Beloved may be the best word to describe the Rev. A. Russell Ayre.

The former longtime pastor at the First Congregational Church in New Milford was a leader not just at the church, but in the larger faith community, and beyond.

He was a pastor, friend and mentor to hundreds, if not thousands, throughout his 32 years in New Milford.

Ayre, 92, died peacefully April 10 at his home in Florida. (See obituary, this page.)

Up until a week before he died, Ayre was faithfully packing lunches for those in need through a local church in Florida, just one example of his lifelong dedication to service to others.

“He was a great person, a wonderful dad and a great grandfather,” said Ayre’s daughter, Martha Ayre Ladner, of the Village of Golf, Fla. “His actions exemplify a lot of who he was.”

During his years at the church, Ayre led major projects such as constructing a parish house, renovating the interior of the church and raising funds to purchase and install a new pipe organ, among other things.

In addition, he taught and encouraged parishioners to take a “more active role in society, to adapt and change when necessary, and to put the principles of Christian faith into one’s daily living, not just to listen to them at the Sunday service,” according to the church’s history on its website.

He played an integral role in growing — and bridging — the faith community in town, and establishing organizations that eventually established the town’s first senior housing facilities and counseling services.

The pastor was one of the most “influential community leaders” of his era, according to Art Cummings, who was 10 when Ayre became pastor at the church in 1957, and who credits the pastor as having been a positive role model and mentor to him throughout his life.

“He was one of the most wonderful, special people I’ve ever known,” Cummings said. “He was a man of great calm and peace, who simply made people around him feel better. He was just a great church leader.”

The Rev. Mike Moran, who succeeded Ayre, describes Ayre as “a very warm and caring person who accomplished many administrative undertakings,” yet remained “very pastoral” and recognized the significance of personal relationships and positive communication.

Moran fondly described one of his last visits with Ayre on a trip to Connecticut more than 10 years ago. During a walk between the First Congregational Church at St. John’s Episcopal Church on the Village Green, Ayre spotted the late “Tall Paul,” whose presence with his bike on the Green was widely known, but not to Ayre, headed up the walkway by St. John’s.

Moran cited Ayre’s strengths in speaking one-on-one with individuals, with eye contact, and investing a sincere interest in each and every person, as well as being a “real problem-solver.”

Moran emphasized how supportive Ayre was to families struggling with life’s challenges. He cited how, when a local family not affiliated with the church lost a loved one, the pastor stepped up. In a show of gratitude, the family later left an endowment to the A. Russell Ayre Scholarship Fund, Moran said.

Ayre was a respected individual, pastor and leader. In fact, while writing a book, “The Road Less Traveled,” M. Scott Peck would visit Ayre in his office and read drafts of the chapters, Ladner said.

Ayre even brought humor to the pulpit. His daughter noted how he was known to clean up dirty jokes enough to share them, but still have them be funny, before or during a sermon.

The father of three was proud to never take a single medication or use a cane.

He was an avid golfer and regularly rode his bicycle six miles a day until he was 88. He got to know his neighbors — and their dogs — on the rides.

“There was a joke that if he wanted to be mayor, he would probably win,” Ladner said.

Cummings emphasized how Ayre came to town at “the perfect time for him and the community.”

“1957 was a launch pad for dramatic growth (in town), with Kimberly-Clark opening the next year and bringing in more families” that established roots here, he said.

“It was so fortunate for the town to have such a great man and great leader to help the community” during this time, Cummings said.

For Barbara Ahern and her husband, Ayre and the First Congregational Church were just what they were looking for in a church when they moved to town in 1972.

“I loved the church right away,” she said. “Russ was a master storyteller and he was also a very caring minister and a good leader. We were lucky to have him as our pastor for so many years.”

Ahern noted the trips Ayre organized and how no one had to “to worry about a thing when Russ was in charge (because) he got things done and to me, this is an asset in a minster.”

“I loved his smile, and he did it often,” Ahern summed up.