Dr. Bruce Kramer, former dean of the St. Thomas College of Education, Leadership and Counseling and a faculty member since 1996, has died of complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Kramer, 59, died Monday afternoon in his home in Hopkins, surrounded by his wife, Evelyn Emerson, their sons David and Jon, and other family members and friends. A memorial service will be at 10:30 a.m. April 11 at Christ Presbyterian Church, 6901 Normandale Road, Edina.
His death came more than four years and three months after he was diagnosed in December 2010 with ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease. He remained as dean at St. Thomas until October 2012, when he took a leave of absence.
“On behalf of the St. Thomas community, I want to offer our condolences to Bruce’s family,” President Julie Sullivan said. “Bruce was an exceptional faculty member and dean, and the lessons he taught us in how to handle a terminal illness with perseverance, wisdom and grace will long serve as an inspiration to all of us.”
His family has decided to continue to hold a book launch event Wednesday at St. Thomas for We Know How This Ends: Living While Dying, a memoir that Kramer wrote with Cathy Wurzer, host of “Morning Edition” on Minnesota Public Radio and “Almanac” on Twin Cities Public Television.
All free tickets for the 7 p.m. event in O’Shaughnessy Educational Center auditorium have been distributed, but Rooms 203, 206, 207, 210 and 212 will be open for people to watch and listen. MPR News host Kerri Miller will lead the conversation with Wurzer, and the St. Thomas Chamber Singers and Jearlyn Steele, a well-known Twin Cities singer, will perform.
Published by the University of Minnesota Press, We Know How This Ends details discoveries by Kramer and Wurzer as they embarked on a journalistic process to document his struggle with ALS and the life lessons one can find in living fully through loss. Copies of the book will be available at the event.
Wurzer began a series of 35 broadcast reports, “Bruce Kramer: Living With ALS,” in 2011, and she later lost her father to a debilitating battle with dementia. For Kramer and Wurzer, the experiences were life-changing and transformative, leading to their friendship and their book.
“Though we do know how this story will end, the surprising, revelatory journey that Bruce and Cathy take us on is full of insight, wisdom, sorrow and joy,” wrote Dr. Jon Hallberg, a physician and MPR health and medical analyst, in a testimonial for the book. “This important, beautiful book should be required reading for all patients, caregivers, and clinicians to better understand that even while dying, there can be growth and peace and exuberant life.”
St. Thomas alumnus Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, called We Know How This Ends “a moving tale that teaches us more about living well than any self-help book ever can. Security and immortality are both superstitions; the best we can do is make an adventure of our lives. In this exquisite book, Bruce finds adventure in the most unlikely of places: the death sentence that is ALS.”
Kramer also wrote frequently about his illness in Dis Ease Diary, a blog in which he shared news about his condition and his sentiments. He spoke about his fight against ALS in a St. Thomas magazine story, “Death by a Thousand Paper Cuts,” in the fall of 2012.
Always an educator
A native of Independence, Missouri, Kramer earned a bachelor of science degree in psychology and music education and a master’s degree in vocal performance, both from Ball State University. He received his doctorate in foundations and administration from Purdue University in 1993.
He married Emerson in 1981 and taught high school music and directed choirs in Indiana before moving to Norway in 1983 to teach. The family later lived in Cairo, Egypt, and Bangkok, Thailand, where he was a school principal.
Kramer joined the education leadership faculty at St. Thomas in 1996. He became chair of his department in 2003, associate dean in 2006 and interim dean in 2008, when he guided the School of Education through its reaccreditation with the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.
He became dean in 2009 and later spearheaded efforts to rename his college – from College of Applied Professional Studies to CELC. The old name, he wrote in a memo, was “ambiguous,” while the new name “will allow us to clearly state the unified identity of our college, which has positive academic, branding and marketing implications for our programs.”
He led School of Education efforts in 2011 to authorize four additional charter schools in the Twin Cities area, bringing to six the number involved with St. Thomas. “This is consistent with our history of engagement with the community,” he said at the time. “Even more importantly, it involves our faculty and staff, at a fundamental level, in solving key educational problems and in answering the question, ‘How do you provide a meaningful education’?”
St. Thomas recognized Kramer in 2011 with its Diversity Leadership Award for his efforts to recruit faculty and students of color.
ALS diagnosed in December 2010
An avid bicyclist, Kramer noticed in the summer of 2010 that he had a “floppy” left foot but thought it might be a pinched nerve or sciatica. After a couple of falls in October, he saw a neurologist who diagnosed the ALS. He sought a second opinion, from the Mayo Clinic, and the diagnosis was the same.
