Living a Beautiful Life Story
One of my favorite jobs was writing for the Beautiful Life series at All Souls Church in Knoxville, TN. I wrote this with the pastor at All Souls, Doug Banister. We both interviewed the finance director and city leader Bruce Charles. Bruce's main passion is working with inner-city kids to get them jobs and off the street, protecting them from violence and life in a gang. Bruce is unflinchingly honest and real, and lives out his faith working with kids that many others don't even see. This story represeted a series of conversations with the two of us and with the pastor.
A wise person told me once when I was going through a hard time, and wracked with guilt at the mistakes of my past, that when we find ourselves at the gates of heaven, we will not be asked to report on the number of sins we committed or all of the good deeds we performed. What St. Peter will stand and inquire of us as we look back at the gift of our time on this earth is, “Did you enjoy your life?” When I think of someone that embodies this story well, one of the first people that comes to mind is Bruce Charles. Whether he’s at home watching a Steelers game with a glass of cabernet in his hand, doing a 30 mile bike-ride with Lynn through the hills of east Tennessee, or hosting a lively get-together at his home, Bruce knows how to enjoy life. He has an adoring wife and four fearless children, an incredible business legacy, good friends all over the country, and a community that loves him. But, I believe it is what Bruce learned from having none of these things that showed him how to enjoy his life.
Bruce Charles was born in 1948 in Halls, the youngest of three children, while his father built homes for families in Oak Ridge for the Manhattan Project. A relative abandoned their children when they were small, and so two more children ended up with the Charles’s after Bruce was born. His father was a carpenter, highly intelligent, but was forced to drop out of school as a child and support his parents and siblings during the depression, so he never advanced in his career like he wanted to. He got married and provided for his family of seven, though money was very tight. But, he loved his children mightily, and always made sure they were clothed, fed and educated. Bruce was in church every week, and even had a brief professional musical career as a choir boy which paid him 50 cents a Sunday. When Bruce was very young, his father was holding a blowtorch that exploded in his face, and marred him badly with third degree burns. After that, he wouldn’t go out in public except to go to work because of the shame his damaged face brought him. Bruce became a basketball player in grammar school, and his father grieved that he couldn’t come see him play. So he gathered his resources and worked for months to build a full basketball court with lights in his backyard. The only white player on the team, Bruce would come home with his friends from the neighborhood, which included a talented young teammate named Julius Irving. They would play for hours in the court behind his house, and Bruce’s father would stand at the window and watch.
At 15 his father died tragically of cancer, and Bruce felt lost and without purpose. He finished high school, partied through the first year of college at Baldwin Wallace where he attended on a basketball scholarship. After a year, he was invited not to return and found a job driving a truck in New York City until the Marines drafted him and sent him to Vietnam. He shipped out for thirteen months to Quang Tri, one mile south of the demilitarized zone. Without a gun, a friend, or any instruction, he was dropped from a helicopter 20 feet in the air in the middle of the jungle in the summer of 1968. He spoke vividly about the time in Vietnam “95% boredom, 5% total fear,” the horrors of geurilla warfare, and the great frustration of trying to teach a tormented South Vietnamese army how to operate American tanks. A bright nineteen year-old, he rose quickly through the ranks of a ragtag unit with soldiers as young as sixteen, many of whom had escaped prison by enlisting. He spent much effort trying to protect his men from being shot down by the Vietcong, at times defying orders so that he could keep them safe. I use words like nobility and courage as I hear these stories, and he says in a clipped tone, “No. We were just trying to stay alive.” After thirteen long months, he ended up at LAX airport without a penny, only 48 hours removed from the jungle. He borrowed $85 to get a flight home, and turned around from the ticket window to get spit on by a nearby Vietnam protestor. A young businessman saw what happened, and refused to let an American Soldier be treated with dishonor. He took Bruce’s ticket, and gave him a first class ticket to New York.
While in Vietnam, Bruce asked his mother for news from the states, as the media the soldiers were given was often skewed. At his mother’s request, a young woman who Bruce had known in high school started writing him letters about American protests of Vietnam and the Kent State shootings. “She was reality,” he said simply. The day he came home, he made a jug of whiskey sours and met up on the beach and went dancing with this stunning Swedish-looking beauty with long silky blonde hair. Lynn became his bride shortly thereafter.
He finished his BA on the GI Bill, got a job at a phone company and worked on a Masters in Accounting at Bowling Green in the evenings. After graduation, he started looking for jobs and a man with a heart for veterans gave an unknown a chance and Bruce landed a job with the accounting firm Arthur Anderson. He learned a lot about helping small businesses grow, and then took at job with Johnson and Johnson as a mergers and acquisitions analyst. That’s when he started to realize his calling.
