The first time I visited Wally Bronner, I let my wife, Amy, ride along to this most unusual interview. In the more than 30 years I’ve worked as a journalist, she has rarely asked to tag along — and professional practice for decades in my profession precluded “friends and family” from reporting trips.
But, in this case, how could I refuse? This was December, after all, the snow was flying here in Michigan and I was heading from our Detroit newspaper offices — Way Up North to visit the closest thing the Midwest has to a real-life Father Christmas.
Meeting Wally Bronner, the man whose name is internationally known for Yuletide cheer, was like a chance to tour Santa Claus’ toy shop at the North Pole.
It’s almost impossible to describe the effervescent feeling of approaching this beaming, white-haired, cheerily dressed gentleman in the very heart of his 27-acre Christmas kingdom, which draws more than 2 million people from around the world each year.
Amy loved just sitting in the same room as Wally for our hour-long conversation.
And, she was not alone in her child-like glee. Our Detroit Free Press photographer, that day, was a deep-voiced guy who stood well over 6 feet tall, but for this very special photographic assignment — he showed up at Bronners costumed head to toe like the world’s biggest elf.
I am not kidding — his specially tailored garb extended to the long curly points on his green felt booties.
Wally was a joy!
Except, there is a much deeper spiritual truth in this story:
Wallace “Wally” Bronner devoted his extremely successful life — which ended Tuesday at age 81 after a relatively short battle with cancer — to putting the “Christ” back in “Christmas.”
He was the very model of a Christian businessman, a man of great integrity and religious zeal — who focused on spreading the joy of his favorite holiday around the world. Before he passed this week, his multi-million-dollar Bronners operation was known as a primary source for large-scale decorations and props used in department stores, parades and Hollywood’s annual crop of holiday-themed movies.
As far as I ever heard — and I heard a whole lot in more than 20 years as Michigan’s chief chronicler of religious life — Wally was universally celebrated for his jovial ways and never displayed so much as a hint of meanness. Even though his faith was the fire at the core of his whole life, he loved to laugh about Christmas. Heck, anyone who visited his Christmas wonderland and saw some of the outlandish stuff they stocked each year understood in an instant that this whole family has a rich sense of humor.
Don’t get me wrong: Bronners is famous for every expensive, high-end, often exquisite decorations — but they were never above having a good laugh over the latest goofy decorating trends, as well.
This week in ReadTheSpirit, we’ve devoted our five stories to finding spiritual hope in a troubled world. Originally, I had another story scheduled for today’s page — but we’ll share that story with you another day.
Reflecting on Wally’s passing, which took most of us completely by surprise, is the prefect ending to this week’s series of stories at ReadTheSpirit.
Wally was an exceptionally rare spiritual personality who maintained his joyous and hopeful approach to life 365 days of each year.
As a point of comparison: On Tuesday, this week, a special 50th-anniversary Osmond Family reunion concert was released on DVD. Amy and I watched it on Tuesday evening and smiled along with this squeaky-clean Mormon family as they ran through hit songs from their half a century of performances, racking up sales of 100 million records, including 50 gold and platinum albums.
Like Wally’s Christian zeal, It’s so easy for news media either to ignore the Osmonds’ religious inspirations — or to poke fun at such spiritual sincerity. But, in the end, both of these families are wonderful examples of faith and creativity in the public square.
At the end of today’s story, I’m including two YouTube videos so you can catch at least a glimpse of Bronners. (We know that most of our readers don’t live in Michigan.) As you watch these videos — note that neither report features Wally and neither one says anything about the evangelical faith that shaped everything this family has accomplished over more than half a century.
You might respond by saying, “That’s how it should be in secular reporting.”
However, I think, in light of our ReadTheSpirit theme this week, we all would do well to remember that lives of great faith — like Wally Bronners’ — can blossom into great goodness for many people. Yes, the Bronner family has earned a good living through the years, but I’m talking here about the millions of visitors to this Christmas wonderland in Frankenmuth, Michigan, who went back home with a little extra sprinkling of joy.
In Michigan, Wally’s passing filled much of the Detroit Free Press’ front page on Thursday morning with a huge headline proclaiming: “He Spread Christmas Joy All Year Long.” The story was complete with the cheery photographs shot by the giant elf-garbed photographer on that memorable day of our big visit to Bronners.
Wally opened his first holiday shop in 1954 and, throughout his life, he sketched his business plans with a cross drawn at the very top of every chart. I don’t mean this as a metaphor. On the day I visited him, he showed me a complicated management chart hanging in a frame on his office wall — with a cross where a CEO’s box normally would appear.
“Our rule is that everything we do will focus on — or at least not detract from — the Christ whose birth we are celebrating,” he told me.
He was as sincere as an Osmond concert.
In the early 1990s, he completed construction of a 56-foot-tall, painstaking replica of the landmark Silent Night Memorial chapel in Austria, associated with the birth of the world’s most famous Christmas carol, because he wanted to add one more element of Christian history to his Christmas wonderland.
Wally was a lifelong member of the St. Lorenz Lutheran Church in Frankenmuth. He also was famous as a philanthropist. He had a passion for helping the poor, although he did much of that work quite privately.
Sitting with him in his office that day, he explained it this way: “It made sense that my life should be Lord-pleasing.”
In the 1940s, when Wally was a young and very active Lutheran lay leader in Michigan — his faith quite literally led him toward his wife, Irene. They bumped into each other at a Lutheran youth rally. It was also during a youth rally that Wally memorized a poem that he said shaped his entire approach to life. He recited it for me, his eyes closing as if savoring this fond memory:
God gives to all some talent,
Some special work to do.
Should we not use these talents,
Though they be just a few?
If we but look around us,
We’ll see jobs by the score.
So, use that little talent,
And God will give you more.
Wally clearly had more than a little talent — and more than a little insight in the spiritual realm. It was during this interview that Wally revealed perhaps the most shocking thing I’ve ever heard him say.
“You want to know the truth?” he asked me, at length. “The truth is no decorations are needed at all at Christmas.
“What’s really needed at Christmas is that we decorate our hearts. We get so busy with all of our preparations that we forget that this is such an important time of year to stop and take time to reflect on our lives, our faith, our world.
“What matters most to me? Helping people to decorate their hearts with peace and love.”
To that, all I can add is: Yours Was A Spiritual Race Well Run, Wally Bronner! And now, you can help to decorate the Heavens.
IF YOU CARE TO CATCH JUST A GLIMPSE of Bronners, check out these 2 videos.The first was shot by a mid-Michigan reporting crew when a Canadian-TV-network reporter visited Bronners. This Canadian visitor explains a little bit about the “jaw-dropping” and “awe inspiring” nature of this Christmas wonderland.
CLICK on the video screen that appears below to watch that video clip. Or, if a video screen does not appear in your version of this story, you can click to Visit YouTube directly to see this report on Bronners.
THEN, Here is the Detroit Free Press’ Mike Wendland reporting on the business side of Bronners last Christmas. Again this is secular reporting on Bronners — even though in his personal life Mike is a well-known evangelical preacher and teacher. What’s delightful about Mike’s report, here, is that it will leave you with a smile — which would make Wally very happy — at some of the more outlandish Christmas stuff that Bronners sometimes sells.
CLICK on the video screen that appears below to watch that video
clip. Or, if a video screen does not appear in your version of this story,
you can click to Visit YouTube directly to see Wendland’s take on Bronners’ holiday style.
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