Through conversations with their family members, colleagues and close friends, MPR News is remembering the lives of the people we’ve lost, too soon, to COVID-19. If you’d like to share the story of someone you’ve lost to COVID-19, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Craig Breimhorst never intended to become a minister. But maybe some things are just meant to be.
It happened when he was in Mankato, Minn., going to school and working as a mail carrier.
“And he saw an advertisement for a youth minister — and it paid,” his son Dane Breimhorst said. “And he's like, how hard can that be?”
But it wasn’t exactly an obvious choice.
"His mom was Missouri Synod Lutheran and his dad was Roman Catholic,” Dane said.
“And back in those days, of course, the Catholics were preaching from the pulpit that the Lutherans were going to hell and the Lutherans are preaching from the pulpit that the Catholics were going to hell. So my dad really did not like religion at all."
But, much to his own surprise, Craig loved the job — especially the part of the job that allowed him to work with kids. He and his wife, Carol, had three sons of their own.
Dane witnessed his dad’s connection with kids firsthand on a recent trip to Tanzania, where Craig traveled often to work and teach.
"We got lost once, trying to just go for a walk out in the bush,” he said. “And before [we] knew it, we couldn't find a way back in. All these children just ran up to us, grabbed onto our hands and led us back to the seminary where he taught. That was my dad. I mean, nobody disliked him."
Dane’s three daughters adored their grandfather. He calls him “the most compassionate man on the planet.” His dad, he said, was the kind of guy who would walk into a room, and within 10 minutes was friends with everyone — which came in handy when he started his own church in Faribault over 30 years ago.
"You could not walk in that town without people greeting him,” Dane said. “Every single person in town pretty much knew who he was — and everybody respected him.”
And it wasn't just people from his own congregation, Dane said. He would mark Ramadan with the imam in town — and would take his congregation to visit a Jewish synagogue in Minneapolis.
"When people found out he was sick, he had prayers being said for him in mosques and temples and synagogues and by priests, pastors, bishops,” Dane said. “That's who he was. He was never a ram-religion-down-your-throat kind of a pastor — he was more [inclined toward] ram the message."
One of the chief ways he preached that message of love, Dane said, was with hugs. He hugged everybody. His son thinks that’s now Craig caught COVID-19, when he led a church group on a trip to Israel and Palestine.
"Street kids want to come up and give him hugs, and he doesn't care,” Dane said. “He just hugs everybody who needs one.”
He spiked a fever when he returned. A couple weeks later, he was in the hospital, in a deep coma, on a respirator.
"He had it pretty bad,” Dane said. “And of course, the worst part is you can't visit. You can't talk to him. You can't see him. You can't do anything."
Then he suffered a major stroke. And the family decided to end life support. Eventually, Dane said, his dad’s body just started shutting down.
"So we got all the families together and we did a Zoom meeting so we could see him lying there. Then my mom and my brothers and I got to — they held the phone up to his ear and we got to say goodbye that way," he said.
He said it was the cruelest, most difficult thing he’s had to do.
"It's hard enough losing a dad,” he said, “but not being able to properly say goodbye, and it's all of a sudden and you don't get to be there and you can't touch him and you can't feel him and you can’t whisper into his ear and you can't stand with him and hold his hand while he goes through his last moments…"
Craig Breimhorst died on April 16 at age 71, Rice County’s first victim of the coronavirus.
Dane said, a month later, he's still riding a roller coaster of emotions, from grief to denial to bitter anger.
"He shouldn't have died. And he did. And this virus sucks and it's wicked. It is a wicked evil virus,” he said. “But I think … way too many people are taking it for granted. You know, until they feel that kind of devastation, it's easy to brush it off, for some people. And it just it's a horrible thing."
Craig Breimhorst’s family hasn’t been able to hold a funeral for him yet.
“He's probably laughing with us,” Dane said. “We can't have a funeral yet, because we know we're going to do this pomp and circumstance. There's gonna be hundreds and hundreds of people there — and he would just go, ‘Oh, sheesh, I'm dead. Who cares? Get on with it.’”
Dane Breimhorst says his father wasn't afraid of death. He said it was like one, big, final trust fall, into the arms of God.
Correction (May 26, 2020): An earlier version of this story included incorrect information in the headline and subhead of this story. It has been updated.