The Rev. Albert R. Schmidt, 86

The Rev. Albert R. Schmidt, retired pastor at Miami Springs’ Grace Lutheran, dies

 

ebrecher@miamiherald.com

The Rev. Albert Roy Schmidt loved God and golf, Bible readings and bowling, fellowship and fishing.

“The glory of both bowling and golf is that you can put all your problems on the bowling pins or golf ball and really smite them,’’ the founding pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Miami Springs told a Miami Herald reporter in 1971.

Tall and athletic, with such light hair that his pals called him “Whitey,” Schmidt led the church from 1951 until his 1989 retirement.

In 2002, Schmidt described his tenure at Grace Lutheran as “a 40-year love affair between pastor and people serving together as priests of God.”

Mark Schmidt said his father knew since he was 12 that he wanted to be a minister.

The Baltimore native, born July 20, 1926, died at home in Miami Springs on Monday of Alzheimer’s disease complications. The Rev. David Imhoff, Grace Lutheran’s current pastor, called Schmidt “a man of courage and conviction’’ who mentored dozens of younger clergymen. “He was so accepting, and non-judgmental.’’

In his Easter sermon in 1983, Schmidt preached: “God loves us just as we are. We Christians aren’t here to be in the morals business or the rules and regulations business. We are here to tell the simple story of how much God loves us. Because He loves us, He has given us the power to love.’’

Schmidt was 86, widowed 10 years ago when Constance Sahlgren Schmidt, his wife of 51 years, died after a stroke.

Politically progressive, Schmidt spoke out for racial integration, interfaith cooperation and gay rights. He emerged as a community leader during the tumultuous 1970s when the Miami-Dade County school system began busing for desegregation, co-hosted a Public Television show called Man To Man with clergy of other faiths, and helped establish the all-faith chapel at Miami International Airport.

He performed the chapel’s first wedding in 1968.

During his tenure at Grace Lutheran, Schmidt oversaw the construction of several buildings as well as the controversial, 1980s-era expansion of Fair Havens, an adjacent Lutheran Services for the Elderly-operated nursing home.

Fair Havens wanted to add two buildings to the existing Pueblo Indian-style structure that had been designated a historic site. Neighbors feared that a developer might want the property after it secured re-zoning for the expansion in a residential neighborhood.

Schmidt believed it would all work out.

“I think most of these people understand we’re friends and our friendship will survive controversy,” he said at the time.

Schmidt was named one of the country’s Top 10 Lutheran ministers in 1982 by the Lutheran newspaper Perspective, for his “guiding influence in the establishment of the Sutheastern District of the American Lutheran Church.’’

He was instrumental in broadening the appeal of the denomination beyond its German/Scandinavian roots to non-traditional populations, increasing the role of lay leadership and emphasizing social justice.

As head of the Greater Miami Ministerial Association in the 1960s, he warned that the community might suffer if it didn’t accept Cuban refugees “with continued compassion.’’

In a 1965 speech that The Miami Herald described as “blistering,’’ he accused Protestant clergymen of failing to show leadership in the area of civil rights.

“This town is a baby, historically,’’ he said. “If we don’t instill the influence of Christianity in these formative years, it will grow up without it.’’

In 1980, he explained to The Miami Herald that the church should be “wide open to all races and cultures and . . . become a voice for minorities.’’

Schmidt had come to South Florida as an intern in 1949 after graduating from the Lutheran-run Capital University in Bexley, Ohio, where he lettered in football.

Son Matthew, a Florida Power & Light line specialist, said that his father got off the train in Hialeah, walked all the way to Miami Springs toting a suitcase, saw some guys playing basketball in Hook Square, crossed the bridge and joined in.

The congregation liked him so much that they invited him back after he graduated from Trinity Lutheran Seminary, in Columbus, Ohio. He was ordained in June 1951, just after marrying his Constance, the Pan American World Airways flight attendant he had met at church.

Grace Lutheran grew rapidly. A 1956 newspaper story noted that when Schmidt arrived, the congregation consisted of eight families meeting in a recreational hall.

Largely because of his “enthusiasm,’’ membership zoomed to 650 in five years, the story said. Plans were in the works for a $100,000 church building.

Schmidt, then chairing the Youth Recreation Commission of Miami Springs, talked about how much he liked working with kids.

“I believe that teenagers today are morally, spiritually and ethically better than teenagers in days gone by,’’ he said.

He and Constance would eventually have teenagers of their own. They adopted son Mark and daughter Laura as infants, then had sons Matthew and Luke.

That almost didn’t happen. In 1959, Schmidt and a fishing buddy nearly drowned after their boat capsized in the ocean about a mile south of Virginia Key. They struggled in the water for nearly two hours, without life jackets, before a Coast Guard helicopter rescued them.

“I know the real meaning of prayer now,’’ Schmidt quipped.

Always fit and active, Schmidt was a passionate Miami Dolphins fan who encouraged his parishioners to get moving. He started church baseball and bowling leagues, and worked on church issues while golfing with lay leaders.

“He always liked to have fun,’’ said Mark, a Key West fishing guide. “If he was dealing with a family emergency, he was serious. But he liked to have parties in the social hall and at the house.’’

In retirement, Schmidt visited parishioners in the hospital, stayed active in the Rotary Club and a church-based senior’s group called Funsters. A rotation of parishioners took him to dinner.

David Imhoff said that in his last weeks, Schmidt got to do some of this favorite things: dance with one of the Funsters ladies and go to a basketball game.

A memorial service is planned for 1 p.m. Feb. 9 at Grace Lutheran, 254 Curtiss Parkway, preceded by visitation at 11 a.m.

The family plans to scatter Schmidt’s ashes off Key Largo, where he went fishing, snorkeling and diving, and kept a mobile home — in the same waters where Constance Schmidt’s ashes were scattered.

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