Al Shands, Episcopal priest, filmmaker, writer and art connoisseur, dies at 92

Courier Journal [Louisville KY]

September 14, 2021

By Keith L. Runyon

Those who knew Al Shands during his long and creative life realized he was on a journey.

In one of the newsletters he wrote for the parishioners of St. Clement’s “house church,” he compared his return to Durham, North Carolina, where he lived as a child, to the journey taken by Ms. Carrie Watts, the fictional heroine of Horton Foote’s “A Trip to Bountiful.”

“I did it, and it was a success,” Shands wrote. “But only now am I realizing why. Home is not just a place. Home is the place where we know we belong, where the loneliness of our lives is resolved, where we are known and appreciated just for who we are.” 

In so many ways Al Shands, who died Sept. 7, 2021, at age 92, spent his nine decades helping others to find their way home.

As an Episcopal priest, documentary filmmaker, writer and art connoisseur, he found those paths, often difficult, to contain elements of the transcendent. It was no accident that in his later years, as he and so many of his friends passed from the scene, he became a sought-after eulogist. 

Among his homilies was one for civic leader and philanthropist Owsley Brown II, who died almost exactly a decade ago.

Al Shands. Special to the Courier Journal
Al Shands. Special to the Courier Journal

At Brown’s funeral, Al declared: “Your spirit was eternal, given to us to transport us in our earthly journey to new heights. And now because of you, we are emboldened to look beyond, as you did, to see, and through that belief to do the miracles in this community that emboldened you.”

We might say the same of Al. His style was neither boastful nor necessarily visible to most people in Louisville.

He and his late wife, Mary Norton Shands, generously contributed to the educational, cultural and social fabric of our community, yet few things bear his own name.

Early in his career, he produced a series of documentaries that cast a vivid light on some of our city’s problems including urban renewal, the regional disputes, racism and child abuse.

“Whose Child Is This,” which focused on child abuse, was nationally aired by the Public Broadcasting System and won a George Foster Peabody Award in 1978.

In those days, his wife’s family — headed by her mother, Jane Morton Norton — owned one of the two media powerhouses in the state, WAVE Inc. The other, WHAS Inc., was owned by their close friends and media rivals, the Binghams.

Al Shands and his wife, Mary Norton, at their wedding. Special to the Courier Journal
Al Shands and his wife, Mary Norton, at their wedding. Special to the Courier Journal

It was a golden era for locally owned radio and television broadcasting, but that all ended with the media mergers of the 1980s.

Through his training as an Episcopal priest and with his iconoclastic personality, he occasionally bumped up against mossbacks in his denomination. Before he moved to Louisville, he led a parish that met regularly at Hogate’s, then one of the leading seafood restaurants in Washington, D.C.

It wasn’t just hyperbole to call the young priest “a fisher of men.” When he and his wife moved back to Kentucky, he formed his own parish, St. Clement’s, which was ecclesiastically correct, but also liberal and relaxed. It survives to this day.

But the lasting legacy of both Mary Shands (who died in 2008) and Al is Great Meadows, their rural treasure box west of Crestwood, Kentucky. Over the decades their taste as connoisseurs set them apart from most people who were interested in collecting, and their means allowed them to pursue it in dynamic and sometimes unorthodox ways. 

In 2016, Al founded the Great Meadows Foundation. An important part of his legacy, his vision for this organization is to strengthen the visual arts scene in Kentucky by supporting the development of contemporary artists in the state. The foundation is now led by Julien Robson, a former curator at the Speed Art Museum and close friend of Shands.

Robson linked Al’s passion for the arts to his spiritual pursuits: “The word ‘mystery’ figured a lot in our discussions. As a collector he was not interested in art being literalized, that is, reduced to ‘aboutness.’ For him, art was not to be instrumentalized. It was instead intuitive and open, waxing in the imagination of the viewer, creating multiple channels of thought that could not be neatly tied off. He would talk about how, when you thought you had closed the loop of interpretation it would escape and become something else, challenging you again. For him, this continuous ‘escape’ had a relationship to the mysteries of the spiritual life.”

As a true intellectual, Shands had the discerning eye of a critic, and his wisdom often appeared in The Courier Journal, either in book reviews or in commentaries on current events. Robson shared the fact that nearly every week, Al reread T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” the common theme being that search for the divine, a spiritual home, that so consumed Shands’ life.

In the essay about his return to Durham, he concluded: “We are all following somehow a road to heaven. Heaven is our home. And our lives would be a lot less if we were denied that destination. Is heaven a place? I don’t think so. What do we know about it? From one perspective we know nothing. But in our hearts and dreams, we know a lot.”

And the end of his journey, Al Shands has found his answer. And in his search, he taught those of us fortunate enough to listen to many things.

Keith L. Runyon is a retired Courier Journal editorial page and book editor. He edited The Rev. Alfred R. Shands’ 2013 book, “Rounding the Circle” (Butler Books).