A Graduate of MSU

‘I’m a graduate of MSU,” Richard said, and paused. I was curious. Richard had never mentioned attending Michigan State University before.

Our conversation had started on what would have been a sleepy summer afternoon in 2009 — except that no afternoons were sleepy with Richard Andersen. He and I were beginning to plot out the work we would do together at Lutheran Social Service (LSS). Richard had brought me on as an assistant to help him do outreach to Lutheran congregations across Minnesota on behalf of LSS. I was his assistant, I was in many ways, his apprentice–except that he insisted that we work as equals and partners. During nearly two years, Richard, Patrick Burns and I crisscrossed the state, organizing events, speaking in churches and engaging volunteers. We spent hours together in his Honda CRV, talking, as one does on car trips, about everything.

I learned a lot about Richard. He was open, honest and unsentimental about his life. He spoke with pride about his successes at Thrivent Financial, his adventures as manager of The Original Pancake House, and his work helping to build the Arc Retreat Center in Stanchfield, MN during the late 1970s.  And yet, I don’t remember Richard mentioning Michigan State.

I do recall Richard talking about his college years–I think it was Augsburg? “Patrick and a friend had gotten a hold of a locker,” Richard remembered, describing an early encounter with his husband, “they put the locker on a dolly and wheeled it right up to my door.” Richard smiled. “Patrick got inside the locker–I think he was wearing a little cap or something, like a lift operator–and then knocked on my door. When I opened, he looked at me, smiled and said, ‘Going down?'” Richard sighed, “That was nearly fifty years ago. That man has been keeping me laughing ever since.”

After Richard graduated from Seminary, he served in a small rural congregation. He loved the work. He talked about the old ladies in the congregation who baked him cookies and worried that he wasn’t getting enough to eat. Then there was a conversation with the then bishop of the Southeastern Synod of Minnesota. Richard was gay. The Bishop knew. Perhaps there was a suggestion of something along the lines of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”.  But Richard wasn’t buying. And so Richard was not ordained for the Southeastern Synod and did not continue to serve. Instead, he worked for Thrivent Financial and The Original Pancake House.

Then thirty-two years after he graduated Seminary,Richard was finally ordained. His desire to be a pastor had never waned, nor had his love for Patrick; but the Church had changed. Richard could openly be Patrick’s partner, and officially be a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  After the ordination service, Richard was at the reception, positively giddy with excitement, using his aebleskiver iron to fill platters with the traditional Danish apple desert for his guests.  For all the times that Richard and I had spoken in churches or met with clergy, never once did I sense a tinge of disappointment, bitterness or anger. It was important for Richard that he be ordained, he was thrilled when it happened and that it could happen. It would be another seven years before he and his lifelong partner Patrick could be married.

“I’m a graduate of MSU,” Richard said, and then explained the acronym, “Make Stuff Up.” I laughed.  Richard didn’t crack a smile.

Richard was a person with seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm. He was a seventy year-old who could say “awesome” and sound like a teenager–because at that moment he actually was. He was someone who loved to smile: a smile full and heavy with love and life. And though he loved to laugh, Richard was not a jokester. Rather, there seemed to be a reservoir of seriousness and sadness that lay beneath his smile. For someone to be as compassionate and loving as Richard was, there would almost need to be a resonance of personal hardship. Maybe some of that resonance is what his “MSU” degree was about.

I never heard Richard use the expression “School of Hard Knocks,” though I suppose that he could well have.  The “Make Stuff Up” quip had a similar kind of seriousness. When the church door closed on both his ordination and his relationship, Richard had to make stuff up. He had to find another way to be in service, another way to live out his faith, another way to love and live in his relationship. I suppose making stuff up is what most who paddle outside the mainstream become very good at.

Richard and I parted company when my temporary position at Lutheran Social Service ended up being just that. He had called me into his office, told me that he wasn’t going to be able to keep me on staff,  and then immediately begun to cry. He said, between tears, “I feel like my right arm has been torn off.” It was, all things considered, perhaps a little melodramatic. I got another job. Richard got another job. And yet, in the moment, that we both had a good cry helped us move on.

And now we have parted company again. This past weekend, Richard Andersen died after suffering a massive heart attack. Writing this remembrance has brought back all the love and appreciation that I feel for him, and with these feelings, many tears.

And yet, memory too is life-giving. I never did share with Richard his faith in heaven or an afterlife. As a Jew, it is memory that is life giving and so in giving thanks for Richard, I say זכרונו לברכה, “May his memory be a blessing”. I know that I am one of many for whom Richard’s life has been a blessing and so it is my wish that it continue to be so also in memory.

My dear Richard, your memory will always for me be a blessing. May it be so for others…and may you rest in peace.

7 replies
  1. Terry Day
    Terry Day says:

    Thank you for your memories of Richard. He was a lovely soul. Was great working for him. As a person with physical disability he gave me a job. He was a humanitarian and loved helping others. Was so glad I attended his ordination. Was such a happy moment.

  2. Rod
    Rod says:

    Thanks Alex for your wonderful, thoughtful and accurate description of Richard Andersen. I too, had the pleasure of working with Richard at LSS and he was always open to the biggest possibilities that I had envisioned for the organization. We had a good run and I will always remember him as a true authentic, compassionate and action oriented person. It’s hard to envision that he has passed, he was such a ageless individual so you never thought of his mortality. I’m grateful for the time we had spent together and his hours of conversations that he had with my sister when she was going through a difficult time. His example of faith, action oriented, and dedication to helping others will always reside in my heart. My heartfelt prayers to Pat and the rest of Richard’s family and friends…….Rod

      • Rod
        Rod says:

        I’m still working on them and they are continuing to grow in new areas via my AI (artificial intelligence) consulting practice and my forthcoming book on this subject s in the works for 2020. Thanks for asking.

  3. Marybeth
    Marybeth says:

    An amazing and beautiful tribute. I did not know this spectacular man, but I feel a kinship through your words. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Patrick (aka Pat) Burns
    Patrick (aka Pat) Burns says:

    Oh, God! You teally hit it on the head, Alex. He was truly ageless. At 73 he took no meds, had a heart rate around 60 and perfect blood pressure. Richard was always the same caring, sincere, generous, pleasant, + dozens of other admirable adjectives. He hated gossip and I liked him anyway. He captured my heart at 18 when we were Augsburg freshmen and, though life took us on separate paths occasionally, we rarely lost contact and I never lost my love for him. He had so many irons in the fire even he would lose count of them. And perhaps his greatest gift was his unfailing interest in mentoring and coaching others so that they could realize their dreams. So, thanks for these wonderful words and stories about him, Alex! He loved working with you at LSS. “Wonder what Alex is up to?” was a phrase that often came up in our conversations.


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