“When I was at J and J I realized I had a talent for helping small businesses get bigger” he remembers. “I enjoyed doing it.” The company promoted Bruce to president of its finance corporation. During these years Bruce realized his mission in life. “I like making people successful” he says. “I like coming along side of small businesses, mentoring, helping people meet their potential.”
“Why the passion for growing businesses?” I probe.
“Work is so important for people” he says thoughtfully, searching for words to explain what has become for him a life purpose. “It gives them self esteem…. Besides, healthy cities have good jobs. I know how to help create them.” He pauses, and then adds, “This is my mission in life. I don’t have a road map. But I feel led by God to do this.”
Not surprisingly, Bruce met the Lord in a business meeting at his church in 1981. He had become good friends with the rector of newly established Episcopal church in Cleveland, Ohio, where he, Lynn and their three sons were attending. The rector asked him to serve on the finance committee. “We needed $89,000 to get off of mission church status,” he recalls. “That was a big deal. We didn’t want to be dependent on the denomination any more.” He and the rector worked hard on a fall giving campaign. Bruce even preached a stewardship sermon. “I’ll never forget the night we counted the final numbers for the year. We got $87,000. Two thousand short. Then the phone rang. A guy in the church volunteered to cut the lawn for free. We’d budgeted two thousand for it. We made the budget.”
He pauses, and then realizes he has not explained the significance of this answered prayer. “I’m a numbers guy,” he explains, his tone softening. God used my own language to get me.” For the first time in his life, Bruce heard God in a way that made him know He was real. He started to spend time with the rector studying the Bible and getting to know God personally. I ask him if he ever struggles with anger at Him, at all he has seen in life, losing his father so young, the horror of Vietnam, the struggles he has faced in life. “No, he said. I just feel so thankful to be alive, to have been given so many breaks. When I live my life, I just want to make decisions that are right. I don’t want to make God sad.”
Bruce has already worked hard to live out God’s call on his life in Knoxville. Driving on the interstate one morning, he spotted the abandoned Standard Knitting Mills factory in Park Ridge. A walk through the property with then Mayor Bill Haslam convinced him that the old factory could be retooled to produce bulletproof windshields for military Humvees. (His son was serving in Iraq at the time). The new company would create about 180 jobs that would pay $14 an hour with good benefits. Bruce especially wanted to focus on hiring employees from under served neighborhoods. “That old factory is a dark place,” he says. “I had this vision of lights on at night that went from the factory all the way into the neighborhood, making it safe,” he recalls. “I could see the whole factory lit up, the streets around it filled with people coming to work. Kids were playing in the streets. When I think of this vision, it reminds me of my own neighborhood, and the basketball court my dad built me in the backyard with all the lights. I loved to play, knowing he was watching me.” The company that Bruce was courting ended up going with a site in Georgia, but his dream continues as he meets with leaders in the city to develop a new plan.
Bruce also mentors young business leaders in the body like Spencer Hall and Chris Doody to help build and sustain their businesses. Chris, who has a company that makes specialized medical devices, called Bruce up out of the blue when a friend referred him. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but I hit a goldmine when I met Bruce. He helps me with my business, but he’s also my friend. I couldn’t do what I do without him.” Bruce brings the same faithfulness into both family and community. “I am not a counselor, and I don’t always know the right thing to say, but I want them to know that I will stick with them, no matter what.” I loved hearing about his weekly “dates” with his daughter Katherine every Thursday, sorting out life and school and relationships. Gerry Harms, a member of Bruce’s small group for four years says, “Bruce is one of the only people I can confide in. I feel deep brotherly love from him. Bruce doesn’t sweat the small stuff, and he shows me how to give to God what I can’t fix. I don’t know what to do about my situation, but I can give it back to God. Bruce is good at that.”
When I look at Bruce’s life and talk to the people who have been touched by him, I think of the scripture in Romans that speaks of “the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not”. Throughout his life, people have called forth life in Bruce when he had nothing, and give him dignity, acknowledgement, a chance. Bruce has held onto these moments and made them a calling in his own life, and moves towards people, businesses and cities with purpose and vision, knowing that they will be something one day that they cannot yet see. From a weary soldier in the jungles of Vietnam, to a worker in the city, to people in our community who need encouragement, Bruce embodies this rare quality of God that enables us to see life where there is none, and rise up to become what we are meant to be. It is this quality at the end of our life that will gives us the ability to laugh and nod when we are asked, “Did you enjoy your life?”