Dec. 23, 2020 — “I can’t say I did anything. I helped a little,” Dr. Albert J. Brauer said in May 2018 when interviewed on becoming the Grand Marshal for the Rhododendron parade. AJ, as he was known to many, passed away on Dec. 17 at the age of 91, leaving behind a legacy that was instrumental to building the City of Florence.
Over the course of 60 years, he established a medical practice, helped build new hospitals and clinics, developed Summerset Estates, was a board chairman for Oregon Pacific Bank (OPB), helped initiate the New Life Lutheran Church and served on the Lane Community College Florence Center board.
“Maybe he just saw potential and could not help but further that. I think he believed that he could make a difference,” his daughter Gretchen Brauer-Rieke said. “It wasn’t for glorification. It was just because he couldn’t not. That’s just the way he viewed the world. I think there was something about Florence, feeling like you’re in a small pond. And Florence was pretty small back when they moved here in 1958.”
So small that it only had two paved streets.
“The population sign said 1,620,” AJ recalled. “In the wintertime, with no paved streets, there were terrible potholes. You would sink six inches down. In the heavy rain, you couldn’t see them. Over time, they began doing more and more paving, bringing the town forward.”
And while he didn’t pave the streets, AJ was instrumental in “bringing the town forward.”
Born in Nebraska, some of AJ’s special memories included flying with his dad, piloting his plane and taking care of and riding horses on his dad’s ranch.
He would find his way to the University of Oregon, meeting his first wife Alice Maier, and soon began raising a family, including Gretchen.
“Every summer, on the weekends, we drove around to certain areas to check them out,” AJ recalled. “I wanted nothing to do with the Portland area. I’m a wide open, country guy. I like a lot of space.”
A few years after finishing school, they were living in Honolulu when they got a call from a friend from Eugene.
“He said ‘There’s a doctor who died in Florence. Are you interested in purchasing the practice?” AJ recalled.
“My wife and I discussed it. For her it was better, so we decided to do it. It was put in motion that we’d try and move forward with that,” AJ said. Enrolled in the Navy at the time, the Florence Chamber of Commerce lobbied the service for AJ to be released early to become the town physician. Even a senator got involved in the campaign.
“As I look back, God gave us the right choice. It turned out vastly more than I expected,” AJ said. “We started purchasing a clinic, which is the place across the street from the old hospital on 12th street.”
Alice had three more children – James in 1958, Melissa in 1959 and John in 1961 — all delivered by their dad, who was busy growing his new medical practice.
The lumber industry was how most of the town made a living, with eight mills in the area when AJ arrived.
“When I first came, there were a lot of guys working in the woods. A lot of patients were in that industry,” he said. “There were more accidents back then, but rules got changed. All kinds of things. Back in those days, we did lots of surgery. I’d see as many as 50 patients a day.”
But the town was also growing.
“In the old days, with all the loggers around, they didn’t waste their time. We delivered about 90 babies a year. Now we deliver one or two a week,” AJ said.
Gretchen recalled, “He would work these incredibly long days when he was doctoring, taking care of his patients and on-call because he covered the emergency room. All the time, it felt like he was busy being a doctor.”
AJ said it was because he loved practicing medicine.
“My father told me, who was a doctor, medicine is the most noble profession,” AJ said. “You’re helping people that are suffering. I enjoyed it. I was carrying a heavy load in my practice, but also in all the responsibilities I took on.”
Those other responsibilities included serving on the Siuslaw School Board from 1960-1966, and then on the Lane Community College Board (Charter Member, 1964-1976), where he was instrumental in creation of the LCC Branch in Florence.
AJ and Alice were heavily involved in church activities as well, first at Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church in Reedsport, and then St. Paul Lutheran in Florence. At St. Paul’s, they led the effort to construct a new building in 1969-70, after which the church was renamed New Life Lutheran Church.
In recognition of his community involvement, AJ was awarded the very first First Citizen of Florence in 1967.
When asked why he worked so much, AJ said, “I look back and I don’t know why I did that. I thought it was the right thing for the community.”
‘It’s almost like he couldn’t not do what he did,” Gretchen said. “He was the kind of guy who was always thinking and always planning on how to make things better. He believed in productive work. He did not take kindly to what would be ‘frivolous’ pursuits. Like going to the beach or something. Or even going on vacation. Those kind of things felt frivolous to him. He worked to relax, he worked to have fun. He worked when he was off of work.”
In 1960, AJ and Alice bought a piece of run-down property on Woahink Lake, cleaned it up and supervised construction of their new home, which was completed in 1964.
“Free time, he worked out on the property,” Gretchen said. “It was physical labor, riding the tractor and mowing his lawns, repairing the barns and getting his chainsaw out. When he wasn’t working physically, he was working mentally. He would sit in front of scraps of paper and have plans and ideas.”
Gretchen thinks that was just how her father viewed the world.
“It was normal. That’s kind of what you do,” she said. “I don’t think he realized that not everybody was built that way.”
Since his passing, the family has created an online memorial where people left their impressions of him.
“You see comments from people who say they were originally intimidated and almost afraid of him,” she said. He came across that way. He had really high standards and he didn’t spend a lot of time on social niceties. He was pretty direct and very clear about what he wanted to do. People who were looking for more fluff didn’t find it in him.”
But as people got to know him, they realized he was a “softie.”
“I think the people who got to know him well realized he had a big heart behind that efficient driving exterior with those high expectations,” Gretchen said. “He had this really giving heart behind that. And that’s the heart that came from his faith.”
It was that faith that helped fuel a long-time interest in medical missions. In 1970, he went to Kenya for a 3-month mission.
“I felt that it was proper for me to give my service away to people who had nothing,” AJ said.
“It wasn’t, ‘I’m just going to help those poor people out,’” Gretchen said. “He really wanted to make it so they could function better. And have the hospitals become self-sufficient. I appreciate that about him.”
In 1972, he returned to Kenya, this time with Alice, Gretchen and James. It was during that trip that the family was involved in a tragic car accident.
“The goats and the sheep pop up on the road,” he said. “And here’s these lads coming up. And if I didn’t avoid them, I’d wipe them out. There was a car I didn’t see. And we just hit head on.”
Alice passed away in the crash. Brauer’s foot was caught in the pedals, and he ended up losing his leg after a series of surgeries.
“I’ve had terrible tragedies, but I always eventually got through them,” Brauer said. “And that’s only possible because of what God has done.”
It was during the hospital stay in Kenya that AJ met a nun named Catherine Miskella, who was known then as Sister Hyacinth. When they arrived back in Florence, the two struck up a correspondence.
“In the correspondence, there was something I cannot explain rationally at all,” he said. “One day I was laying there in bed, and I said to myself, ‘If she was here right now, everything would be okay.’ I wrote and told her, ‘I think I’m falling in love with you.’ She wrote back and said to me, ‘I am in love with you.’ Can you believe it? That’s God’s intervention.”
Catherine came to America and the two were wed.
“Even to this day, marrying a nun is the weirdest thing I’d ever encountered,” AJ said. “To come over to a foreign land and take on six children — when I stop to think about it — I’m still stunned. We were married 43 and a half years. My first wife, we were married 21 years. Two very wonderful women, quite different. But both wonderful.”
They continued missionary trips to Africa, as well as building up Florence. AJ helped nurture his practice and the hospital for decades until it was decided to give the hospital over to PeaceHealth Peace Harbor, which opened its doors in 1989.
AJ played a pivotal role in facilitating the partnership.
He also became a founding board member of Oregon Pacific Bank, though it was never his intention to do so.
“The bank deal was bizarre,” he recalled. “Some guy who was working at one of the banks in town came into my office feigning a need to see a doctor — but that isn’t why he was there. He thought I was a guy to help start a new bank. I have no idea why he thought that. He asked me, ‘You know the good people in town. You tell me the people we should invite and see if they’re interested in doing this.’ So, I did. Over time, you get a collection of good people, you make things really go.”
And he continued that work throughout his life, continuing on boards and mentoring people in the community.
“He really believed that it was his obligation to live out the gift of leadership,” Gretchen said. “If I have this gift, I need to live this out to be true to my faith. Many people see him as being altruistic, and in some ways he was. But he also couldn’t help not being that way.”
In the late Spring of 2020, AJ had a series of unintentional falls. He moved to Spruce Point Assisted Living, but in November a fall broke both his pelvises.
After a brief hospitalization and transfer yet again to rehab, isolated from his loved ones due to COVID restrictions, AJ declined precipitously to the point where his alarmed children insisted on quickly moving him back home on hospice care.
Once back home, AJ was able to relax and start letting go, resting in bed with a view of the lake. His children and grandchildren gathered over the next few weeks to assist with his care and say their goodbyes.
In the early morning hours of Dec. 17, he died peacefully on the last day of his 90th year — one day shy of his 91st birthday — after an amazingly prolific life well-lived.
“I believe, on the whole, that people who have entered this area to live, have added to making this a better place,” AJ said. “The hospital is one, the library is another. The schools have seen big changes. The town is in far better shape, by far, as the town has progressed. … There’s a lot of wise people who have come to this area over the years. People that were very successful in what they were doing. I think this city has continued to progress. The younger people in their 40s and 50s, those people are more ambitious than they were 30, 40 years earlier. It’s absolutely a good thing.”
Note: A virtual memorial service for AJ will be held on Saturday, Jan. 9 at 11 a.m. Email ajbrauermemo
[email protected] to request information.
To view past pictures of AJ or share memories, visit his online memorial at www.forevermissed.com/albert-james-brauer/about.