In 1972, the night before Father Bruce Brown was sworn in as an Air Force chaplain in downtown Portland, anti-war activists rioted. The priest had to work his way past broken glass and chicken wire to enter the recruiting office.
"I was the peacemaker," he recalls. "I was there to keep the fighters sane."
Father Brown, 77, last month celebrated 50 years as a priest of the Archdiocese of Portland. He spent 22 years in the Air Force, serving in Thailand, Okinawa, Greece, Alaska, Korea and Saudi Arabia.
Among his worst memories is a reverse notification; he had to tell two pilots that their wives had been killed in a car accident back home. But even such heavy duties were meaningful. It was a blessedly simple life. He kept belongings to a minimum because of frequent re-postings. Even at that, God seemed to reduce his material possessions. His minimal furniture was destroyed when a moving van caught fire and a crane once dropped his car onto a loading dock. Nor could he cling to friends. At a military base, a third of the parish rotates annually. "You had to adapt," Father Brown says.
From a family of nine siblings, young Bruce washed dishes to augment household income. He once promised God he'd be a priest if his mother's pregnancy did not end in another miscarriage. The deal worked. He attended Mount Angel for college and then St. Thomas in Kenmore, Wash. for higher theology. He has never regretted the bargain. When he retired from the Air Force in 1994, he served at his boyhood parish, St. John the Baptist in Milwaukie. He is a self-described "people person" and so embraced the new life and its longer-term relationships. Among his favorite parts of the life are baptizing babies and witnessing the commitment of parents. Father Brown appreciates his experience more and more as the years go by.
"I got more out of it than I gave," he says. "It was such a satisfying life."
Joni Chully worked with him for a decade as bookkeeper at Sacred Heart Parish in Southeast Portland, his last assignment.
"He was just totally loved by everyone," Chully says. "He is very good and he gives wonderful homilies. He is a kind, compassionate man."