Tribute to Michael Groh

1943 — 2008

By Phil Johnson, Sandy Johnson, and Ted Meads

The Superb Mike Groh

Michael Groh (Mike) was a superb student, athlete, and consultant. He was honest, reliable, open, and he met and valued everyone as a person.

Mike carved his own independent way vocationally, based, I think, on a vision he had when he arrived at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities (UTS) in 1965. He did not know for sure why he came to Seminary but he knew it was not to prepare for pastoral ministry; initially, he saw himself working on a college or university campus in a ministry of some kind. In 1965-67 a significant coterie of like-minded students with similar interests arrived at the new seminary, the first created out of the merger of the Congregational Church and the Evangelical and Reformed.

These students were called by and organized by social gospel. UTS took these students and their passion seriously. Another dimension, with particular force among these students, was belief in community starting with the seminary community itself. Justice, love, and peace were heart experiences and commitments.

Mike was a leader without trying to be. He was a leader as a student and he was a leader his entire life.

I met Mike Groh in the Fall of 1967 at a YMCA camp on the Wisconsin side of the Saint Croix River. Students enrolled for the Fall Semester at UTS gathered there for a pre-term retreat.

The main events for this mainly male group were touch football and half-court, three-on-three basketball (we did read a book that was founded on Martin Buber’s I — Thou as well). Mike’s team and mine faced off in three-on-three basketball finals. It was a marathon game going deuce point to deuce point on the dry dusty court until finally, Mike made a basket our team did not match and his team claimed the championship. Subsequently Mike and I played basketball with and against each other for 40 years. We played on teams together and played with our sons in a regular Saturday morning pick-up game at Riverside Presbyterian Church which became The People’s Center in Minneapolis.

In the Fall of 1967, The Stillwater Prison Colts, the Prison football team, challenged United Seminary to a football game. As I recall, it happened because one of our students was a student chaplain there.

Four or five seminarians had played football in college and there were six or seven other students who had touch football experience and who wanted to play. Dr. Don White, Theology Professor and Process Theologian, took up the coaching mantel, our half-back, Gary Miller, found us some used equipment and our squad of 12 players entered the prison with Coach White. The huge steel doors locked behind us with a sound of unmistakable firmness.

Ted Meads recalls that “Shortly after we began warm-ups, we heard the thunder of the cleats as the 40-man prison squad came down the concrete ramp leading to the field. Like the pro teams, the Prison Colts had their own nicknames: “Steamboat Fulton” (defensive end); Boom-boom Brown (fullback – taking his moniker from the Bill Brown of Vikings’ fame) and others. It was an intimating group, particularly to those preachers whose experience extended to touch or flag intramural games. Fortunately, we had a few people like Mike and Phil who knew what they were doing in full pads!”

The game ensued. The fans bet cigarettes. Betting on the Preachers sight unseen the first game could only have been emotionally motivated. We heard that non-players resented the extra privileges given the football players. Anyway, a lot of the fans cheered for the “Preachers” which, I’m sure, helped us to feel welcome.

Our offense consisted mainly of quarterback running plays, hand offs to Gary Miller, and passes to Mike who could catch any ball that came near him. Our defense was often a 10-man affair as one or two “preachers” might need a blow or need to nurse an injury when we did not have the ball. The prisoners did not seem to notice the missing persons in the defensive line. They liked to pass the ball and didn’t seem to realize that a significant portion of the passes thrown would end up connecting with Mike as he roved the defensive backfield. The upshot of these dynamics was a solid Preacher victory much to the satisfaction of Coach White.

The Seminary win drew a return match invitation. Once again, it was a home game for the Prison (among other factors, UTS had no field). The rematch was pretty much the same story. A third game turned out differently as the Prison had a hard running fullback whom they let out of solitary on the day of the game. The prisoners dropped the passing game and gave the fullback the ball every play. We could not stop him. We lost that game but played one more. Either the fullback was back in solitary again or on parole restoring and the previous pattern. Thus it was that the UTS record was 3 and 1 against Stillwater Prison and 1 and 0 against Golden Valley Lutheran College.

Since the jerseys were borrowed none were retired. It’s likely that institutional memory of its gridiron glory days has faded at UTS. “It was a brief, shining moment in time under the leadership of Mike Groh and for UTS students arriving within a year or two of these games, dispelling much of the conventional wisdom around preachers being wimps, reflects Ted.

Michael and Jane looking for dolphins.

To the regret of all his friends, the superb Mike Groh has left us. Michael’s friends are all over the world. He earned his living as a consultant to non-profit organizations. He was recruited by the George Soros foundation to help folks in the Balkan countries in their efforts to create civil societies in the aftermath of state initiated and controlled societies. Some of the friends he made in the Balkans visited the Grohs in America to deepen their understanding of possibilities for civil society and, of course, to maintain friendship with Mike. Likely no one is surprised that the men who came played basketball.

I have always been impressed that Mike has been able to make a living as a self-employed consultant working on what he cared about. As Michael’s daughter, Alicia said and was quoted in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Sunday November 9, “[Dad] was all about making a positive difference in the world. He had a very strong sense of social justice. He was a ’60s activist who continued to be an activist his whole life.”

Mike had the ability to meet people and to gather friendships around the world. He went places most people don’t go to or care about in this sometimes darkened world in which he was always a light. He was always ready to get in there and do something to help people, not just talk about it. In a way you could say he lived around the world.

Jane Groh supported Mike in his calling while she pursues her own as a teacher. She has a great sense of humor as a teacher and the capacity to step in and teach recently immigrated students. Her students, often all male, call her “Teacher.” There are two adult children in his terrific international family, Aaron the engineer and Alicia.

Jane, Aaron, and Alica are suffering a very great loss, not the least of which is the loss of the companionship of a very knowledgeable basketball fan who loved to watch games together with them and to exchange comments and enthusiasms. The Groh family has done this through the years and, though I hate to say it, they have been Duke fans. Blessings on you Jane, Aaron, and Alicia. Blessings on Michael’s memory.

We invite your memories and thoughts, if you knew Mike Groh. Please send your thoughts and memories to pietisten@mac.com

Michael’s contributions to Pietisten include "God's Pocket and the Woolly Marnmoth," in Volume VIII, Number 2, Summer, 1993.

Comments from Readers

I have very fond memories growing up and being surrounded by the Groh family summers at leech lake. But honestly one of my favorite things was rubber band fights in the Groh's living room. Now I know what your thinking, "kids shooting rubber bands at each other where was the parents when this was going on" but I have to tell you, Mike was always right in the middle in the heat of battle ready to nail you with "Big Red" if you dared stick your head out from behind the couch, or if you tried to make a daring scramble to the center of the living room in an attempt to restock your ammo.

My best wishes to the entire Groh Family,

Love, Chris Meads