As a college junior, while playing bridge with Sue Weaver; her sister, Judi; and Judi’s boyfriend, I was asked if I would fill in and preach the next day for a minister who had contracted laryngitis. Having agreed to preach, I asked Sue if she would accompany me as I went to preach for the first time. The minister’s wife, along with her two daughters, picked up me and then Sue on Sunday morning. The adventure had begun. When we arrived at the church, a couple of men whisked me away to prepare me for leading the worship service. I have to admit that I didn’t fully know what I was getting into, but I was game for trying. I didn’t see Sue again before worship began. Actually, as I entered the pulpit to begin worship, I looked around. I had wanted to see Sue’s smiling face to help settle the butterflies that were beating the walls of my stomach. But she was nowhere to be found. That was distressing because it was a small church with only about 25 people in attendance. I could not see Sue. What had they done with her. Our first date and I had lost her! I didn’t ‘find’ her until the choir stood up to sing. The minister’s wife was the organist; she and her daughters were the choir… except, this morning, the choir had grown by 25%. Sue was singing with them. A smile came over my face and I began to relax a little. The congregation may not have received a great sermon that morning, but their choir sounded better than ever. I think they got their money’s worth that Sunday morning.
Sue and I were married on September 9th, 1962, at Riverside Methodist Church in Dayton, Ohio. Rev. Warren Powell officiated. Wiley Perry was my best man. The rest of the wedding party was comprised of family members. After a week’s honeymoon at a cottage on Lake Erie, Sue and I headed to New Jersey for seminary. During seminary both Sue and I work for on of George Gallup’s organizations – no, not the Gallup poll; instead, his advertising and research company. That company was a real blessing for us because, before long, Sue became pregnant with our first child. Russell was born at Princeton General Hospital (before the days of Dr. House and Princeton-Plainsboro Hospital) in January, 1964. He came into the world at 3:30 am. When I left the hospital to go home, I found that there had been a major snow storm. Our country lane had been plowed shut and I had no option but to return to Princeton. I spent the rest of the night in George Gallup’s office, because he had the most comfortable sofa. (Actually I learned that his office furnishings had, at one time, belonged to Woodrow Wilson.) Fourteen months later, our second child, Cheryl, was born. She chose a much better time to enter this world and, by this time, we were a little more prepared as parents.
After seminary, I was called to be pastor of the Shreve (Ohio) Presbyterian Church. Don’t know where Shreve is… well it is about 5 miles from Big Prairie. We were in the middle of Amish country. It was not unusual to have Amish families drive their horse-drawn buggies down our street. When we went to the local supermart, we always had to park across from the hitching post so Russ and Cheryl could watch the horses. We came to realize that we were living in a rather insulated part of the country when we were at a Dairy Mart in near-by Wooster. As a African-American man walked by the front of the car, Cheryl said, “Look, a chocolate man.” We knew there and then that we had to provide a broader social experience for our children. Previously we had been involved in multi-racial, urban churches. Shreve was nothing like that. After two years we returned to Princeton for a year’s Master of Theology study. When we arrived at the apartment complex that was to be our home for the year, Cheryl met Kujo, a Bahamian boy her own age. We noticed the contrast between his deep brown skin and her off-pink skin, a distinction that neither of them seemed to notice.
After concluding my Master of Theology, I served as minister of education for churches in Dayton. Ohio; Cincinnati, Ohio; and St. Louis, Missouri. During our time in St. Louis, the children and I were to face the most significant and terrifying event of our lives. Sue had finished a course of study at the Nursing School of Missouri Baptist Hospital and had served for a full year as a Registerd Nurse in the Intensive Care Unit of St. Luke’s Hospital. She worked the 11 pm to 7 am shift. After working on Saturday night, we went to church on Sunday morming, came home and had lunch. Sue then went to bed. When I went in to awaken her for work, I could not arouse her. Her feet were stone cold and, initially, I could not detect any breathing. Actually, she was still breathing, but it was very shallow. A phone call brought the Life Squad and Sue arrive at the St. Luke’s ICU as a comatose patient rather than as a staff member. She had a hypoglycemic (hyperinsulinism) attack while she slept. Sue spent a month in Intensive Care (non-responsive), a week in a step-down unit (just beginning to respond), and five months in a rehabilitation center. Her case was so far outside the norms that the doctors could make no prognosis for her future. She could get better or not; if she got better it could be a little or a lot… no telling what would happen!
When we brought Sue home from the rehab center, we had the help of 39 women from the two churches I had served in St. Louis. Each morning two women would come to the house to help; each afternoon, two others would arrive. These women were the prayer-in-action of the churches. Their presence helped Russ, Cheryl, and me to begin restoring some stability in our lives. Furthermore, they helped begin the real process of Sue’s recovery. Today, if you were to meet Sue, you probably would know what she had been through – how her life was almost snatched away from her and how she has recovered about 75% of her abilities. We continue to refer to her as our “miracle child.”
Returning to Ohio seem to make sense in light of Sue’s beginning recovery. After all, Ohio was home for both of us. Our families were there and so were many, many fond memories. Fortunately, I was asked to be the interim pastor for Calvin Presbyterian Church in Amelia, Ohio. That congregation contained many friends who had been members of Mt. Washington Presbyterian Church (in near-by Cincinnati) when I served there as Minister of Education. The year went fast and Sue’s recovery was moving along nicely – partly because of the friends we had re-connected with; partly because of nearness to family; and partly because of the congregation’s ability and willingness to wrap their collective arms around Sue and encourage her. During my years at Loveland, I completed the course of study for the Doctor of Ministry degree at the Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit, Michigan.
At the end of the year, I was called as pastor of the Loveland (Ohio) Presbyterian Church, where I serve for 12 years. During that time, Sue’s recovery was completed. And it was during that time that I truly became a pastor, utilizing my gifts for ministry. Even thought there were some bumps in the road, the congregation and I both grew immensely during my ministry there. And the experience prepared me for the next chapter in my life – serving as a regional judicatory executive for the Presbyterian Church. I finished my ministry as Executive Presbyter for 12 years in the Missouri River Valley Presbytery (metropolitan Omaha, Nebraska, and 7 counties of southwest Iowa) and Interim Executive Presbyter for 2½ years for South Dakota Presbytery.
After retiring Sue and I eventually moved to a retirement community in St. Charles, Missouri. I began retirement with two primary activities – researching my family’s genealogical roots and fly fishing (and fly tying). These pursuits have kept me busy and have provided a lot of enjoyment. Lately, since our move to St. Charles, I have been re-united with a young pastor with whom I worked in my first Executive Presbyter position. As pastor of the church we now attend, he has encouraged me to begin to build a new dimension to the congregation’s program of adult education – namely, a more progressive approach. I can truly say that I am having a ball. I could only wish that there were more hours in the day, so that I could accomplish more. But, that is the benefit of retirement! I can engage in those activities that I choose and I can structure them in a way that works for me… and in a way that still leaves me time to be involved with my grandchildren – Olivia (6½) and Benjamin (4) .
Eric Ericson suggested that there are eight stages of psychological developmental stages through which we progress during our life. The final stage is framed by the question: “Has it all been worthwhile?” I am currently in my 70th year. Even though I may still have 15-20 years of life, I don’t have to wait to the end to answer Ericson’s question. YES! Indeed it has (and continues to be) worthwhile! Life is a blast!
[Next up: My Dad, Donald George Brenner]