Dick Brugger often referred to himself as “a big kid.”
Despite the snow white hair and the many physical frailties that advanced age brought on him, the soul that looked out at the world behind the light blue eyes with the glee of a small child never left him.
To the end.
On Friday, Oct. 23, Dick and Lela Brugger were at their home on Lea Hill, watching TV — “Father Brown” and a bit of the news — before turning in for the night.
Son Josh and daughter Jessie were to visit the following day, play games of Uno and just hang out, and the parents were looking forward to the get-together.
“He had a bit of trouble walking,” Lela recalled, “but we got upstairs, and he got up to the bed, and I said, ‘I think you need to move down a little bit, Dickie.’ And then he just sort of kept flopping. He couldn’t move, and I would hold him.”
Lela called 911, and the voice on the other end instructed her in how to perform CPR, which she did until paramedics arrived.
But nothing could be done.
Days later, in the silence of a home emptied for the first time of his oversized presence and laughter, Brugger’s wife and children struggled to cope with the loss, so sudden and unexpected.
“He was my best friend, my buddy,” Lela said through tears. “I miss him so much.”
“He always knew how to play and interact with everyone at any age,” Josh said. “He always played games, would always smile and laugh. Yeah, he was 91, but he was just amazing joy and fun.”
He bestowed playful names on his kids, called Jessie, “Love bug from Alaska,” “Buffalini.” “Pickles,” and to her amusement, “Mrs. Miniver.” Josh was “Buffalo,” “Jolly” and dozens of other names.
To Jessie, he was “Daddio.”
“He loved when I called him ‘Dickie Doodle’ or ‘Love Boat,’” Lela recalled with a laugh.
The isolation imposed on him by COVID-19, said his family, was hard on a man who loved and valued the warmth of human company as much as Dick Brugger did.
Tributes from the community about the man many called “wicked Dick,” for his favorite adjective, testify to the void his passing has left on the city he served so long and loved so fiercely.
“If you are really lucky once in your life you will meet someone so iconic that they have a radical impact on your life,” said close friend Gail Spurrell. “For me, that someone was Dick Brugger – first a friend, then my “boss” for 13 years at AYR and also a mentor. Dick had an unwavering belief in the good in others – even the most troubled of youth. He was tenacious – ferocious even – in seeking funding for programs benefitting the youth served by AYR as well as finding the talented therapists, counselors and outreach workers and more who were equally dedicated to his mission of serving youth.”
As the second executive director of Auburn Youth Resources, today known as Nexus, starting in 1976, he guided the struggling, 3-year-old agency in its mission to help street kids, abused kids, troubled kids — kids of all kinds.
In the Brugger years, AYR grew from what he once called “a funky organization in a funky old house” behind the old Massey’s Market on D Street, dangling from a perilously thin tree of contributions and grants, wheezing and gasping on a $450,000 budget to what it has since become.
“He was fierce for standing up for what he believed in, like raising money for AYR,” said Lela. “Community was important to him, people were important to him. He stood up for everyone’s rights.”
Aside from his children and family, AYR remained his proudest accomplishment.
That type of spiritual fatherhood was natural to Brugger, who came to the job soon after leaving his priesthood in the order of the Franciscan friars in 1975 to marry a Canadian girl named Lela.
If not for the Catholic Church’s prohibition against priestly marriage, he once said, he would have remained in the priesthood.
“He was so supportive of people in the community, and those who were having hardships in various forms. I remember him fighting for kids who were having a rough time. The other day, I got him to a medical appointment, and one of the people that worked there said, ‘Are you Dick Brugger from AYR? It’s because of AYR that I am successful today.’”
“He didn’t make judgments,” said Lela. “I make judgments, he didn’t. He always found the good in people, and I really had a hard time with that sometimes. I’d be complaining about someone, and he’d say, ‘But Lela, look at it this way.’”
He was a published poet and was the city of Auburn’s first Poet Laureate.
Brugger started life in Pipersville, a small town of 500 people north of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the youngest of four sons of German immigrants. His childhood dream was to become a standup comedian. His father, Franz, ran an inn there, and the family expected him to follow in the old man’s footsteps. But deeper questions about the final destination of his soul put him on a different track.
So he became a Franciscan friar, a priest. Once he said mass at the Vatican, his family said, as well as all over the world, lacing his sermons with wit, wisdom and hilarity.
“I loved being a priest,” he told the Auburn Reporter in 2003. “It was incredible. It gave me meaning. It also gave me a lot of prestige. Everyone called me ‘father.’ Hey, pretty cool. My whole life was wrapped around the church. I know I am loved by God. That’s a very powerful thing. They were rich years.”
He described his first year with AYR as “horrendous,” just awful. In that year the city of Auburn pulled its financial commitment and the board of directors pulled its collective hairs out. But he made it work.
Perhaps the greatest surprise of his life happened in his 46th year, the day a doctor said, “there’s the father,” upon the birth of his first child, Joshua.
“How did you know,” the new papa started to answer, assuming by “father,” the doctor meant “priest.” Then he caught himself. “Oh, yeah, that’s right, I really am a father now.”
His second child, Jessie, was born when Brugger was six months shy of 50.
His children never thought of him as old.
“We’d go to a store and a clerk or someone would say, ‘Oh, how nice, you and your grandfather,’” Jessie recalled. “And I would go, ‘No, that’s my daddy!’ And he loved it! He’d say, ‘Yeah, I’m her father!’ Personally, I never thought of him as old. To me he was the youngest person ever because his spirit was young.”
“Passionate, articulate, wickedly funny – he was a man of many talents and respected by all,” said Spurrell. “After retiring, he began a second career as poet which led to his being the first poet laureate on Auburn. His poems were approachable, they painted vivid portraits of every day people and things and were often deeply personal. He was also the consummate family man – his wife Lela and kids Josh and Jessie were the core of his being. Dick will forever hold a place in my heart. We lost one of the greats on Friday.”