Goodbye, “Biscuit Bill”

At the end of a remarkable life, Bill Brice made deep connections with the people and dogs of Lake Harriet

Bill Brice greeting a dog on the paths around Lake Harriet in 2010. File photo

Bill Brice has made his last lap around Lake Harriet, but those who walk the lake’s ring of pedestrian paths won’t soon forget him. An engraved paver reminds them every time they pass the band shell:

Bill Brice

‘A man of God and doG’

It’s a tribute to the man the lake’s early morning strollers and dog-walkers knew as Biscuit Bill. For years, the retired minister made the roughly 3-mile circuit almost daily, reaching into his fanny pack to retrieve treats for passing pups.

A friend from the lake, Sheryl Grassie, said Brice joked that the practice, taken up in the years after a bad knee kept him from jogging around the lake, was his “retirement ministry.”

“Every day he walked Lake Harriet with his fanny pack full of cookies and ministered to the dogs,” Grassie, a nonprofit executive who lives in Linden Hills, said.

“All the dogs would go crazy when they saw him,” recalled Larry Lockman, a retired pediatric neurologist who said he first met Brice eight or nine years ago when he got a dog and joined the group of regulars who walk the lake in the early mornings, day in and day out, through all the seasons. The walkers form a community that gathers for coffee, birthdays and other get-togethers, and many in that community knew there was much more to Brice than his Biscuit Bill reputation.

Brice, a World War II veteran and longtime American Baptist minister, died in December at age 91. In his remarkable life, Brice enlisted in the Marines at age 17; fought in the vicious Battle of Okinawa near the end of World War II, earning a Purple Heart; returned home to complete college and seminary; served as a pastor for American Baptist congregations here and in Washington state; joined the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign to register black voters in Mississippi; and, in his retirement, ministered to prisoners through Charis Prison Ministry.

Teresa Fane of Bloomington, one of Brice’s three children, said her father was “a true humanitarian” who had a life-long passion for social justice. That passion led him to Mississippi in 1964, where for about two weeks he joined hundreds of out-of-state volunteers in a drive to register black voters.

The family was living in Mapleton, just south of Mankato, and the danger in Brice’s mission was so great that several members of his congregation took out a life insurance policy on their pastor. Fane remembered it as a hot summer in Mapleton — so hot the whole family slept together on two couches in the living room while Brice was away.

“When the phone would ring, my mother would leap — just leap — so, obviously, she was frightened,” she said.

Pam Foster, another of Brice’s children (a brother lives in Seattle), was in high school that summer.

Foster, who later settled down in Mapleton, held onto a letter her father sent to her mother; he writes that, if she doesn’t hear from him, she should assume he’s in jail, and gives instructions on who to call to get him out. He adds that the phones are probably bugged.

“He couldn’t tolerate the way blacks were treated. In the ’60s I heard him expound on it all the time,” she said, adding that she wasn’t surprised when her dad decided to do something about it. Brice also participated in the anti-war movement of the 1960s; Foster remembers marching alongside her father in a protest in Duluth.

“He always seemed to have a strong sense of what was just, what was right,” Foster said.

If her father was born with that sense of justice — and Foster believes he was — it was tempered in battle. He once shared with Fane a memory of seeing bodies stacked high in trucks driving away from the battlefield.

He didn’t share those stories until later in life, she said, “but once he got into prison ministry, those stories became so — just like he was living some of the war stories over again.”

Shortly after Brice died, Fane said, she got a call from someone who knew her father through Charis Prison Ministry. He’d just seen “Hacksaw Ridge” — director Mel Gibson’s new film about a medic in the Battle of Okinawa — and said it reminded him of her father.

“He used a lot of his war experiences to relate with prisoners that he became friends with when he did prison ministry,” Fane said.

“In more recent years, he’d told me several times doing the prison ministry gave him his greatest fulfillment,” Foster said. “He always felt called to be a minister. He always preached fabulous sermons. But the older he got, the more he got involved in prison ministry, his sermons got more meaningful.”

“He was an artist with his words,” said Jeff Cowmeadow, senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church at 26th & Blaisdell and a friend of Brice’s who “always kind of looked up to him as my pastor.”

Brice joined the Calvary congregation in the early ’90s after retiring from ministry, and Cowmeadow remembered him for a “righteous anger” that powered his progressive vision.

“He was a big-tent pastor,” Cowmeadow said. “He wasn’t in any way a judgmental man. He embraced other people’s faith, other people of no faith. That wasn’t a driving force for him. He mostly cared about social justice for everybody.”

Brice’s compassion was clear to those who first met him at Lake Harriet.

“He certainly was a positive person, having been a minister,” Grassie said. “He always had something pithy to say in a positive vein.”

“He knew a lot of personal things about all of us,” Lockman said. “He was curious about our personal lives and our kids.”

“Just a good guy, real good guy,” said Bob Druke, who first met Brice a decade or more ago and was part of a group that gathered for occasional potlucks on Beard’s Plaisance and every July 14 for Biscuit Bill’s birthday. Presents typically included gift certificates, plenty of dog paraphernalia — a dog umbrella from Grassie one year, she remembered — and boxes of dog biscuits to replenish Brice’s supply.

Druke said Brice spent less time at the lake after his wife, Bernadette, entered an assisted living facility in Edina.

“She was really lonely for him, so he just moved in with her,” Foster said. Her mother, known to the family as “Bernie,” died in 2013.

Lockman said Brice’s pace slowed during the last few years he was still a regular at Lake Harriet. They used to meet every day at 7:20 a.m. on the southeast side of the lake, where West 47th Street meets Lake Harriet Parkway, but then Lockman started giving his friend a 20-minute head start.

When he caught up, they’d share stories; Brice talked some about his war experiences, his time at the seminary, his work with the prison ministry. Lockman started carrying a box of cookies; when Brice started handing out biscuits, Lockman made sure their owners got a treat, too.

“When I sent out the notice about his death, I got emails form all over: Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida,” Lockman said. “People had moved away but still stayed in touch.

“Bill was the focus of the lake, and I don’t think there will be anyone like him again.”

Services for Bill Brice are 11 a.m. Jan. 21 at Calvary Baptist Church, 2608 Blaisdell Ave. Visitation begins at 10 a.m.