Pietisten Bruce Carlson Memorial Weekend

by Phil Johnson

Many readers know that Bruce Carlson, Poetry and Navigation Editor of Pietisten and Executive Director of the Schubert Club of Saint Paul, died July 28, 2006 (same day and month as J.S. Bach). Bruce was a very close friend. I spent more time with him than any person other than my wife during the past forty-plus years.

Pietisten dedicated the weekend of August 5 and 6 as Bruce Carlson Memorial Weekend. Except for the great loss of Bruce, it was a fine, spirited occasion.

Bruce began planning his Memorial Service and anticipating the gathering of his friends, several years ago when leukemia got him in its grip. He said, “The odds of me making it are 30% at best. It doesn’t make sense not to plan my funeral service.” He did, and he decided to have it at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis, knowing the venue needed to be large.

Bruce was right about planning his service, of course. Why would a planner like Bruce who trusted no one but himself to plan things properly or to give final approval to any course of action, leave this event to someone else? He planned his service using the same approach and the same flare he used planning thousands of events, large and small. He talked to folks about their parts. To Soprano Maria Jetty: “Marie, if I croak will you sing at my funeral?” “Sure,” she said, and she did. Ms. Jetty sang: “An die Musik” (Schubert), and “The Last Invocation” (Argento). To close the service, Maria, Janis Hardy, and Molly Sue McDonald sang “Happy trails to you until we meet again.” It was a fine ending; everyone joined in the last refrain. The melody and words “Happy trails to you…” was Bruce’s final touch with us—exactly as he intended.

The Poetry and Navigation Editor was a life long member of Bethlehem Covenant Church where he was baptized. He live in South Minneapolis near the Mississippi River his entire life. Bethlehem is four blocks from Minnehaha Academy, the school that provided Bruce with a high school education and awarded him a degree. His neighborhood included Pietisten headquarters which is four-and a-half blocks from Bethlehem and less than a block from Minnehaha Academy. Bruce treasured the ministry of Milton Freedholm, his pastor from youth and he loved Art Anderson, pastor while he was in graduate school at the University of Minnesota where he earned a masters degree in Philosophy and a law degree. During that time Bruce listened to music intensely and read poetry, novels, and biographies extensively.

Bruce chose Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis for the site of his funeral service. He knew Bethlehem could not hold all the people who would come and he needed a bigger stage to provide some of the same great music he had presented to hundreds of thousands throughout his distinguished career as Director of the Schubert Club. He intended to make his final farewell a work of art. In spite of his attention to detail, it took resourceful, adaptive planning and execution by the Carlson family, Deanna, Vanessa, and Max to make sure that the service was a work of art and a fitting tribute.

The music was grand and the homily by David Hawkinson was superb [see page 14]. Glen Wiberg wrote that David “…rang the bell! It was not a small bell, nor even a middle-sized bell, but a huge cathedral bell that continues to resonate.” Vanessa Carlson’s tribute to her dad was both classy and touching and Bethlehem Pastor, Phil Stenberg, offered the prayer for us. Bruce left this gathering of nearly a thousand friends a wonderful final production as his last gift to us.

Pietisten headquarters (coincidentally the home of Sandy and Phil Johnson) was full of activity throughout the weekend. Art and Jackie Mampel drove in from Seattle, Tom and Kate Tredway from Galena, Illinois, and Arv Adell from Roscoe, Illinois. Mel Soderstrom and Randy Johnson flew up from Chicago, Don and Jo Franklin came from Pittsburgh, Chuck and Nancy Gustafson from Willmar, Bill Wahman and Carl Johnson from California, Nels Elde from Seattle, local folks Dan Anderson, Duane Johnson, Dagmar and Ted Larsen, Phil and Sandy Johnson and the musicians listed below—twenty-five people from around the country gathered in the Community Room of Bethlehem Covenant Church at 2 p.m. on Sunday. We sat in a circle and talked with one another about Bruce. We sang great Swedish songs that Bruce loved well. Zesty music making by Don Franklin (piano), Glen Wiberg (zither), Bob Elde (auto harp), and Dave Hawkinson (violin) brought out the best. There is a DVD of the occasion available at Pietisten for $7.

The weekend was full of conviviality among us who knew and loved Bruce. The folks of this conventicle knew Bruce and each other because of North Park College or through Pietisten. Art Mampel observed several times that our conversation was filled with stories about Bruce like Woody Allen’s movie Broadway Danny Rose was filled with stories about Danny Rose. That’s is a very good description except we had more time to be with one another to tell stories and the stories that were ours to tell were much better.

Phil Johnson is Editor Emeritus of Pietisten.

See all articles by Phil Johnson