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Duluth elder practices faith through song, service

“Roger’s not a guy to go around preaching, but he is an example of living Christ’s commandments," said Peggy White, choir director at the Lakeside Presbyterian Church in Duluth.

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Roger Kurrle, of Duluth, gestures while talking in the sanctuary at Lakeside Presbyterian Church in Duluth on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Roger Kurrle's head nearly grazes the top of the door frame in the Lakeside Presbyertian Church lounge as he walks into choir practice. He joins the other baritones in the back row before launching into “God Is Here.”

On the hymn’s last two notes, Kurrle raises his elbows and bobs his shoulders to the beat.

“This is our livewire,” Faye Swanstrom said. When things get serious in rehearsal, he puts everybody into a calming mood with a joke or a comment. He’s a good guy, she said.

At 82, Kurrle is an ordained elder at Lakeside Presbyterian in Duluth.

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Roger Kurrle unloads cakes from Cub Foods at the Damiano Center on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021. Kurrle regularly picks up day-old bakery goods from Cub Foods and brings them to the Damiano. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

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Each week, he transports dated baked goods from Cub Foods to the Damiano Center, as he’s done for 20 years. Before COVID-19, he and his wife, Lavonne, cooked and served meals at the nonprofit.
He is a past-potentate, or the CEO, of AAD Temple Shrine — he served in the position twice — and he regularly drives children to and from Shriners Children's hospitals in the Twin Cities.

When the News Tribune caught up with him this week, Kurrle had just delivered 200 pairs of mittens to a clinic.

“Whenever there’s something that needs to be done, he quietly gets it done,” said Peggy White, Lakeside Presbyterian Church choir director. “Roger’s not a guy to go around preaching, but he is an example of living Christ’s commandments.”

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Peggy White, of Duluth, pictured Wednesday, November 3, 2021, is the director of the chancel choir for Lakeside Presbyterian Church in Duluth. Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

White was introduced to Kurrle at church, where she has worked as the choir director for 13 years.

Along with working together in music, White has helped prepare neighborhood picnics and launched coat drives with Kurrle. They’ve served on the worship committee.

During the shutdown, she and the church had gone through many different experiences trying to provide service and worship.

“Music is a touchstone for faith,” said White, and Kurrle was an instrumental part of the rotation, willing to lead during outdoor services and sing during limited indoor services.

"He’s a well-rounded person of so many skills and talents. We feel very blessed to have him at our church," she added.

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Walt and Kay Gower. Contributed photo

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Kay and Walt Gower, of Duluth, have been friends with Kurrle and his wife, Lavonne, for decades.

He shows his faith in so many ways, Kay Gower said.

“Service to others is the core of who he is,” Walt Gower added.

He’s very popular and well-respected in the Aad Shrine, said Paul Vizanko, of Duluth. Vizanko has been a mason for 20 years. When he met Kurrle, he said his first impression was: “How does he have the power in a day to do what he does?"

“He’s very giving of his time," Vizanko said. "Like any organization, there’s probably five to 10 that do 90% of the work, and Roger is for sure one of those people in our Shrine.”

When Vizanko considered running for potentate, a role that oversees daily operations, finance and more, he approached Kurrle.

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Paul Vizanko

Vizanko is a former potentate, and Kurrle has been a mentor for years. “He taught me a lot. He’s my go-to guy,” Vizanko said.

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Roger Kurrle, of Duluth, top left, rehearses with the Lakeside Presbyterian Church Chancel Choir in the sanctuary Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Save for a spell during World War II and the year he moved to Denver to serve in the Air National Guard, Kurrle has lived in Duluth his whole life.

He married Lavonne in 1965, and they started attending Lakeside Presbyterian when they moved nearby.

Asked about his congregation, Kurrle described it as “a big family.”

“That’s what I like about it. People look after each other. If somebody’s sick or needs meals or whatever, somebody always jumps in to help out,” Kurrle said.

When the News Tribune pointed out that’s what his peers say about him, Kurrle remained modestly silent.

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Damiano Center volunteer Katie Haydon reacts to fellow volunteer Roger Kurrle’s interaction with a diner at the center before the COVID-19 pandemic. Steve Kuchera / 2019 file / Duluth News Tribune

Retired as the public works director for the city of Duluth, Kurrle said: “Get at it and get it done — that’s pretty much how I’ve been my whole life.”

Seated in his Lakeside home, Kurrle cleared his throat, excusing himself as another dry rasp escaped him. He isn’t performing in Sunday’s service, which is a good thing.

“I don't know if I dare try to sing with this cough,” he said.

It will be a change from other Sundays to swap the choir loft for a seat in a pew with Lavonne.

Music is very important to Kurrle, who has been singing in adult choir since he was 14. He has sung Methodist, Presbyterian and Lutheran hymnals — “sacred music,” he said — and in all, the songs are listed by topic by the human experience.

“It could be sorrow, joy, celebration, weddings, marriages, deaths, all of that. The song can be loud or soft, and you feel that when you’re singing.”

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Roger Kurrle, of Duluth, right, rehearses with the Lakeside Presbyterian Church Chancel Choir in the church lounge in Duluth on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. Seated in front, from left: Joann Kovach, Faye Swanstrom and Mary John. Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

He views church as a stable and friendly place where he could participate in worship — a saving grace at times.

“Participating in church teaches you that when somebody like your father dies, they’re going to a better place. No matter how good it is here, it’s always better. Heaven’s a busy place. God will take care of them.”

And here, you’ve got a whole congregation to console you, he added.

It’s grace the Kurrles often extend to others. If someone loses a loved one, the first thing is we make sloppy joes and get them to the family, so they don’t have to worry about two meals, anyway, he said.

Asked about his service to others, Kurrle was quick to answer.

“No. 1: I do it because I enjoy it. No. 2: It’s something that you’re supposed to do as a Christian — take care of people.”

This story was updated at 9:45 a.m. Nov. 24 to clarify that Roger Kurrle is not a current potentate of the AAD Shrine; and again at 11:14 a.m. Nov. 30 to clarify that Paul Vizanko is a former potentate of the AAD Shrine. James Christensen currently serves in the position.

"People of Faith" focuses on Northlanders and their walk with spirituality and community. If you have a suggestion for this series, contact Melinda Lavine at mlavine@duluthnews.com or 218-723-5346.

Related Topics: FAITHDULUTH
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