportunities for them, ranging from visits to New York City, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and to camps in the Poconos.

He took them to the family home in the Luraysville, Pa., in the Endless Mountains.

"I thought they would be bored there," Frances said. "There's nothing to do. No TV, nothing like that. But they loved it. They didn't want to go home."

Bill Gage was born to Horace White Gage Jr. and the former Christine Camp and graduated from William Penn Charter School.

While attending Haverford College, he was a standout track star. At Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., he was an honors student in Hebrew. In fact, he continued to read and write in Hebrew and biblical Greek all his life.

He later attended Princeton Theological Seminary.

After he retired in 2003, he became a co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Kensington with Tilley.

"Sometimes I would preach the first half of a sermon, and he'd preach the second half," Tilley said.

Bill learned carpentry working with his wife's father, Francis Collyer, in the construction business.

For many years, he was a member and eventually president of the Norris Square Civic Association. He set up a group cooperative to renovate neighborhood houses, provide quality low-income housing, and teach carpentry and construction skills to others.

Besides his wife, he is survived by two daughters, Ruthanne and Frances M. Gage, and a sister, Elisabeth Wohlgemuth. He was predeceased by a brother, Robert Johnson Gage.

Services: 11 a.m. Thursday at First Presbyterian Church of Kensington, 418 E. Girard Ave. Friends may call at 10 a.m.

Burial will be in Luraysville, Pa. on Friday. *