Frederick Sumner

Sumner—Frederick Sumner, 92, on January 15, 2017, in Cooperstown, N.Y. Ted was born on February 25, 1924, in Ithaca, N.Y., the fifth child of Cid and James Batchellor Sumner. He grew up there and in Jackson, Miss. His mother’s book Quality, filmed in 1949 as Pinky by director Elia Kazan, was one of the first works to openly depict interracial relationships. His father was a Cornell professor and Nobel Prize-winning biochemist. Ted attended Berkshire School in Sheffield, Mass., and distinguished himself early as a tree climber and class clown, finding unconventional ways to solve math problems, win ski races, and amaze his friends.

He served in the U.S. Navy as a radioman in World War II and was part of the 1950 Cornell University class packed with veterans on the G.I. Bill. He led a group in rejecting racial segregation and founding Watermargin, the first interracial, interreligious cooperative college housing in the United States. This experience moved him to major in sociology, and when former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt honored the club with a visit, he sat next to her at dinner. Old cars, politics, pranks, and parties dominated these years, capped by a motorcycle trip to Florida, where he was arrested and jailed for drinking out of a “Colored only” water fountain.

In the early 1950s, he invited Sarah Cunningham as moral support to a lunch his father had arranged with his young research assistant. Sarah eclipsed that young woman with both father and son, and she and Ted married in 1954. They spent their child-rearing years in Duxbury, Mass.; New York City; Springfield Center, N.Y.; and Rome, Italy. In New York, they made pottery and sculpture and illustrated school readers for the French Trent School. In Italy, Sarah continued her career as a concert violinist and composer, with Ted as the primary parent and part-time oil painter. They joined the Religious Society of Friends and began attending Haverford (Pa.) Meeting in 1968. Ted provided his children and their playmates with every kind of play imaginable, most notably 90-foot swings at the north end of Otsego Lake.

With Sarah’s career move to Ann Arbor, Mich., in the 1980s, Ted became active in Ann Arbor Meeting. He was proud of his counseling and contribution to a halfway house for teens, creating a set of swings with “For a Safe High” on the seats’ reverse. With their final move to Otsego County, N.Y., they joined Butternuts Meeting in Cooperstown. Their years in a writers’ group with members from Cherry Valley and other Otsego towns provided a creative outlet for decades of poetry and stories. After living for several years at the Plains at Parish Homestead, they moved to Hampshire House Assisted Living, in Oneonta, N.Y. Sarah and Ted carried on their romance for 65 years, to the very end sitting side by side in meeting for worship, eyes closed, holding hands. His irrepressible high spirits, imagination, elfin wit, and storytelling brought joy to Butternuts Meeting and to all who knew him.

Ted is survived by his “favorite and only” wife, Sarah Cunningham Sumner; three children, Tara Sumner, Nicole Sumner, and Sasha Sumner; two grandchildren; and a wonderful band of nieces and nephews. A March 5, 2017, Quaker memorial service drew a great crowd from the community and packed the chapel of Cooperstown’s First Presbyterian Church, testimony to how many had been touched by his goodness.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Maximum of 400 words or 2000 characters.

Comments on may be used in the Forum of the print magazine and may be edited for length and clarity.