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Originally published Wednesday, December 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Bruce Larson preached, lived life with gusto

The Rev. Bruce Larson, senior pastor at Seattle's University Presbyterian Church in the 1980s, died Monday.

Seattle Times religion reporter

Certainly, the Rev. Bruce Larson was prominent. He served as senior pastor at Seattle's University Presbyterian Church (UPC) in the 1980s, and as co-pastor with the Rev. Robert Schuller at the Crystal Cathedral in Southern California in the 1990s.

He also wrote dozens of books and helped pioneer church movements, including those that emphasized relationships and small groups.

But for many who knew the Rev. Larson, it was the small gestures that meant the most: the engulfing hugs, the gently prodding questions to church members about how they would serve the world, a word here or there encouraging them to live adventurously.

"Almost weekly, people enthusiastically approach me to recount something my dad did or said," said the Rev. Larson's son, Mark Larson, of Mercer Island.

"The message conveyed is not simply that my dad was a great guy or wise person, but that he changed how they lived their lives."

The Rev. Larson died Monday after a battle with Parkinson's disease. He was 83.

The Rev. Larson went into the ministry after serving as an infantry sergeant in World War II. He served at churches in New York and Illinois before coming to UPC in 1980. During his decade at the church, membership doubled to 3,600.

He was instrumental in coming up with UPC's long-standing motto: "Every member a minister." He empowered the congregation and "challenged people to not just serve internally in a church but to use their passions, their gifts, their heart to serve the city of Seattle and beyond," said the Rev. Tim Snow, executive pastor.

Peg Achterman, a longtime church member, remembers how personally encouraging the Rev. Larson was throughout her life. When she worked as a news photographer for a local television station and was anxious about speaking with grieving families, the pastor told her God put her there for a reason — maybe to be a person who listens.

"God spoke through him into my life in so many places," Achterman said.

And the Rev. Larson gave "the best hugs in the world," she said. "It sounds trite and odd, but when I try to put myself in a place of imagining God's love for me, it is Bruce Larson's hug that gets me there."

With his height, penetrating blue eyes and reassuring voice, the Rev. Larson commanded the room during his sermons.

But he didn't just preach about living life with gusto, he was an example of it.

He proposed to his future wife on their first date.

"I said I'd think about it," said Hazel Larson, his wife of 58 years. "It didn't take very long. A couple of weeks. Best decision I ever made."

And he was always proposing a new family adventure. Once they drove around North America in a Volkswagen van with no air conditioning. Another time, they bought a houseboat and motored from New Jersey to Montreal "before we even knew what we were doing," Hazel Larson said.

"My dad delivered a lot of great sermons — but he lived an even better one," Mark Larson said.

In addition to his wife and son, Mark Larson, the Rev. Larson is survived by son Peter Larson, of Lebanon, Ohio; daughter Christine Larson, of Fort Myers, Fla.; and eight grandchildren.

A service will be held at 2 p.m. Jan. 8 at UPC, 4540 15th Ave. N.E., Seattle. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Bruce Larson Memorial Student Intern Fund at UPC.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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