A good death ends a good life


by Joe Nathan, 8/29/08 • You often hear that someone lived a good life, but rarely hear that a person had a good death. Both happened for John Brandl, a friend and Humphrey Institute colleague who died last week.

Brandl’s funeral drew hundreds of people to celebrate his more than seventy years, including service as a college professor, Minnesota State Representative and Senator, and U.S Government administrator.

Why did both former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer and brother Gene Brandl refer not only to his life, but to his “good death.”

Brandl’s deep commitment to students, and brilliance and gentle humility led Humphrey Institute Dean Brian Atwood to convene a celebration of his life less than two months ago. Hundreds of people spent an evening telling John how he had made their lives better.

His brother Gene told this celebration that when he was much younger, John had played his favorite songs on the piano as Gene fell asleep. “What a wonderful way to end the day,” Gene recalled. “ John was so kind.”

Students called John “a great listener,” which helped make him a favorite teacher. John really wanted to know what we were thinking

Death did not come suddenly or shockingly for Brandl. Sadly, some of us will not be some fortunate.

Brandl had not hidden the cancer that attacked him several years ago. But as his wife Shelly recalled, “John did not want to go off on any trips around the world – he wanted to spend his last months with grandchildren, children, other family members and friends. “ His deep faith helped make him at peace with his coming death.

Last semester, Brandl and I debated education issues in front of a class at the Humphrey Institute, as we had many times before. John’s deep belief in the value of community and religion led him to support vouchers – public funds going to pay tuition for students to attend private and parochial schools.

We disagreed vigorously about that. But in every one of our debates, whether public or private, Brandl’s deep desire to understand what other people thought came through.

That is part of the reason he was so widely respected at the Legislature. He was known for his insights and ability to explain complex economic issues in clear, concise ways. As a legislator said at the celebration evening a few months ago, “Brandl was respected every bit as much by people who disagreed with him, as people who agreed. People of all political views wanted to hear what he had to say.”

Brandl’s death was a good one, because he had a chance to say “good-by,” and his many friends, family, students and admirers had opportunities to tell him that they loved him. My final conversation with John just a few weeks ago ended with me thanking him for all he had done, and him taking my hand as he smiled, “Joe, I love you.” He did the same thing with hundreds of others. What a blessing, for him, and all those he touched.