A Lake Harriet legend

Dog lover Bill Brice is leader of a tight community of Lake Harriet walkers

On a warm and sunny morning in early July, 85-year-old Bill Brice walked around Lake Harriet, equipped with a fanny pack full of dog treats, an Ivy League cap, a pair of black sunglasses and a big smile.

Lapping the lake is nothing new for Brice. He’s been making the hike almost every morning for 10 years, greeting nearly every dog with a biscuit and a pat on the head. The World War II veteran and retired pastor can name every one of the canines.

As he rounded the lake’s southwest side that morning, he was greeted by a group of walkers whose faces lit up upon seeing Brice. The group mingled on the grass along the path for 15 minutes, greeting passersby and absorbing others into the conversation.

Brice’s legend on Lake Harriet as a lover of dogs is well known. But his propensity for the four-legged creatures has given birth to a whole new community that walks the lake at 7:30 every morning.

With Brice as a fulcrum, the people of Lake Harriet have formed their own small town in the middle of a big city. The group frequents coffee shops, plans parties and checks in when a member has missed a day or two on the trails. When one of them gets married, they attend the wedding. When a loved one dies, the walkers of Lake Harriet go to the funeral. The residents of this Lake Harriet village even have a mayor.

Sheryl Grassie has walked the lake for several years. Grassie, a nonprofit director, writer and resident of Linden Hills, said Brice has brought together an eclectic group of people. The Lake Harriet network includes college professors, dump truck drivers, retired police officers, psychologists, flight attendants, a Minnesota Supreme Court justice, nurses, politicians and everything in between.

“They would never come together under any circumstances, because they are so diverse in their political beliefs and their socioeconomic backgrounds,” says Grassie, 51, of Linden Hills. “And what do all these people have in common? Dogs and Bill. And there’s actually a lot of people in the group that don’t even have dogs. There’s just literally a whole culture down there.”

‘A Man of God and doG’

It often takes Brice more than two hours to get around the 3-mile lake in the morning. It’s not necessarily a bad knee that slows him. He stops seemingly every 100 yards after a dog spots him, recognizing him as the guy who hands out all the biscuits. Some have eaten hundreds of Brice’s treats over the years.

Owners of big labs have to drop their leashes as their dogs muscle their way toward Brice and sniff his fanny pack in anticipation of a treat.

“There are little clusters of people that will stop and talk as I am giving biscuits to their dogs … and they’re all talking,” Brice says, referring to the way people have gotten to know one another.

Brice himself has an interesting story. He was a U.S. Marine in World War II. He fought in the Pacific, where he took part in the Battle of Okinawa, where more than 12,000 American soldiers were killed, and later occupied Japan after the war ended.

After returning to the Twin Cities he spent the next 40 years as a Baptist minister.

Now retired, he says Lake Harriet has provided him a place to go and interact with people and pets.

But walkers say Brice does not push his religion.

“He’s not in your face. He leads by example. He is a kind and loving man,” says Grassie. “This is his retirement ministry. Now he ministers to dogs. It’s like his congregation.”

To show their appreciation, the people who walk around the lake bought several pavers near the Lake Harriet Bandshell to honor Brice. The names of 33 dogs are inscribed on the bricks, and the one in the middle reads “Bill Brice, A man of God and doG.” More bricks are to come, as other dog owners also want to honor Brice.

A town inside a city    

The group that ran into Brice that day was led by Bob Druke. Druke is a towering man with white hair and a mischievous smile. A retired cop, Druke is the man that the Lake Harriet town deems its mayor.

That’s because Druke knows everyone.

As walkers, runners and rollerbladers stream by, Druke points out their names, their occupations, and a little anecdote about them.

 “She just dumped her husband,” Druke called out to one woman running by.

“Look at these two wild women coming, don’t talk to them,” he said. “This one on the right is a troublemaker.”

What makes Lake Harriet such a close community?

“People who walk other lakes say that people here are generally friendlier,” Druke says. “They will look you in the eye and say ‘hi’ to you, even if it’s a bad day. There are very few people down here that won’t stop and talk.”

Just like a small town, the people on the trails of Lake Harriet care deeply for one another.

For example, Mary Merrill got to know Brice from walking her two dogs around the lake. She came to love Brice so much that she flew him down to Florida so he could marry her and her husband a year-and-a-half ago.

One morning earlier this month a dog attacked Grassie. Word spread so fast that by that afternoon, Grassie was flooded with e-mails to see if she was OK.

Three years ago, one of the men that walked the lake got terminal cancer. Larry Lockman, a retired neurologist who lives on the lake, says the group visited the man in the hospital later attended the funeral.

Lockman walks with Brice every morning.

“People who walk around the lake in the morning just enjoy each other,” Lockman says. “And we all enjoy the lake, and we all get along.”