He began drug treatments, entered a drug trial, made quarterly visits to Mayo and began the Dis Ease Diary, a blog that he described as an effort to teach others about ALS and to share both news about his condition and his emotions.
"In spite of the physical, psychological, even cultural challenges of this journey, I am blessed." - Bruce Kramer
“By focusing on Dis Ease, and the disease of ALS,” he told St. Thomas magazine, “it would be very easy for the reader to say, ‘Poor bastard, there but by the grace of God go I.’ Well, you’re there, too – you’re just not (dying) as quickly as I am. Maybe I can offer you some insights as I deal with these things.”
And offer insights he did – on 117 occasions. The blog grew to nearly 1,300 followers, and Kramer did not disappoint them. He wrote with passion, humor and candor about ALS and how it affected his life, his family and his work.
“The idea here is that, even as the motor neurons come unconnected, the love, life, light and joy in all of us, even in the darkest times, becomes unified,” he wrote in his first blog in March 2011. “I admit this is very selfish, for I find that in the notes, letters, cards and just chance meetings since my diagnosis, I am strengthened and energized for the days ahead. That is what love can do for us.”
In October 2012, he told a luncheon meeting of CELC faculty, staff and advisory board members that he would take a leave of absence. “I hoped this day would never come,” he said, but he knew he no longer had the energy to be the “effective leader” that that they needed. He thanked them for their hard work and friendship.
“In spite of the physical, psychological, even cultural challenges of this journey, I am blessed,” he said. “The opportunity to work with all of you – first as your faculty colleague, then as your dean; to work for the betterment of people through skillful education, considered leadership, emotional and social support, healing and counsel; and best of all, to be alive in the challenges of our times, shoulder, mind to mind, together with you, my dearest colleagues – has blessed me.”
On his last day of work at St. Thomas, he wrote in his blog, “I was allowed the privilege of speaking with my colleagues one more time . . . a privilege of tears and love and hugs and kisses and the knowledge of just how blessed I have been.” As he prepared to leave Opus Hall, “I was given the privilege of facing the end with my remarkable second-floor staff, in its entirety, walking with me as I rolled one last time as dean of the college, down the hall to the elevator.”
Still always up for challenges
Kramer always looked for opportunities to educate the public about ALS.
He worked with Dr. Deb DeMeester, a CELC colleague, and Dr. Ezgi Tiryaki, director of the ALS Center of Excellence at Hennepin County Medical Center, to develop classes, websites and printed materials to help ALS patients and their caregivers address quality-of-life issues.
“How do people make reasoned decisions so that they don’t feel like they are giving up on their lives?” Kramer said of efforts to help both patients (PALS) and caregivers (CALS). “How do we create an educated population?”
One well-received program was “Everything in its Place: Mind-Body Dialogues” in October 2013. People packed Woulfe Alumni Hall at St. Thomas to hear Kramer and Matthew Sanford, an award-winning author and health-care innovator paralyzed from the waist down for 35 years, speak about their disabilities, health care, mental health, caregivers and faith.
"Death has become a good friend, a harbinger of the final joy awaiting me ..." - Bruce Kramer
Last September, Kramer participated via Skype in an ALS Ice Bucket Challenge on campus. More than 220 students, faculty and staff gathered on Monahan Plaza, forming the letters U, S and T and pouring ice water over their heads.
He worked with Wurzer on We Know How This Ends, and he continued to write Dis Ease Diary, albeit less frequently and with assistance from his wife. He worried in a Jan. 4 blog if he had been “honest enough” with readers over the nearly four years he had been writing.
“I am on the fringes of my life, and my feelings are confusing yet beautiful, frightening and powerful, profoundly spiritual while grounded in day-to-day experience,” he wrote. “In other words, my dis ease becomes more complicated, and communicating clearly about it confounds me.”
He went on to say that “the elegant hand of ALS holds great surprises,” including how grace, peace and joy “could be found in the inexorable experience of dying slowly” even if he was utterly fatigued.
“The daily life challenges I experience – total dependency on others for the simplest of tasks, the continuing breakdown of basic physical functions such as swallowing and breathing and the like – exhaust me into sweet anticipation of the relief that will come with my death,” he wrote. “Death has become a good friend, a harbinger of the final joy awaiting me. …
“The spiritual conflict is clear – I am utterly in love with this ever-deepening experience of living while at the exact same time I happily anticipate the relief death will bring.”