John Schmalzbauer: A hardware store prophet

Sometimes a prophet is accepted in his hometown.

Sometimes a prophet is accepted in his hometown.

I returned recently to New Brighton, Minnesota, home to generations of Schmalzbauers. It is also where Don Beisswenger grew up. A retired field education professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, the soft-spoken Beisswenger is better known for what he did afterwards.

In November of 2003 Beisswenger was arrested for protesting at the School of the Americas. In his statement to the judge, he condemned the SOA’s role in the training of Central American death-squads. Calling himself a “post-Holocaust Christian who learned that Christian nations can too easily ignore brutality and atrocities done in their name,” he pleaded guilty to trespassing. The story of his confinement is recorded in, “Locked Up: Letters and Papers of a Prisoner of Conscience.

One wouldn’t know this from visiting New Brighton, where Beisswenger’s Hardware has been in business since the 1930s. Operating under the motto, “If we don't have it, you don't need it,” they once competed against my grandfather’s coast to coast store. Though Beisswenger is a household name, few have heard of the Vanderbilt professor and advocate for peace and justice.

And yet the history of this Twin Cities suburb reveals much about Beisswenger’s activism. Remembered as New Brighton’s first permanent European settler, Jacob Beisswenger was born in Wittenberg, Germany. A long-time farmer and merchant, Beisswenger served as councilman and mayor. For 35 years the family provided shelter to Mrs. Putke, an indigent woman who had been abandoned by her husband. In the words of another settler, “both he and Mrs. Beisswenger had hearts much larger than themselves.”

Faithful members of the First Congregational Church, the Beisswengers made their mark on the religious life of New Brighton. In the post-war years, Fred Beisswenger taught my father’s Sunday school class. Prior to entering the hardware business, Fred attended Concordia College, intending to become a pastor. According to the congregation’s centennial history, “he got so lonesome that he came home, and that ended his ministry career.”

A sociology major at Macalester College, Don Beisswenger picked up where his father left off. In the 1950s, Macalester boasted a YMCA chapter and a meaningful connection with the Presbyterian church. According to historian Jeanne Halgren Kilde, “the chaplaincy and the religion department worked in concert to teach students the stories that comprised the Protestant Christian mythos, the tenets of Presbyterianism, and the moral components of Christian life and character.”

After graduating from Macalester, Beisswenger followed an invisible pipeline to Yale Divinity School. A classmate of actor Ralph Waite (John Boy’s dad on “The Waltons”), he shared a flare for the dramatic. As a young Presbyterian pastor, Beisswenger ministered in a Chicago welding shop, a good place for the son of a hardware store owner. Later he helped an African-American family purchase a house by reselling a property in a segregated neighborhood. Against this backdrop, his actions at the School of the Americas make perfect sense.

Like Amos, Don Beisswenger would not claim to be a prophet, or the son or grandson of one; nor would the long-line of faithful Beisswengers. But he is, in his own way. His imprisonment in the SOA affair is only the public evidence of a life spent performing quiet, prophetic acts. Co-founder of a discussion group for the homeless and formerly homeless, Beisswenger is in regular contact with his neighbors. He always tells them he is from New Brighton.

He is a prophet accepted in his hometown and in my town, too. What I am unable to account for is the strange connection between our families. Neighbors in Minnesota, we are also neighbors in Missouri. As providence would have it, I work at the same university as Don’s son Drew, an expert on Ozarks fiddle music. We also attend the same church.

Don Beisswenger recently visited our Methodist Sunday school class. As we joined hands in prayer, the story of the Beisswengers and the Schmalzbauers came full circle.

May the circle remain unbroken.

John Schmalzbauer teaches sociology of religion at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri.