Rhody Rendezvous honors first First Citizen

Festival Grand Marshal Dr. Al Brauer reminiscences on his experiences in Florence

May 12, 2018 — Dr. Al Brauer wasn’t expecting to be named the grand marshal of the 111th Rhododendron Festival Grand Floral Parade this year, which runs Sunday, May 20, on Highway 101 and down to Historic Old Town Florence.

“Shocking,” he said. “I had no idea. I’ve been here almost 60 years. I guess at this point in time I’m an oldtimer.”

Over that 60 years, Brauer 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 for 12 years.

“I can’t say I did anything,” Brauer said. “I just helped.”

Brauer first arrived in Florence in 1958 with his wife, Alice. They had both attended school at the University of Oregon and would take trips out to different communities in the region, looking for a place to settle down.

“I wanted nothing to do with the Portland area,” Brauer said. “I’m a wide open, country guy.”

When he was stationed in Hawaii as a medical officer for the Marines, Alice had received a call about a doctor who had just passed away in Florence, and the newly built hospital was looking for a new physician. The city lobbied for Brauer to be released from his service, so he could quickly come to the community. He purchased a clinic across the street from the old hospital on 12th street.

“It was a logger town,” Brauer said. “Fishing was on its way down, that was moving further north. The population sign said 1,620. There were only two paved streets in town at the time, down Old Town and the highway and the street up to the highway. There were terrible pot holes. In the heavy rain, you couldn’t see them. You would sink six inches down.”

He remained busy during that time, servicing the thousands of lumber workers throughout the area.

“There were more accidents back then,” he noted. “Back in those days, we did lots of surgery. I’d see as many as 50 patients a day.”

Brauer also helped deliver a good portion of Florence’s residents into the world.

“In the old days, with all the loggers around, they didn’t waste their time,” he said. “We delivered about 90 babies a year. Now we deliver 1 or two a week.”

The medical profession ran in Brauer’s family, as his father was a doctor as well.

“My father told me that medicine is the most noble profession. You’re helping people that are suffering. And I loved practicing medicine,” he said.

Brauer 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.

But the hospital was only a small portion of the things Brauer helped build over the years.

“I was carrying a heavy load in my practice, but also in all the responsibilities I took on,” he said. “I look back and I don’t know why I did that. I thought it was the right thing for the community.”

One of the organizations was OPB.

“The bank deal was bizarre,” Brauer said. “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.”

But the partnership proved fruitful, as Brauer helped bring partners into the fold. He served on the bank’s board for 28 years.

A devout Lutheran, Brauer also helped bring about the New Life Lutheran Church in Florence. It was that endeavor that led him to develop Summerset Estates, located directly behind it.

“I started it so nobody would come behind the church and do something with the property that would be very negative,” he said matter-of-factly.

Brauer also served on the local school board for six years and was instrumental in bringing the Florence campus of Lane Community College to town.

All of these experiences led Brauer to being named Florence’s first First Citizen in 1967, which was then sponsored by the Florence Rotary Club. Now, Florence Area Chamber of Commerce includes the Florence First Citizen Award, as well as the Future First Citizen, in the Siuslaw Awards each winter.

Beyond his work in Florence, Brauer has also carried his medical expertise throughout the world.

“I felt that it was proper for me to give my service away to people who had nothing,” he said. “I always felt that someday I would like to do that.”

But in Kenya, his life changed from a terrible automobile 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.

“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 in Kenya where he met a nun named Catherine who worked at the local hospital. When he arrived back in Florence, Catherine would write to Brauer, checking up on her old patient.

“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 writes back and says to me, ‘I am in love with you.’ Can you believe it?”

Brauer said that marrying a nun was the weirdest thing he had ever encountered, but their marriage lasted for decades. They would continue to go back to Kenya, along with other countries throughout the world, doing medical work.

Almost two years ago, Catherine passed away.

“We were married 43 and a half years,” Brauer said. “My first wife, we were married 21 years. Two very wonderful women, quite different. But wonderful.”

As Brauer’s life has changed, so has the life of Florence, which has grown from a small two-road town to the “City in Motion” it is today.

“Watching the changes over time have been interesting,” he said. “I believe, on the whole, that people who have entered this area to live have added to making this a better place. 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.”

As for the future of the city? He believes it looks bright.

“With all the retired people around here, seniors, these are the kind of people that I think will contribute a lot with new ideas,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of effort to build up, for the younger people in their 40s and 50s as well. Those people are more ambitious than they were 30, 40 years earlier. It’s absolutely a good thing.”

As parade grand marshal, Brauer will be at several events throughout next week’s Rhododendron Festival. As this year’s theme is “Rhody Rendezvous,” people will get the chance to meet Brauer to remember his legacy and continuing impact.

For more information on the festival or to purchase discounted tickets to the Davis Shows NW Amusement Carnival, which will be at the Port of Siuslaw parking lot beginning on Wednesday, stop in to the Florence Visitor’s Center, 290 Highway 101, or visit florencechamber.com.

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