Ronald David Keesey-Berg
MADISON – David was born Ronald David Berg in Casper, Wyoming on September 13th, 1932, to Reverend Elmer Melchior Berg and Gunda Bertina (Stavee) Berg. His family moved several times during his childhood as his father accepted pastoral calls to congregations in Wyoming, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Even against the backdrop of the Great Depression, his childhood was happy and full of fun, excitement and more than a little bit of mischief. Sadly, in 1944, the family’s home (the parsonage for New Hope Lutheran Church) was struck by lightning in the middle of the night and burned to the ground. Dave and his family lost everything but the clothes they were wearing. It was an event that left a profound impact on the entire family and reminded them all of what life’s most precious blessings really are.
Dave and his beloved brother Paul both attended Augustana Academy in Canton, South Dakota. He received a superb education there and was also introduced to the joys of Debate. He graduated in 1950. For the rest of his life, he looked back with fondness and gratitude on those years and cherished the lifelong friendships that were formed there. He continued his studies at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, where he continued his impressive work in debate. (He and his debate partner, David M. Berg – no relation – were all but unstoppable.) He also lettered in wrestling his senior year. It was while serving as student body president that he had the privilege of hosting former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and driving her to the airport after she spoke at the college. It was a thrill he never forgot. After graduating in 1954 with a degree in Philosophy, Dave was selected to teach for a year at the Martin Luther Schule in Rimbach, Germany. It was a powerful and transformative experience. Upon returning to the U.S., he entered Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota where he earned his Masters of Divinity. His internship year was spent at Ascension Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, WI, where he met and fell in love with Beverly Hintz, one of the church’s secretaries. They were married in 1959.
Dave’s move into the parish ministry was interrupted by an invitation to teach Religious History, Ethics, and Philosophy at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He loved the experience but believed he was meant to be a pastor. His first call was to First Lutheran Church and St. Jacob’s Lutheran Church in and around Colton, South Dakota. Dave and Bev made many lifelong friendships in their five years in Colton, and also welcomed into their family David Gregory (Greg) in 1960, Stephen Paul (Steve) in 1961, and Randi Kirsten in 1965. Later that year, Dave accepted a call to Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Decorah, Iowa, where Nathan Christopher (Nate) was born in 1969. It was an exciting community in which to live and work, especially because of the presence of Luther College. It was also a divided community because of conflicting views of the Vietnam War, which in turn made these especially challenging years in his ministry. In 1974, Dave accepted a call to St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Atlantic, Iowa. While there, both he and Bev were blessed to participate in the Cursillo movement as well as in prison ministry at the Iowa Penitentiary. In 1981, Dave accepted a call to Luther Valley Lutheran Church in rural Beloit, Wisconsin, where he enjoyed mentoring several gifted interns. In 1988, the family suffered a devastating blow when Beverly died unexpectedly while returning home from the family’s Thanksgiving celebration in Minnesota. She was only 58 years old. Dave and his children were deeply thankful for the love and comfort they were given by the Luther Valley congregation during that painful time.
Dave retired from the parish ministry in 1992 and resigned from the ELCA clergy roster. He moved back to Decorah, Iowa. This was when he applied his gifts as a writer and preacher to become an active and accomplished storyteller. Through his affiliation with the Northwoods Storytelling Guild (for which he served as chairman for a time) he embarked on a busy storytelling career that took him all over the country speaking to several hundred groups and organizations as well as several major story-telling festivals. He eventually made two recordings of his stories. In his own words: “I believe the creating and sharing of our stories is one of the most important and human things we do.”
It was during his time at Luther Valley that Dave met Sonja Keesey. They were married in 1993 at Advent Lutheran Church in Madison, Wisconsin by Andrew Rogness. They became the Keesey-Bergs, honoring both families. Like Dave’s first wife Bev before her, Sonja was a devoted and capable church office administrator and was deeply involved in many aspects of the congregation. Dave and Sonja celebrated their 29th wedding anniversary on June 27th. Dave and Sonja were involved in bringing the labyrinth ministry to Madison and worked tirelessly to expand the church’s community gardens, which now includes a Food Pantry Garden and a Children’s Garden. Dave was a founding member of the GEMS (Grumpy Elderly Men) book club. Dave never stopped reading and learning. One of his favorite t-shirts reads “One does not stop buying books because there is no more shelf space.”
