The Fading White Dot: Losing a Friend and Telling the Vision

Dear Faithful Viewers:

Turning off the TV used to be magical. I don’t mean in a sociological sense, where shutting off the television was followed by a command to play outside; I mean in the technical electronic sense. With the old cathode-ray tube there was that haunting glow of a white dot in the center of the old Philco that lingered for several minutes after the set was disempowered. The focusing magnetic coil was still active even after the power was cut, so that a small beam of rays was still striking the phosphor-coated screen; as a child I remember thinking that was as interesting as the show that had just ended.

I thought about that white dot the other day when I received word that my friend Bruce Pangborn had died after spending over a year in a nursing home in Green Bay, WI. Bruce and I had been friends for just over thirty years. We met shortly after my ordination when he was visiting area churches, stumping for support for the Care and Counseling Center of Evergreen Park Ministry, then and now the nation's only free ecumenical pastoral care center. What started as a fundraising contact grew into a long and rich friendship. Less than a year after that first meeting, Bruce invited me to share in the ministry as a part-time pastoral associate. He assured me that my training as a chaplain and my research work in social theory had sufficiently prepared me for the position. Bruce, a Lutheran (ELCA) minister, had received some clinical certifications and was willing to mentor my performance. Mentoring quickly evolved into a collegial friendship, which devolved into brotherhood.

Bruce’s first career had been in the restaurant industry. Finishing college in his native Iowa, he shared his hometown, Ottumwa, with Radar O’Reilly. Bruce managed a Shakey’s Pizza Parlor. He loved supervising high school kids through their first job and comping free beer for the banjo player. One of his customers owned several McDonald’s franchises and covered Bruce’s expenses for full manager training at Hamburger U. I think he was prouder of his Archie Award from McDonald's than he was of his ordination certificate from the ELCA.

While managing restaurants, Bruce’s Lutheran pastor (he had converted to Lutheranism from Presbyterianism when he married his wife, Karen) suggested he consider a career change to pastoral ministry. A few years later, he was enrolled at the Lutheran School of Theology in Hyde Park. His wife, a nurse, found quick employment at the University of Chicago Hospitals.

Bruce loved ministry, but his background in restaurant management served him better than any classes in ecclesiology. A church, like a restaurant, has a front of the house, where folks are welcome and set at ease; a dining room, where the meals are served with appropriate service and ambiance; and a back of the house--church administration, where waste could not be tolerated, and professional energy depended on teamwork and good humor. Bruce obsessed over the importance of clean restrooms, a skill for ministry not covered in my education at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Bruce left the Counseling Center to pastor a church in Hinsdale, and then moved to Green Bay, where he could finally fit in as a Packers fan. He served two congregational calls and then served the Synod as a consulting interim. Bruce and I attended several conferences together; these were opportunities to overlap continuing education with friendship. I began my own consulting career under his corporate umbrella, Resources for Renewal. Bruce encouraged me to start LAMUS Consulting, and our two firms collaborated on several projects. The connection continued through the years as we spoke at least once a week about congregational consulting, church administration, pastoral care, social justice and single-malt scotch.

A few years ago, Bruce’s diabetes began to take its toll. Last year, shortly before Thanksgiving, he was transferred from the hospital to Bornemann Senior Community, the facility that would be his final earthly home. The care at Bornemann was good, but once the old tube loses its empowerment, the screen begins to fade. Initially our conversations remained hearty. Bruce, who could be a bit of a curmudgeon, easily fueled his misanthropic side by finding plentiful reasons to complain about the current state of politics. But in the end, even the fresh dry kindling handed him each day by the current administration wasn’t enough to keep the fire burning.

My last conversation with Bruce involved his frustration over the pistachio dessert. He had ordered pistachio dessert, and they had given him an apple slice; this wasn’t good. I could tell the power was fading, and a relationship that had brought humor, drama, news, documentary and science fiction was coming to an end. Tomorrow I will drive to Green Bay and participate in a funeral, not as a pastor but as a friend. I will linger to recall the vast programming of our friendship. I shall even miss the white dot.

Celebrating in sorrow, I remain,

With Love,
Jonathan Krogh
Your Pastor