Saying goodbye to a neighborhood legend

Gerry Bretzke’s death was a lot like his life: he didn’t go quietly. On the night of his funeral, the neighborhood was kept awake with the sound of wild drumbeats. Cars stopped and children gathered to get a peak inside the gigantic teepee that his family built in his front yard.

Those close to him said the irreplaceable Linden Hills fixture lived with one foot in his Dakota Indian heritage and the other in his German heritage. As a result, the 64-year-old got two funerals — or “festivals” to some  — one in his hometown church and the other in Sisseton, South Dakota on the Indian Reservation that his daughter still lives on.

Neighbors credit Bretzke with bringing the block together and forming a tight-knit community. Nearly everyone who moved in on his quaint street will say that Bretzke, who spent his life working as a cement truck driver, was the first person they met. Marilyn Smith, who moved in back in 1992, said she first met Bretzke’s wife of 14 years, KC Bretzke, on Thanksgiving Day when she showed up at Smith’s door and invited her over for dinner.

“I thought, ‘boy, this is an unusual neighborhood,” she said, “and that’s kind of how it’s been.”

Soon afterward, Gerry Bretzke became her handyman, connecting her stove, putting in her dishwasher and air conditioner and fixing her plumbing. But most noteworthy, she said, was his cooking. Smith, then a teacher, she’d often come home to a message on her answering machine from Gerry Bretzke telling her to come over for dinner.

“I’d say, ‘yes, thank you. There is a god,’” she said.

Gerry Bretzke was a permanent fixture at each year’s Neighborhood Night Out. He’d wheel out his giant grill and cook hot dogs and corn for the whole block.

“He went way beyond the call of duty,” Margaret Purcell, who lived across the street from him, said, adding that the neighborhood kids adored Gerry and were always dropping by his house.

It wasn’t a surprise to the neighbors when KC and Gerry Bretzke won the Linden Hills Treasure award with an unprecedented seven nominations. The award now hangs in a frame on their front porch.

After he was diagnosed with Mesothelioma, asbestos-induced lung cancer, 19 months ago, the dinners became larger and more frequent. He was only afraid of two things, KC Bretzke said, he didn’t want to be in pain and he didn’t want to die alone. So, the couple began hosting neighborhood potlucks every Wednesday, which would draw anywhere from 15 to 80 people. It was a melting pot of friends, neighbors, the judge, co-workers and even homeless people rounded up by their church, Walker Community Church.

“We had people from all walks of life in and out of here,” KC Bretzke said.

Even as he slowly declined, Gerry Bretzke was at all the meals, often stopping everyone mid-bite to say, “You do more for me than any medicine I could possibly take,” Purcell said.  

Even with their “neighborhood catalyst” missing, KC Bretzke said she doesn’t expect much to change.  

“His spirit is infectious to the point that we still all have it,” she said.