BY DEBRA KEEFER RAMAGE
To me, Al Hildenbrand was one of a score or so of people who joined Walker Church during the 13 years (1998 through 2011) when I was in England. I knew him first just as the person who had taken on the role of the opening blessing after the passing away of Gerry Bretzke a few years before my return.
Al never said the blessing exactly the same way, so it always sounded spontaneous, as if he had just discovered the wonder and majesty he sincerely called down upon his beloved community. I noticed Al’s infectious smile when he said “Hello, my relatives!” right after the conclusion of communal singing and launched joyfully into the blessing. And speaking of singing, I noted that Al was in the Walker Singers, the small but perfectly harmonized choir of our church, and that he had a fine, rich baritone.
It was after the church burned down that I got to know Al better. He was one of those people whose generative leadership qualities really come to the fore in times of crisis. And in rebuilding a redesigned new Walker Church, Al’s more technical leadership also came into play. Having a blank slate to work on, Al realized many of Walker Church’s dreams of having a state-of-the-art sound system, Wi-Fi network, HVAC, elevator and communal kitchen.
Because Al – of Al’s Electric Works LLC – was also known throughout the south Minneapolis community as a master electrician, who furthermore had a background in electrical engineering, and a pioneer’s interest in electronics, the World Wide Web, and the digital age that emerged in years of our (we Boomers’) adulthood. As the newly appointed Communications Coordinator, I worked with him on planning how we would use our technical infrastructure to inform and spread our own particular gospel.
I saw another side of Al, his tender, loving and spiritual side, due to his personal tragedy of losing his young adult son, Cole, in 2018. It was at Cole’s funeral at Walker Church that I realized that Al had a huge community outside of Walker Church, which in turn made me appreciate even more how much he put into the church. Al’s eulogy for his son was one of the most profound and moving speeches I have ever heard.
When I attended the Tuesday communal meals, Al was always someone I wanted to sit at my table, although it wasn’t always possible. Unsurprisingly, he was very popular at social events.Some people made jokes about Al’s tendency to “hold forth.” He had a prodigious knowledge of subjects from the mundane to the arcane, and was compelled to tell you all he knew. I sort of enjoyed being on the receiving end of this waterfall of intelligence.
Al Hildenbrand passed away on April 3 of this year at the age of 74. From his obituary, I learned more details of his life, such as the Evangelical United Brethren upbringing, the tipi he sewed using a treadle sewing machine, his love of motorcycle riding, and his early job as a caretaker for a Girl Scout camp. (See this loving and interesting document at the Star Tribune site: www.startribune.com/obituaries/detail/0000422304.)
We held a Celebration of Al’s Life at Walker Church on April 16. There we heard personal stories from Al’s brother Gar, his stepson Mason, his late cousin’s son Harley, and other people in whose lives Al was a loving and important figure. Losing Al is going to leave a huge hole in many lives.