99-year-old teacher and reverend reflects on life and new love of painting

Lions Gate resident Donald Fletcher, a former Presbyterian reverend and Cherry Hill teacher, has artwork displayed at the Arts on the Boulevard Spring exhibit.

Don Fletcher, a 99-year-old resident at Lions Gate, reflects on a century of religion and education from experiences across the world. Recently, the former reverend and Cherry Hill teacher has unearthed a newfound love of painting. His most recent work, as shown in this photo, is an oil painting inspired by the Teton Range.

Over the past century, Donald Fletcher has seen life in color.

From the deserts of Chile to the cityscapes of Korea, the 99-year-old former reverend is harnessing hues from several corners of the world and channeling them onto watercolor canvases.

“My love of unusual places and unusual scenes — that’s what I try to find for the subjects of my painting,” he said.

Currently, Fletcher, who has been a resident at Lions Gate in Voorhees for the past 10 years, has his landscape-inspired artwork on display at the Town Center through the Arts on the Boulevard Spring exhibit, which is Sustainable Voorhees’ seasonal arts project that launched last summer.

His three paintings, which continue to “beautify the boulevard,” through June 24, include a piece of work inspired by his childhood in Far East Asia nearly nine decades ago.

“Korea was my childhood home,” he said.

Although he was born by the Jersey Shore in 1911, Fletcher spent most of his youth in the southern part of Korea — in a region formerly called Taegu — where his father served as a medical missionary.

When he reached his teenage years, he attended a boarding school in the northern city of Pyongyang, where he graduated from high school in 1935.

After graduation, Fletcher and a few classmates ventured westward, traveling nearly all 6,000 miles of the Trans-Siberian Railway and backpacking through Europe.

“As long as our money held out, we bummed around Europe and then came across the Atlantic,” Fletcher recalled.

When Fletcher finally crossed the ocean, he enrolled at Princeton University, where he received an undergraduate degree in English in 1939, as the arts would serve as a constant stimulus for Fletcher.

Although he considered immediately continuing his English studies, Fletcher expanded upon his Presbyterian faith by attending the Princeton Theological Seminary where he’d earn what is now referred to as a master’s of divinity, becoming ordained in May 1943. Just last week, Fletcher was honored by Presbytery of West Jersey for serving 75 years as a minister of word and sacrament.

By the mid 1940s, Fletcher and his wife Maratha, a musician, journeyed on mission trips to South and Central America. For nearly a decade, the couple lived in the seaside town of Antofagasta in northern Chile’s Atacama Desert. Fletcher was assigned to develop a new congregation among colossal mining camps, which were home to nearly 15,000 people living out on the open desert.

“The desert comes right down to the sea. There’s not a lot of green,” Fletcher described.

Following their service in Chile, Fletcher and his wife dedicated four years performing missionary work around the Caribbean.

While on leave during these trips, Fletcher returned to his literary roots, completing his doctorate in English from Prince University.

Eventually settling back in the United States, Fletcher worked as a Presbyterian Bible Chair at the University of Texas where he taught university-level biblical education for five years.

Staying in the South, he started making full use of his English degree, clinching a position as the English department chair at Stillman College in Alabama — a predominately black Presbyterian School.

“It was a wonderful experience, but very tense,” Fletcher recalled, as he taught in Alabama amid the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

At the time, the college was working to become more inclusive in light of national racial uproars, like hiring the school’s first African American president in the mid 1960s, which Fletcher says he fully supported.

“These colleges like that in the early years were established by variations of the denominations, principally the clergy persons who became deeply concerned about education for African Americans in the Deep South — the very uneven, unequal educational opportunities that white students and black students had,” he said.

Fletcher and his family finally made their way back to the Garden State where they settled in Cherry Hill.

After working full time for six years at the Presbyterian Board of Publications and Sabbath School Work in Philadelphia’s Witherspoon building, Fletcher found himself at a crossroads, longing to re-tap into his English teachings.

Soon, he’d serve a term on the Cherry Hill Board of Education in the early 1970s before devoting nearly 13 years to the English department at Cherry Hill High School West, working in the same district as his wife, who found a position teaching music at Cherry Hill High School East.

“I enjoyed (teaching at Cherry Hill West) very much,” Fletcher said. “It was very rewarding.”

After relocating to Voorhees, Fletcher retired from teaching but his desire to enlighten hadn’t quite burned out, as he committed his concluding working years as the pastor of a community church in Rossmoor.

In the late 1990s, Fletcher was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Existing on an IV for nearly five weeks, the now 80-year-old was a candidate for a surgery that had only been commonly performed on younger seniors in their 60s. After an initial surgery was not successful, doctors took a leap of faith operating on Fletcher.

“After the second surgery, I got home, and got my strength back and here I am — 19 years later and the surgery worked out fine. And my health has been excellent,” he said. “Throughout my life, I’ve been blessed with good health. I have lived under a variety of circumstances, exposed to a lot of different things.”

After a second chance at life, Fletcher, who would have six children, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild, looked ahead toward how many years he’d be given, realizing he wanted to continue practicing one particular passion.

“If I could have, like, 15 more years, I’m going to write,” he said. “I’m going to write.”

Nearly eight self-published books later, after leaving the hospital in 1999, writing is exactly what Fletcher has done.

Stimulated by faith, his books align with his experiences immersed in Presbyterianism. Also dabbling in poetry, Fletcher worked on a nearly 2,000-line prose inspired by the Passion of Christ in the gospel according to Luke during this time.

Crossing over from the language arts to the visual arts, Fletcher did not even pick up a paintbrush until about five years ago while taking lessons at Lions Gate.

Little did he realize, his endeavors with watercolors, and now recently oils, was an unearthed gift he had been carrying across several continents for nearly 100 years.

“I wanted to do something of Korea — of my heritage there. I had fun working with that with the watercolors,” Fletcher said, describing his artwork at the Town Center. “Essentially, I’m a landscape painter.”