Chaplain Bob Bergeson retired at 67

I recently notified my employer, Carleton College, that I’ll be retiring later this year. 66 seems like a good age to get off the work train and put some time into other pursuits. I’ll let you know how it goes!

My grandfather Ragnvald retired at either 66 or 67. I was in grammar school at the time and the significance of the transition had no impact on me that I recall, except to acknowledge that he and Gladys moved from Chicago to Florida. That seemed a bit excessive to me, but they weren’t the first mid-westerners to migrate south to warmer weather. Just the first ones I knew.

My father Robert retired 26 years ago this month at the age of 67. He started his career as a parish minister in 1952 in Minneapolis and continued in that work until 1965, also serving churches in Edinburg, North Dakota and Northfield, Minnesota. Before he left Northfield, he began taking classes at the University of Minnesota, pursuing a career change into the world of hospital chaplaincy.

Chaplain Bob began the second phase of his work life in Anaheim, California at Martin Luther Hospital. What a sea change in his professional experience and in the life of our family! The hospital was a little over a year old and he was the first full-time chaplain, we were in a completely foreign culture and geography, and Dad was no longer in a church, but going from room to room visiting patients.

After six years in California, Bob moved the family back to Minnesota and took a job at Bethesda Lutheran Hospital in St. Paul. His new employer was Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota. His continuing education classes behind him, he was now qualified to become a Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor. That meant that he could train seminarians and ordained ministers in the art of bedside manner and guided conversations about intimate and difficult topics. Over the course of a couple of decades he mentored dozens of men and women and kept in touch with many of them as they shared their subsequent experiences and gratitude for his guidance.

In 1982, after 11 years at Bethesda, Bob moved to St. Paul Ramsey Hospital (later Regions Hospital), the largest public hospital in Ramsey County. He spent the final 10 years of his career there.

On the day of his retirement, Bob described the essence of his work in traumatic and difficult situations to a newspaper reporter,

“I will not flee from them. I am able to stand in the presence of people who are broken and hurting and not cave in, and that becomes a very important support for them.”

“There are those who say ‘Don’t bug me, get outta here.’ I want to respect always a person’s right not to feel forced. But I will not walk away. Their rejection is a part of the anger they’re feeling. The way I handle their anger may be the bridge.”

In conversation with another news reporter after our dad’s death, my sister Beth Bergeson Behrens, also a health professional, said this about him, “I remember the phone would ring in the middle of the night and I could hear him talking to the distressed caller. I was always mesmerized by how supportive and comforting he was. He was always seeking out who he considered to be the most suffering.”

The man left an amazing legacy of work in his wonderfully fruitful career. I’m humbled to call him my father.

Ragnvald, Danny and Robert, 1953
Ragnvald, Danny and Robert, 1953

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