Whether they consult its architecture or its archives, future historians will have no trouble recognizing the influence at Washington National Cathedral of Drs. M. Elizabeth (Lee) and Charles (Charlie) Tidball: an inventive and spirited couple who found in their Cathedral the perfect recipient and platform for their every ounce of creativity, intelligence, and faith.
The records already span well over half a century, beginning in when the two George Washington University medical school professors, now married 60 years, were newlyweds seeking a spiritual home. Charlie and Lee—radiant at being able to return to such a central pillar of their lives after several weeks of health-related absence—recently stopped by Sayre House to reminisce and reflect on those many decades of faithful support.
“When we arrived in Washington, local parish churches just were not geared to the spiritual needs of two full-time professionals such as we were,” Lee observes. “The Cathedral was different. I remember attending when Bishop William Creighton celebrated the Eucharist at Children’s Chapel and then we just knew we’d found the right place. We never turned back.” Charlie would serve as a lay reader from thence forward, and Lee too found herself also getting more and more involved in the Cathedral’s life (notably as a core volunteer of the Cathedral’s worship department). Decades on, a couple that has been volunteering continuously for more than 52 years can be proud of significant accomplishments in almost every aspect of goings-on at their “beloved WNC.”
Within just a short time of their initial acquaintance with the Cathedral, the Tidballs had become pillars of the regular worshiping community. The faith and broad-minded outlook of the two young medical school professors resonated with Dean Francis B. Sayre, Jr., as did their sense of sheer delight in all the opportunities afforded by a still-unfinished Gothic masterpiece. With the agreement of Clerk of the Works Richard Feller, Sayre extended this “enchanting young couple” (as he called them) the rare honor of not merely donating but also designing a gargoyle for the Cathedral. The result, a rattlesnake coiled around a tree-branch to evoke the famous Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, is at once whimsical and patriotic: even as it fulfills its time-honored gargoyle’s role of defending its building, it evokes the National Cathedral’s defense of the country’s spiritual roots. Given the many different valences of meaning offered by this thoughtful early gift, it is no surprise to learn that Lee would go on to receive graduate training
in theology and that Charlie would write books on religion as well.
The complex iconography and design of the Tidballs’ gargoyle (it has two rattles for instance, so that it can be viewed from both sides) will be no mystery to future historians in large part thanks to the enormous labor of Charlie Tidball in creating and maintaining a still-expanding internal database of Cathedral artwork and iconography. Another gift from the Tidballs, the great organ’s ten-rank “Terzzymbel” stop, reflects the couple’s abiding musical interest—initially nourished and given voice in Washington by the Cathedral Choral Society, in which both sang for many years. The T4 stop, as Lee jokingly calls it, is more than distinctive. “Charlie and I wanted to be able to hear it whenever it was played. That was our one request,” she says. “Even now, whenever we’re at the Cathedral for a service and it’s used, we kind of tilt our heads up and say, ‘Ah yes! That’s the part of the organ that we gave!’”
It’s clear from the twinkle in Lee’s eye as she speaks that giving has been a source of real joy in the couple’s life, and she quickly agrees. “It definitely has!” she says. “We’ve always had fun with philanthropy, but it’s been especially great to give to this place because it’s given so much to us.” The Tidballs count the Cathedral’s mission as among its greatest assets. “The Cathedral was founded to be a great ‘church for national purposes,’” Lee says, adding that such an identity contains far more than hosting major commemorative services. “It also has a powerful educational role to play, different in kind and greater in scope than any other church could offer. We have done all we could to support this and other aspects of the Cathedral because, without a doubt, it is just a deep, deep part of our souls. It has fed our lives.” More than 51 years on, the gratitude is definitely mutual.
The Tidballs’ organ stop is rarely (if ever) used on its own, Lee goes on to observe. It serves instead “to magnify whatever is behind it” in a singular way. Nothing could better represent how the Tidballs themselves have supported the Cathedral with unfailing high spirits and vast reserves of inner strength. The historian who visits the Cathedral a century or two from now and finds it a living, thriving place will have good reason to credit the Tidballs’ strong love for the Cathedral building and community: a love reflecting their own devotion for each other and strengthened by their unfailing sense of living lives that have been abundantly blessed.
A Culminating Experience
Join the Tidballs today by making a planned gift to honor your own Cathedral legacy. Whether you choose a bequest, living trust, or estate plan, your gift can help ensure the long-term preservation and care of this national treasure as well as the continued excellence of the Cathedral’s worship, music, and mission.
To discuss your intentions or to learn more, email Marilyn Kochan in the Cathedral’s planned-giving office ([email protected]) or call (202) 537-5747.