After 22 years, it's hard to know where to start. The Rev. Ken Gruebel has so many books in his office, so many mementos, and now he must find room for them at home.
His cross collection alone will take some care. He has more than 200, the first dating back 40 years when he graduated from the Princeton Theological Seminary.
Everywhere you look in the space where he has prepared thousands of sermons for the St. Mark's Presbyterian flock in Hudson, you find examples of his jovial personality, his appreciation of literature. And as we met for a few hours last week, as I admired and examined his "stuff,'' one weathered, typewritten note carefully framed on the bookcase offered an insight of where this man of God got his foundation.
This, your first knife is the best that money can buy. Given good care it should serve you for years. Keep its blade as bright as your honor, its edge as keen as your humor, its case as sound as your judgment and the whole knife as untarnished as your character.
Happy birthday from your loving father,
More than five decades later, Gruebel still uses that pocket knife. More important, he obeys the direction. His commitment to honor, his sense of humor, his character have endeared him to a congregation that now must get used to not having him around. After conducting Easter services on March 31, the 65-year-old pastor will take a week to clean out his office, bid some sad goodbyes and get on with a phase he once thought he might not live to see: retirement.
"It's difficult, to say the least,'' said his secretary, Diane D'Entremont, who has served the church for 30 years. "He's the best boss anybody could ever have.''
St. Mark's can thank the harsh Michigan winter of 1991 for delivering Gruebel. He had been happy for 11 years leading the Geneva Presbyterian Church in Canton, an affluent suburb 20 miles from Detroit. He and his wife, Sue, were raising David and Melissa and had no interest in leaving. But a friend who had retired to Florida pestered him to consider taking over the church in Hudson that was in some disarray with an ailing pastor.
After turning down St. Mark's twice, he was surprised one Sunday to see some church officers show up for his service. They asked him to think it over for two or three weeks. Florida sounds mighty good when you're shoveling snow.
"So I came down,'' he said, "and I have never regretted the move. This is my church family. They have seen me through some tough times, given me more than I could have imagined.''
The congregation circled around the pastor in 1997 when he underwent surgery for prostate cancer. "I was frightened,'' he said, "but then I was determined to live grateful for my years.''
He recovered and has not had a recurrence of cancer. But in 2003 he suffered a different kind of pain when his wife of 35 years asked for a divorce. "I was devastated,'' he said. "We had been high school sweethearts, and she is a terrific mother. After I got over the shock, I did what I advise people enduring the same thing. I took some time to heal and sought help.''
Gruebel's personal setbacks affected his professional approach. He became more of a storyteller, even dressing up in costume to become Bible characters. He told jokes, lots of jokes. Most in the congregation seemed to like that.
"I see the humorous parts of life,'' he said. "I've done over 700 funerals in my career. I am well acquainted with pain and suffering and death. I look for opportunities to find joy.''
A year after his divorce, he found joy once again in his personal life. Family members told him about a friend he had in high school in Greenlawn, Long Island, a legal assistant in Dayton, Ohio, a "faithful Presbyterian'' named Gail. They started communicating. During one week in May 2004, Gruebel presided over his daughter's wedding at the University of Florida chapel in Gainesville, preached Sunday at St. Mark's, flew to California for a memorial service and then to Dayton to see Gail face to face for the first time in years. "We hit it off famously,'' he said.
They married that December in Dayton and then re-created the ceremony for the congregation in Hudson the next week, complete with tuxedo and wedding gown. Gail now works for Carlson & Meissner law firm.
After retirement, Gruebel plans to keep playing racquetball three days a week, his hobby for 30 years despite a knee replacement a few years back. He has several chores at home he has been putting off. He wants to visit his parents, who are pushing 90 but doing well in North Carolina. He has promised to make it to California more often to see three grandsons.
He'll keep in touch with folks from St. Mark's, but from a distance. "I love the people, but they need to transfer their allegiance to the new pastor,'' he said. "After 22 years, change is going to be tough for all of us. But change is good, and life goes on.''