For years, Don Bargen's melodious voice, good humor and herding abilities helped people move through what often were contentious issues.
Now faced with a sudden devastating cancer, Bargen's first thoughts are typically settled on how the people around him will be affected.
The Deerwood resident became a popular facilitator in the lakes area. He cheerfully loosens up a crowd, is an astute student of people and reasons through joint council meetings, leadership training and comprehensive planning. Participants said his gift comes with taking a room full of different views and making everyone feel as though they won by the end of the night.
Bargen put groups of strangers together and chose odd and amazing conditions with a twist to pick a group spokesperson. Just when that person, who was born the farthest away was chosen and the rest of the group relaxed, Bargen would pick the person seated to the left.
The Initiative Foundation is hosting a special tribute to Bargen's life of service Friday at the St. Cloud Civic Center as part of the foundation's main event, which recognizes community service and volunteerism in central Minnesota. More than 500 people are expected to attend the event.
If Bargen's tribute is bittersweet, the outpouring of support is welcomed and appreciated from his home on Placid Lake. And it also is a reflection of how one person can become so critical to larger events and so important to others.
Gaining a lifetime honor from the Initiative Foundation left Bargen "shocked and very humbled by that and honored they would consider me."
But he was reluctant to take credit for his work, including leadership programs.
"I don't train those people, what I do I kind of start the jazz band going -- I start playing 'Sweet Georgia Brown' and they kind of jazz it," he said. "... I helped them play their own song. I just started the tune."
Bargen said he was more energized by the people he worked with in leadership and community building than he was able to give to them.
The jazz references were influenced from his time living in New Orleans. Widely traveled in his life, Bargen and his wife, Kay, chose to live in the lakes area in 1998.
Jill Carlson-Ferrie met Bargen in 2001 during the Brainerd Lakes Area Chambers of Commerce leadership program.
"He is just so embracing," she said. "Each person, when you walk in, he looks at you and embraces you with a look. It's hard to describe, but anyone who met him will understand.
"... He doesn't forget a name. I think he knows the name of everyone he ever facilitated. ... He is just so full of life."
That is why the news on Aug. 4 of inoperable pancreatic cancer came as such a shock. It was just a few months after a physical seemed to confirm all was well. Bargen went on a fishing trip in Alaska. He had a sore rib, a cough and a lack of appetite. The next week came the unexpected diagnosis that the cancer was already "out of the box."
"We just haven't been able to take a deep breath yet," Kay Bargen said.
Chemotherapy treatments began on Sept. 10 and Bargen had nothing but glowing remarks about Brainerd Medical Center's oncology department. The diagnosis was confirmed with a trip to Mayo Clinic.
One of the hardest things for Bargen was giving up his facilitating duties. Even as he was getting a chemotherapy treatment Wednesday, just thinking about his work made him smile.
"I loved it," he said.
Bargen said he worked well with the Initiative Foundation because he believed firmly in the mission and goals of unlocking the potential of individuals and families and thus communities. In particular, Bargen said he hates to miss the coming Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe's East Central Minnesota Business Development Summit.
Community building is harder than rocket science, he said.
"It's terribly complex," he said of people coming together from diverse backgrounds, life experiences and viewpoints. "To develop a common vision of what we want to achieve is very difficult. Sure we will fall down sometimes. ... There are great signs of people wanting to come together in our area. ... I am just very, very hopeful about that. ... I think all the elements are there to be extremely hopeful and optimistic."
Bargen was born in Missouri in 1938. On Oct. 22 he will be 65. He became an ordained Roman Catholic priest after studying in the seminary in Mississippi. His passion for community developed early along with a view that it can only come where justice and peace coincide.
"I learned that in Mississippi," he said.
With 23 years as a priest, Bargen moved in the upper echelon of Catholic Church hierarchy. He left the priesthood in 1987. Kay and Don Bargen have known each other since 1965. In a journal entry, Kay said it has been a good many years to be such dear friends and for the last 12 as husband and wife. They married in 1991.
"I think people are praying all over the world for him," Kay said. Journal entries provide a glimpse into the days at the Bargens' Placid Lake home and the spiritual strength of its residents. Kay said the prayers, thoughts, cards and e-mails have been a comfort from which both of them are able to gain strength.
While she has gone through the emotions of anger and fear, Kay said Don is mainly concerned about her.
"That's who he is," she said. "He cares deeply."
Bargen said it was not fair she had to go through another loss since her first husband died suddenly from a massive heart attack. "We do our own grieving," he said. "People have been extremely kind."
Asked what he knows now that he didn't before the diagnosis, Bargen paused.
"I know some things more intensely," he said, noting it is a blessing to know the interactions with people have been meaningful and rich. "I think I took a lot of that for granted."
Aware of love of family and friends, Bargen said he learned that was much deeper than he could ever have understood before.
A Web site at www.caringbridge.org/mn/donbargen has become a sounding board with journal entry updates from Don and Kay Bargen. The site includes a guest book. There are messages from across the lakes area, the state, the nation and the world.
"As the calls, e-mails and letters flood into Placid Lake, let them serve as a lesson to you .. .for it is our way of reaching back to tell you, as best we can, how far your reach has stretched. The line of people weaves out your front door, down the driveway, around the corner, onto back country roads and freeways, and stretches beyond the borders. And along the way we meet each other and say, 'I know Don Bargen and I want him to know what he means to me,'" Catherine Stoch wrote in the guest book Monday.
Carlson-Ferrie wrote: "Count off in threes, get into groups, the person that has the dog that does the most tricks stand up, turn to your left, that person is one of the thousands of lives you have enriched!
"You and your family are in my prayers."
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