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Ghosts of Christmas Past: The Village Atheist


“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

The Village Atheist

How has “Red” Anhauser escaped notice here? This may be a case of not knowing something or not sensing its value until too late. Mea Culpa.

On Thursday week, at half past seven that evening, we gathered at The Why to note, to celebrate, acknowledge, verify or otherwise share the passing of one disinclined to have been the reason, cause or excuse for such a gathering. Had there been an actual body, one or two of those assembled might have brazenly held a mirror to his nose, alert for evidence of vapor, and would—with the slightest hint of any condensate—have, with equal boldness, held a pillow on his face for fifteen minutes or so just to make sure. It should also be said that another two or three, with equal gusto, would have applied CPR to bring “Red” back among us. Those opportunities, however, had faded several days before when “Red” slid into the crematory oven, at a toasty eighteen hundred degrees, the closest he believed would be his brush with Hell.

Several venues could have held this throng; indeed, a murder of its crows were here representing the major denominations: Candy Varenhorst from Asbury UMC; Fathers Chisholm (C. of E.) and Shannon (Romish), among others. Even Rabbi Mandelbrot drove from Des Moines to bid a crisp farewell. In the early mumbled rumblings of the crowd, one wondered What did they come to hear? What had they come to say? First, some background.

St John of the Ladder

Many in Thursday’s audience had come to simply see inside The Why, home to Agincourt’s free thinkers for seventy years, a re-purposed railway water tower given by the Milwaukee Road when two pre-fabricated units had arrived, not one. Ernie Anhauser had been its sexton until cancer made the stairs, already steep, too difficult. In his retirement Ernie was its librarian, keeper of a collection admired by schools of theology: The disputation of theology requires an intimate knowledge of that which you would deny. “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” wouldn’t be accurate in this case, however, because Anhauser respected honest disagreement. Contention fueled his belly, no quarter asked, none given. But victory or loss would bring the contest to an end and sadden him, regardless of the outcome.

Ernest “Red” Anhauser [1924-2014] was eighty-nine when he died last week, a retired watchmaker who’d worked for fifty years at Salmagundi. Ernie’s wife Lucy died in childbirth about 1945 and their baby passed a few weeks later, a little girl they’d named Annette. His faith (of whatever stripe it might have been) was already shaken by the Depression and the war, however, so the loss of spouse and child drove the little that remained from his heart and Ernest Anhauser joined The Why, immersing himself in Bradlaugh, Ingersoll, et al., and becoming a formidable disputant beyond the high school diploma he’d earned in 1942.

Anhauser never led the group—the Fennimore County Free Thinkers—that was not his style. But if he were not its head, he was assuredly its heart. To claim him as its soul, however, would bring Red back more surely than electro-shock to deny with well-reasoned vehemence the existence of such a thing.


At the center of The Why will be his memorial: an orrery, a clock-work universe that was his gift to reason. And one of its outer planets will house a spoonful of his ash.

1 Comment

  1. […] #10 Ernest “Red” Anhauser was the village atheist, a watchmaker at Salmagundi, Agincourt’s jewelers and purveyors of “precious things.” He, too, needed a second entry. “Red” exhibits many characteristics of Cecil Elliott, a former colleague at N.D.S.U. There are those of us who have stepped away from our religious upbringing and the select few who carry an active grudge: it’s one thing to be irreligious and another to be hostile. […]

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