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Roxane B. Salonen, Published January 24 2014

Faith Conversations: Pastors' Pastor: Now retired, Rev. Vitalis looks forward to what’s next

Fargo -- The Rev. Dale Vitalis and his wife, Lu, can’t help but giggle at God’s sense of humor.

Years ago, while traveling back and forth between lake-lavished Minnesota, their state of origin, and mountain-marked Montana, where they also lived for a time, they’d stop in Fargo for gas or a bite to eat and note the apparent barrenness of Fargo.

“We’d say, ‘People live in this flat country?’ ” Lu recalls. “Then we ended up moving here, not once, but twice. God’s voice was calling us, and now it’s our home. This is where we have our support, and it’s also been our spiritual home.”

But they also have a home and daughter in Battle Lake, Minn., and with Dale’s December retirement from First Lutheran Church, the two have begun a slow descent from the area they’ve found so soulfully abundant.

The void will be big, according to Marty Tollefson, discipleship pastor at First Lutheran.

“Dale’s got a humble heart, a gentle spirit, and he loves Jesus,” Tollefson says. “He’s also got this wonderful sense of humor and the capacity to make everyone burst into laughter.”

Ruth Hanson, a longtime friend of the couple, agrees, saying Dale’s “world-class wit is always percolating. You can’t get more than three

sentences without something funny coming out of his mouth.”

Leading the leaders

Dale’s also been a pastors’ pastor, Tollefson says, the kind of spiritual leader other spiritual leaders seek out for guidance.

Lu backs this up with a story. About 20 years ago, when Dale was having open-heart surgery, the charge nurse came to the family, imploring them to tell her the name of Dale’s pastor. They had about 20 to 30 pastors asking to pray with him, and just couldn’t allow that much traffic in the hospital. “We had to name just one or two to make it more manageable,” Lu adds.

The draw comes from his giving spirit, according to Lu. “He was never out there being a man about town,” she says.

Instead, he’s poured his life energy into those around him – both from his church community as well as family – Lu and their four now-grown children, Kathryn, Susan, Elizabeth and Steve.

And again, it’s all been served with a side of laughter.

“God has gifted me with a sense of humor,” Dale admits, noting how useful this has been during committee meetings when conversations “get sticky.” “I’ve never used my sense of humor to hurt anyone, though. I’m always the butt of my own jokes.”

Love behind the laughs

But Hanson knows humor is only an entry point into something much more profound – a deeply compassionate soul whose real gift is touching hearts during times of suffering.

The first time she experienced this was in 1997 at the bedside of her dying father. He’d had a stroke, and though Dale hadn’t known him before then, Hanson says, he knew what to say.

“He picked up one of my dad’s very large farmer hands, and he said, ‘Oh Elmer, I can just imagine all the work these hands have done. Just think, when you get to heaven, your farmland is going to be without weed, you’re going to get sun when you need it and rain when you need it, and your crops will all be perfect,’ ” she recounts. “He made a connection that both Mom and I really appreciated.”

She also had a chance to witness his genius in redirecting tension with humor, especially at work. “It would help us get out of the rut we were digging ourselves into,” says Hanson, First Lutheran’s parish nurse coordinator. “He’s a wonderful pastor and role model for his faith, but he’s also very effective on many other plains.”

The soul journey

Dale says a common love for Jesus is what brought him and Lu together.

While Lu experienced a lively Christian upbringing, Dale’s childhood involved a Lutheran father and Catholic mother who agreed to never discuss religion in their home for the sake of peace.

“There was no mention of God, no prayer or anything like that,” he says. “But my grandmother was a devout Catholic, a saint. I think she prayed all of her children into the kingdom. So she had a subliminal influence on my life.”

When Dale reached junior high, he and his older brother began instruction in the Christian faith at the urging of his Lutheran aunts in his hometown of St. Paul.

“My brother and I drove the pastor crazy,” he says. “I was a showoff, and my brother was my best audience. I always said we were confirmed because of the pastor’s patience and the grace of God.”

Discovering Billy Graham and serving as a counselor for a Bible camp in college further increased his yearning for God. So the summer after graduating in math education, he entered a short-term study program at the Lutheran Bible Institute in Seattle.

That fall, he assumed his first and only school-teaching job in Mahnomen, Minn., and though he loved the culture and work, he says, he felt a tug to do something more and entered seminary.

A fateful, faith-filled trip

His second year there, he was invited to a wedding in Ames, Iowa, and asked to transport the best man and a friend to the church. The friend was Lu.

“It was a cold, 250-mile trip in Dale’s vehicle,” Lu says.

“Yes, in my old ’38 Chevy,” Dale adds.

But something happened on that long, cold drive, and when Dale called her just hours after returning to ask her out, Lu felt butterflies in her stomach.

Not wanting to appear too eager, she said she’d think about it, then went outside and flooded her car to get out of another appointment so she could call back and tell him, “I guess I can go after all.”

“Our courtship was really in a sense a spiritual journey, too,” Dale says, smiling. “Instead of necking, we memorized Bible verses.”

Just nine months after meeting, they were engaged and turning toward Montana, where Dale had been offered an internship.

Lu had recently graduated from nursing school and would use that education throughout her own career as a longtime Lamaze instructor, nurse educator, and in many other health, education and spiritual ventures.

After his internship, the couple spent 14 more years in Montana in two different cities, with a three-year stint in between in Minneapolis. Then, in 1975, Dale was hired as campus pastor at Oak Grove High School.

A lively landing

Many of their most vibrant parenting moments took place in their home here, which for many years served as a gathering point for their children’s friends and church socials.

“I was totally immersed in Dale’s ministry,” Lu says. “I played the piano for the children’s choir, taught Sunday school, and entertained every church group. Our home was open, and the kids grew up with that.”

Though the entertaining has quieted now, Lu remains attached to the Concordia College faculty as nurse educator, and Dale will continue to visit parishioners as a volunteer as long as possible.

“Being a pastor has been a highlight of my life. There’s no other profession where you’re more welcomed into people’s lives,” he says. “You’re a part of their grief, and you’re a part of their joy.”

Tollefson says that because of all they have given, the community is truly happy for them.

“At the end of the day, there’s just so much appreciation and thanksgiving for both Dale and Lu, for their presence and what they’ve done,” he says. “They’re going to be missed, but we’re also excited with them for what’s next.”