Peter Guthery embodied the most delightful words in our language, and the highest precepts of our religion. Let’s start with words. He was loving, brilliant, funny, intellectually curious, accepting, a faithful friend, joyful. One of the most respected and accomplished tax attorneys in Denver, he never set himself above others. In fact, Peter raised people up in ways too numerous to mention. A reassuring twinkle in his eye could banish the darkness and recharge the spirit. This wasn’t an empty gesture. Compassion was the essence of Peter Guthery, who died March 27, 2014, at the age of 76.
Silver-haired and rising far above most of us in physical stature, Peter was a gentle giant of a man. He bent low to hear a joke, or stories, Torah insights and troubles. He enabled people to move forward, placing their fears under his expansive wing. With a little (or sometimes a lot) of encouragement from Peter, all things seemed possible.
His life began in one the bleakest periods of human history, as Hitler intensified his march to annihilate Europe’s Jews. Conceived in Dresden, Germany, he was born in London. His mother hoped London would be a safe haven for them both.
When she realized that Hitler had set his sights on England, his mother obtained passage to the US on one of the last ships leaving Europe. Peter was only three. Of the infinite lessons he learned in his new country, freedom — and the ability to choose one’s future — set his course. He earned his undergraduate degree from Columbia, his law degree from the University of Virginia and a master’s in taxation at NYU.
From 1961-1965, he served in the US Air Force as a legal officer. He was honorably discharged in 1972. Peter felt it was imperative to serve the country that welcomed him. About to join a prominent New York City law firm, a friend suggested he should first visit “G-d’s country.” Peter moved to Denver in 1965.
A friend to numerous Jewish organizations, he joined Temple Sinai in 1970 and devoted his energy and passion to growing a thriving congregation. Justice, in all its forms,was integral to his Judaism, and his heart. Peter and his wife Jean faithfully supported Sinai in ways large and small. If a person couldn’t afford a mission to Israel, they supplied the funds anonymously. Fixtures in Torah study, they contributed not only their wisdom but also lox and treats. At Friday night services, the couple sat quietly on the far right side of the bimah. Their love of Shabbat drew people like butterflies.
Peter joined the High Holiday choir 44 years ago. A serious singer with a lovely baritone voice, he also was the perennial jester. He couldn’t help himself. Finally the director moved Peter to the soprano section to teach him a lesson — at least temporarily. Right after Peter learned he had terminal cancer, he asked the choir to sing “E-l Nora,” his cherished High Holiday song, at his funeral service. Yes, they said. Yes.
Before the cancer confined him to his bed, Peter spoke about his situation at Torah study and adult learning sessions. “Please don’t treat me any differently,” he urged. His honesty freed us. “Jean’s in charge of Lisa’s wedding,” he’d say, “and I’m in charge of the funeral.” Even then, his humor was intact. Peter approached death with unwavering dignity and strength. He was ready. As hard as it was to lose him, the family — Jean, son Steve and daughters Karen, Debbie and Lisa — let him go, in love and shalom.
This lyric sums up our feelings for Peter Guthery:We’ll find you in the morning sun, and when the night is new, we’ll be looking at the moon, but we’ll be seeing you.
Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News