Monday, December 1, 2008

Wally

On April 8, 2008, I flew to Michigan to celebrate Wally Bronner’s life, here and hereafter, at his memorial service. As a teenager, Wally started a sign-making business in his parents’ basement. This business grew to be Bronner's CHRISTmas Wonderland, housed in a building the size of five football fields and full of everything Christmas. Wally was “Mr. Christmas” to millions around the world as he traveled the globe looking for decorations for the world’s biggest birthday party. I hope you will have the chance to visit Wally’s legacy, his year-round celebration of Christ’s birth, in Frankenmuth.

His memorial service was held at historic St. Lorenz Lutheran Church in Frankenmuth with 1300 people in attendance. Pondering the faith and the work of Wally Bronner, this genius of celebration, I headed from the church to Zehnder’s lovely luncheon for friends and family. I noticed posters with Wally’s picture and the words “Wally Joins His CHRIST of CHRISTmas!” I look forward to seeing him at that joyful destination some day.

Wally’s son Wayne emceed the luncheon. Wayne observed that Wally’s mind was like a 500 gig hard drive, quick and able to retain an incredible amount of information. Even more importantly, his constant joy in the Lord was both irrepressible and inspiring. Wayne recalled that his father, reading the newspaper coverage of his illness and diagnosis, observed with gratitude, “How many people get to read their own obituary?” Retaining his sharp wit and his delight in his Savior’s birth, Wally attached some Christmas holly – the same kind he always wore in the lapel of his red jacket at Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland – to his IV pole. He’d laugh to medical staff and visitors, “Notice the holly and the IV!”

When he came home from the hospital, his prognosis was for an abbreviated life at age 81. Nevertheless, he welcomed visitors and prayed with and for family, friends, and staff. His organized, full-of-ideas self prevailed to the end, even suggesting how his family could most efficiently line up to receive guests at the funeral home, as well as how they could respond to each guest in 10 words or less. When giving this advice, did Wally sense that 1300 would come from far and wide to celebrate his faith, his earthly deeds, and his eternal life?

His esophageal cancer affected his voice, and when he could no longer speak, he had to use hand gestures. He’d make an X to say, “Enough of that, cut it out,” and he’d make the sign of the cross to bless people. At the very end, Wayne said, it was difficult to tell the difference between the two gestures. Wayne went on to note, though, that what had seemed confusing now made sense: “If Wally were here today and saw us weeping,” Wayne said, “he’d give an X – ‘cut that out, enough of this; pick up a piece of trash, decorate something, pray with someone. Tell someone about Jesus so you can bring a lot of people with you to heaven. You know how I love a crowd!’”

That day, I kept thinking, “Where there’s a will, there’s a Wally!” Who would have thought that a teenager’s sign-making business would grow into something so substantial and important to so many people? It makes sense, though, because, like those double-sided signs that Wally painted in his youth, his life was marked on both sides: “here and hereafter.” This was the mark made by His Creator and Redeemer, whose Life he served and celebrated.

Wally died on April 1, but he was no fool. As the late missionary Jim Elliot wrote in his journals, “He is no fool who loses what he cannot keep to keep what he cannot lose.” Near the end of his life, Wally joked that he was being “recalled” by his Maker; he knew that his life was a gift, and he used that gift to celebrate and rejoice in his Creator every day.

1 comment:

Lori Libka, Bronner's communications assistant said...

Thank you for your thoughtful remembrance of Wally and what was so important to him.