It was a "small world" moment. In my first conversation with Paul and Gladys Bredenberg, neighbors of my mother's at Raleigh's Whitaker Glen retirement community, they told me their son, Jeff, had once been a newspaperman. But I knew that, because 36 years before this conversation I'd succeeded him in a part-time job at The News & Observer while in college. This was the first time I'd heard his name again in all that time.
Jeff moved on to Denver and Chicago and now is an independent writer and author near Philadelphia. (He also had the distinction of appearing on David Letterman's television show with one of his books.)
The Bredenbergs likely made a lot of those kinds of connections through their long years together in Raleigh. Such discoveries are not uncommon, after all, for people who have lived in a city for over half a century and who, in that time, were mightily involved in the community around them. Nor are they uncommon for the members of that "Greatest Generation," many of whom now are in residence in Whitaker Glen and places like it.
Paul, who died Sunday at the age of 86, was a soft-spoken fellow who remained active until his health slowed him down. He wrote for the Whitaker Glen newsletter, kept up with politics, but was not one to boast, though his accomplishments were many and his professional career distinguished. That modesty is not unusual for those of his experience, though it could be argued that his fellow travelers in that generation met more challenges along the way than any others, from Depression to World War.
Yet, they persevered.
Which is why it's important not to let their passings go without at least some measure of the attention they deserve. In Paul Bredenberg's case, we are speaking of someone who made a mark on the community rather like those oak trees that are the symbol of the city.
From his years (1950-1986) at N.C. State University in the Department of Philosophy and Religion, he spread the branches for scholars who then moved to other parts of the country and the globe. He'd chosen that professional world after having to interrupt it with service in the U.S. Navy on a destroyer in the South Pacific during a little something called World War II. But as the 1940s ended, he was finishing a doctorate at Yale and then heading for Raleigh and what was then called North Carolina State College.
The branches grew as well when he stirred up students and other true believers who pushed to ensure racial equality and civil rights for all at a time when that was not a universal sentiment by a long shot. In fact, it was pretty much a guarantee of making enemies one didn't even know about. But this quiet fellow carried on, shoulder to shoulder with people such as the late W.W. Finlator, then pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. (Presumably, when one has served on a destroyer during World War II, verbal slingshots aren't very intimidating.)
Then there were the branches that spread from a lifetime in tennis, where Paul was a successful player but far more important, someone who taught free lessons on Saturdays to several generations of players from all backgrounds, some of whom went on to lifetimes in the sport, others of whom might simply have enjoyed themselves for a summer or so. But without those lessons, they'd never have even known anything about tennis at all.
What we are left with is the life of one man, one very good man to be sure, having an impact on the lives of thousands of people who fell under his influence in the course of that life, from the classroom, to the liberal causes to the nonpartisan outdoors. Thousands? More like tens of thousands.
This was the point of life as seen by that World War II generation, as it's sometimes called. Service to country, to family, to humankind. Paul Bredenberg would, as was his nature, decline the notion that he was representative of a larger group that made the same sorts of sacrifices he did, achieved the success he did, and maintained the optimism he did. But he was a splendid symbol of them all.
For the trees still stand, and the branches still grow.
Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at email@example.com