Robert Scott Runkle [Deacon Bob], Episcopal deacon, volunteer, and retired businessman, age 85, died peacefully at home in Towson, MD, on Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021. Bob’s lungs and heart were just too tired to continue. He often noted he would not mind if his death came from a “happy but worn-out heart;” his wish was granted.
Bob was born March 9, 1936, in Washington DC. His parents displayed courage starting a family in the midst of the Great Depression, an experience which had a lasting impact on their lives. Raised in the Episcopal Church, Bob started life on the family farm in Prince George’s County, Maryland. In 1941, this pastoral life was disrupted when the government decided to defend the nation’s capital by building Andrews Air Force base in Prince George’s County, including on the family farm. The family was forced to “sell” their small farm to the government. They moved to Rockville, MD, at that time more rural than suburb. His dad was a construction manager and engineer for the US Government and worked for GSA and NIH all his career. His mother was a bank teller, a housewife, and a community volunteer. She returned to the work force in the 1950s as a bookkeeper.
Bob graduated from Bethesda Chevy Chase High School in 1954. He graduated from Georgia Tech in 1960 with a major in Building Construction Management. He enlisted in the US Army, spent six miserable months learning war and medical corps lingo, and then became a commissioned officer in the US Public Health Service. Bob began his career in the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda MD. The highlight of his time there was his role in the development in 1967 of the biohazard warning symbol now used widely throughout the world. After decommissioning from the Health Service, he spent a long career with Becton, Dickinson and Company, managing facilities in England and the States, and subsequently in environmental consulting.
The common thrust of Bob’s life was helping others. In his professional life, he always maintained strong mentor relationships, advising employees on career choices, even if it might mean he would lose a valuable employee. In his volunteer life he found endless opportunities: an inner-city housing project, a soup kitchen, a voter registrar, a support group for newly arrived refugees, church outreach programs. All these activities became his life’s true calling.
Bob’s retirement in 2003 and move to Idaho meant there was more time to devote to helping others. Although he served for the joy of serving, his unique gifts were recognized by his cohorts. In 2007, St. Luke’s in Coeur d’Alene created the “Agitator of the Year” award to celebrate Bob’s indomitable spirit. His parish priest and the Bishop of Spokane noted that many people in the Diocese had been “Runkle-ized” -- added to Bob’s many e-mail groups to receive frequent pleas for some aspect of God’s work on this earth. These titles really told Bob that he was beginning to reach people but, if he tried harder, maybe he could reach even more around the Diocese, the country, and the world.
In 2008, Bob embarked on a second career becoming executive director of Trinity Group Homes, Inc., providing housing for individuals with mental illness. Little did he realize the journey he was beginning. From that time to his (second) retirement in 2015, he more than doubled the capacity from 17 to 33 and took the organization from an average of three vacancies to an average of eight approved applicants on a waiting list. Upon Bob’s departure, the Board of Directors voted to merge with St. Vincent de Paul of North Idaho. This merger made an additional 17 rooms available which were immediately filled. Now the program serves 50 members of the community. In 2021, Bob received a beautiful and unexpected honor from St. Vincent’s when they named their new transitional housing facility in Coeur d’Alene the Bob Runkle Center.
The older he got, the more Bob appreciated the unexpected and unplanned events of life. At the ripe young age of 72, Bob had a breakthrough lunch with an Education for Ministry (EfM) mentor trainer. Halfway through their chat, she stopped the conversation and told Bob that he had to immediately go see the Bishop and become a deacon. That certainly changed his life! This woman achieved what The Rev. Pat Bell had tried to focus Bob’s attention on from the time he and Mary Beth moved to Idaho: “When are you going to become a deacon?” Bishop Waggoner agreed to accept Bob as a candidate even though he was already at the age when the church’s official policy states that clergy should retire. After four years of academic study and practical training, Bob was ordained deacon in the Diocese of Spokane on October 12, 2012. For the rest of his life, Bob continued to serve and challenge his friends, neighbors, and community in this, his third and most satisfying, career.
Family was always the light of his life, especially his children: daughters Beth and Brynn, born from his first marriage to Betsy Grater; stepchildren Lori and Jay, children of Joan Thompson, his second wife; and stepchildren El gave izabeth and David, children of his third wife Mary Beth Jorgensen. These six children filled him with much joy and played a huge part in his life. He felt his family was complete with the addition of grandchildren: James and Katherine born to Beth and Ben Mackey, Alyson and Erin born to Brynn and Rick Conover, and Sydney and Wyatt born to Elizabeth and Mike Belt. Bob loved spending time with each of them and enjoyed hearing about their activities and milestones.
Bob and Mary Beth made the move from Idaho back to Maryland in 2015, several years after Mary Beth first broached the subject of moving closer to family. Bob’s initial “excuse” was that he had just been ordained and there was no way he could leave the Diocese of Spokane. After much discussion and prayer, he realized that the opportunity to spend his last years close to his children and grandchildren was vital. Bob soon discovered that the Diocese of Maryland would allow him to serve as a deacon at Trinity Episcopal Church. True to form, he quickly became involved in several Diocesan-wide activities. One comment by the Archdeacon meant a lot. She stated that the service and involvement Bob made to the Diocese certainly disproved the church’s official policy that deacons “retire” at age 72, rather than continue to serve their calling until health concerns intervene.
Bob learned that losing what he thought was vitally important, like his job through retirement, freed him to discover what really matters. He learned that a joyful vocation means much more than a professional career. At the end of his life, Bob only had one regret -- he wished he had spent less time on his career and just a little more time serving others.
Bob is survived by Mary Beth Jorgensen, his loving wife of 29 years; his first wife Betsy Grater; daughters Beth (Ben) Mackey and Brynn (Rick) Conover; stepchildren: Lori and Jay Thompson, Elizabeth (Mike) Belt, and David Feild; by six grandchildren: James (Molly) and Katherine Mackey, Alyson and Erin Conover, Sydney and Wyatt Belt; by his sister Peggy Curlin, niece Candace (Chuck) Vance and their son Troy, nephew Andrew Curlin and his children Jack and Caty; by cousins Joyce Friedersdorff, Terry Fortuna, and George Runkle; and by countless friends.
He was predeceased by his parents, Lloyd and Louise Runkle, and by his second wife, Joan Thompson.
Due to Covid restrictions, a private service will take place at 3:00 pm on Friday, April 16, 2021, at Trinity Episcopal Church in Towson MD. To view livestream, go to www.trinitychurchtowson.org. Bob’s ashes will be committed at his daughters’ church, St. John’s Episcopal, Ellicott City MD. Please honor Deacon Bob by supporting the Outreach Ministries of Trinity Episcopal Church (120 Allegheny Ave., Towson MD 21204), or of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church (501 E. Wallace Ave., Coeur d’Alene, ID 83814), or by memorial donation to Trinity Group Homes (St. Vincent DePaul of North Idaho, 201 E. Harrison Avenue, Coeur d’Alene ID 83814).
Bob’s family is grateful for the loving care he received in his final months from his medical team at Kaiser Permanente and from the Maple Team of Gilchrist Home Hospice.
“Our lives begin to end on the day we become silent about things that matter.” Martin Luther King Jr.
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