Our Stories: Paul Brunson
How does a person who once planned to become a Catholic priest leave his faith, become a campus radical, and end up as a Unitarian Universalist?
Paul Brunson was born in 1947 in Detroit. He was the son of a Catholic father who was a World War II Navy veteran and a food salesman and of a stay-at-home sensitive mom with 6 children who was a more creative Catholic who wrote poetry. Paul attended a Catholic Missionary seminary during four of his high school years and two of his college years. The seminary was much stricter than a typical parochial school – those who attended were definitely aimed towards becoming priests, even though, according to Paul, 90-something percent of them dropped out before actually becoming priests. The one thing Paul really liked about the seminary was that it did missionary work and helped a lot of people. But what he didn’t like was that the missionary work was focused on converting to Catholicism all those whom it helped. Along the way Paul “discovered girls” and became a “fallen-away” Catholic.
After dropping out of the seminary, Paul went on to several colleges, ending up at Wayne State University, where he was a member of the somewhat radical group SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). His story about becoming totally disowned by his family goes something like this: “One day some of my buddies were in my apartment and the phone rang and one of them picked it up and said jokingly, ‘Hello, this is the Young Communist League, how can I help you?’ and it happened to be my mom on the other end. We were not Communists, just student activists. About the same time, my girlfriend Linda moved in with me and my parents said ‘Goodbye, we can’t relate to you anymore. If you want to see us again, please see a priest for counseling first.’” His parents and siblings would not try to contact him again for 25 years. Paul had his motorcycle, guitar, girl friend, student friends on campus and a couple hundred dollars – he was as happy as the proverbial clam.
Paul met his wife Linda while at Wayne State. He was handing out SDS papers on campus about political anti-war events, and as he gave one to her he asked for her name and phone number. They were soon living together and married in 1970 with a judge, two witnesses and no money. From 1970 to 1977, Paul and Linda were both social workers – case managers for the Public Welfare Department in Detroit. In 1977 they moved to Colorado and Paul did graduate gerontology work in Social Work at the University of Denver while Linda completed training as a paralegal. The couple eventually moved to the Conifer area and enjoyed frequent traveling to England. In 1979 Paul was hired after graduation by the Denver Office on Aging and worked on a DRCOG funded project called the “Senior Center on Wheels.” It was an outreach/information and referral program using a mobile van that went two or three times/week to local senior high-rises, grocery stores and other locations in Denver. He and an RN staffed the project, providing health screenings, advocacy and assistance with accessing food stamps and other assistance programs. It became a well recognized innovative program for seniors.
Linda had progressive breathing issues from severe asthma, as well as worsening Crohn’s disease. On the evening of 4/12/96 she couldn’t catch her breath at home and collapsed. She didn’t have a pulse, and Paul tried CPR but it didn’t help. He called 911, and when the paramedics arrived they tried to resuscitate her, but by the time the ambulance got her to the hospital in Denver they said “there’s nothing we can do,” and she was gone. He felt lost for a number of years and went through a number of temporary relationships.
From 1996 until 2012, Paul worked for a hospital system initially as a Program Director for the largest Adult Day Program for at risk seniors in the Denver area. A few years later he became a case manager for a hospital based geriatric team. He would receive referrals from doctors or other team members concerning patients who had a problematic home situation, dementia, financial or other issues. He did home visits to meet with clients and their families to help with community resources and a caseload of several hundred people. Paul retired in 2012.
Later in 2012 Paul went into the Peace Corps, and after a 10 week orientation and Russian classes, was placed in Donetsk, a large city of 1 million people in the eastern part of Ukraine with a Russian speaking counterpart at a technical university. He set up and taught a social work training program for 7-8 students, facilitated a local English Club and also assisted his counterpart with grant writing skills. Although he loved being there and interacting with the people, much of the country was in major turmoil over the issue of whether to pursue closer relations with the West or with Russia. During the Maidan demonstrations against President Yanokovitch in Kyiv, the Peace Corps decided for safety reasons to evacuate all 230 volunteers. Paul was picked up secretly at 2:30 AM and taken to the airport for immediate evacuation to Washington DC for debriefing. Paul was not even allowed to tell his counterpart where he was for several days. But he was eventually able to return to Ukraine one year later and worked as a volunteer providing technical support to complete his Peace Corps placement.
Just before Paul came back from Ukraine, he met Marya Innis, his current partner, who was also in the Peace Corps in Ukraine. Marya had previously lived in Porterville, California, where she had been in the UU Fellowship in Porterville in the Central Valley and had become friends with our well-known BVUUFer Wendell Wall. Marya and Paul kept in touch and then decided to get together and move to the Denver area in 2016. They lived with Wendell for 6 months before buying a home in Arvada.
Although currently retired, Paul has a very active life. He volunteers at the Global Thrift Store twice a week, travels with Marya back to Ukraine every year to visit old friends, is active politically on progressive Democratic issues, plays the recorder with two different musical groups (until COVID) and enjoys audio equipment and reading. He also has played recorder with Fred Denny, another BVUUFer, at the local Boulder Chapter. Paul recently finished a stint as a Pastoral Care associate at BVUUF.
We have Marya and also Wendell to thank for introducing Paul to UUism, and bringing this wonderfully articulate and totally dedicated person among us.