In 1999 Bishop Jon EnslIn invited Dave to a process of restoration to the clergy roster. Dave appreciated this invitation. In 2001, at the invitation of Bishop George Carlson, Dave spent five years as an Intentional Interim Minister, serving several congregations in crisis. He regarded these years of ministry as among the most rewarding of his entire career. He was always careful to acknowledge the important role that Sonja played as they worked together to bring healing to congregations suffering from painful division. He gratefully accepted many invitations for supply preaching. He enjoyed making presentations as John Newton (the author of Amazing Grace), telling the story of his ‘conversion’ from slaveholder to ardent abolitionist. He also collaborated with Sonja in performances as Martin Luther and his extraordinary wife Katrina von Bora. After receiving his cancer diagnosis on April 13, Dave was able to deliver greetings to Good Shepherd Lutheran, Decorah IA, a sermon to Decorah’s United Church of Christ, and a profoundly moving final sermon at Advent Lutheran Church/Madison Christian Community on May 22. His final weeks of life were largely spent sharing still more stories of life, love and faith.
Dave’s passions included reading, skiing, softball (with the Rocking Chair Gang), gardening, watching sports, being an election official, and enjoying the activities of their nine grandchildren. (He was overjoyed to know that Sonja was soon to become a great-grandmother.) He and Sonja worked passionately on a wide array of environmental and social justice issues such as climate change, voting rights, LBGTQ equality, humane treatment of immigrants, and greater understanding of our shared history with Indigenous People. Our delight each June was to attend the Washington Island Forum sponsored by the Christian Century Magazine and the Wisconsin Council of Churches. Excellent programs, good friends and sunsets at People’s Park. Even with the encroachment of cancer, he never lost his zest for life, his love for learning, or his deep concern for the wider world and the human family. One of Dave’s favorite verses of scripture was a line from Psalm 39 that was inscribed in the front of his battered Bible: “I am Thy passing guest.”
Dave is survived by his beloved wife Sonja, by his children Gregory (Kathy), Stephen (Scott, Hugo), Randi (Matt) Spencer-Berg, and Nathan; stepchildren Laura Baade and Debra (Jeff) Garde; grandchildren Aidan (Marie) Spencer Sauze, Anna-Elisabeth Spencer, Kaj Spencer, Henry Nichols, Diana (Matt) Bremmer, Stephanie (AJ) Baade, Allison (Jesse) Greig, Gavin (Savannah) Baade, and Michael (Jillian) Garde; nieces and nephews Sara, Kristian, Sigri, John and Solveig Berg (children of Dave’s brother Paul and their mother, Marcia Enlow Berg) and their children; and, of course, countless dear friends. He was preceded in death by his parents Elmer and Gunda, his aunt Gertrude, his brother Paul, and his beloved first wife Beverly.
In lieu of flowers, memorials may be directed to Madison Christian Community Garden Program, to Harvest of Hope (which gives aid to farmers experiencing financial crisis), or the Epilepsy Foundation. You are also encouraged to honor David’s memory by contributing your money and time to any social justice agencies or organizations working on issues such as climate change, voting rights, food equity, immigration aid, LBGTQ rights or concerns surrounding indigenous people. We would love to hear your stories about how you may have chosen to memorialize David in this way.
A memorial service will be held at HOLY WISDOM MONASTERY, 4200 County Highway M, Middleton, Wis., at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2022, with a dinner to follow. A visitation will be held at the church from 2 p.m. until the time of the service on Sunday. The family invites you to enjoy the beauty and peacefulness of the grounds at Holy Wisdom Monastery. Online condolences may be made at www.gundersonfh.com.
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