In honor of my grandfather Dr. Bronner’s 105th birthday on February 1, here are some family stories that reveal a bit of what it was like to grow up with such a man as our grandfather. Some of these memories are my own, some are from my brothers and cousins, and some are from my dad and uncle.
From my dad’s early childhood emerged the stories of my grandfather giving very young Jim and Ralph rides on the front bumper of a ’42 Buick, while they straddled the bumper guards and hung on to the hood ornament. He knew how to have a good time.
Answering the phone growing up was always a little unpredictable. Without caller ID, we never knew who it might be – until we heard, “Mike! Have you memorized the Moral ABC yet?! Recite to me number 22!” or “Lisa! You must learn to type! It is the way of the future!” (I always got the easy ones.) or “You must spend three years of your life working with your hands! I laid bricks and it gave me the common touch!”
My cousin Eric and his high school friends have some fond memories of sleep overs when the phone would ring at 6 or 7 am Wisconsin time, (4 or 5 am California time). Eric would jump up from a dead sleep and answer, “All-One!” because who else would it be? “Eric! I need you to read to me from the biography of Karl Marx.” Eric had the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica set right by the phone for this kind of “emergency” reading session.
The Moral ABC was not just something he did for his work. It was his life. He felt that there was no time to waste in spreading his message of peace, that the world teetered on the brink of self-annihilation. And so, small talk never went over well with him. My cousin Mark tried, “Grandpa, how are the Padres doing?” “Mark! With nuclear bombs we’re all-one or none! Get it done!”
He had a very distinctive way of speaking: no extra words, with great emphasis, even an occasional poetic couplet thrown in. Straight to the point with a strong German accent, and there you have him.
And then there were the “man to man” talks, from which I was happily spared. These would inevitably occur in some painfully public place, like the lobby of the Las Vegas Hilton. “Mark!” (or insert grandson name here) “Have you experienced love yet?!” And there was no volume control for grandpa.
He loved the southern California sunshine and often sunbathed au natural on the roof patio of his house. And whether he was still under the impression that because he couldn’t see, neither could others, or perhaps he just didn’t care, he would conduct business meetings as such. One of the company’s longest working employees, who is clearly very go-with-the-flow, even had her initial job interview with him like this.
Gladys, his wife, called him Sparkles, and he had great trust in her. When fully blind, he would get his exercise by jogging alongside their car, holding on to the slightly rolled down window while Gladys drove.
There was no half-way with grandpa. It was all or nothing. When we went in to wake him at the time he set, he’d exclaim, “Give me 10 more minutes or I’m a dead man!” Or to his wife, “Gladys, I’ll give you a million dollars if you let me speak for 5 minutes!” Or of Mark, when he was a 19 year old student at UW, “Now I’d like you to meet my grandson, Mark, a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin.” He had great confidence in what we would become.
Other people’s reputation or place in the world did not daunt Dr. Bronner. And so we have on the soap labels: “Kipling’s If with slight assist by Bronner”, “Longellow’s Psalm of Life with slight assist by Bronner”. He wrote letters of advice to every U.S. president, and he even tried to get a few on the phone.
He’s the only adult I’ve ever met to lie about his age – upwards. “Grandpa, why do you tell people you’re 72 when you’re 62?” “Because I’m in great shape for a 72 year old.”