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Published: Monday, 1/23/2006

Clergyman reached out, ministered to gangs

The Rev. Rudolf H. Willer, a clergyman who served at several area churches, including Bethany Lutheran Church on Upton Avenue and St. Mark Lutheran Church in East Toledo, died Thursday in Hospice of Northwest Ohio, South Detroit Avenue. He was 80.

Mr. Willer died of complications from leukemia and congestive heart failure, his daughter, Sherry Krieger, said.

Though retired for more than 15 years, Mr. Willer continued to minister at several churches.

"He loved sharing the Gospel and seeing how it changed people's lives," Mrs. Krieger said.

Mr. Willer was a student at Ohio State University studying engineering when he discovered his religious vocation.

"He was helping to throw up a bridge across the Olentangy River and God spoke to him and said, 'You need to be preaching the word of God rather than building bridges,' " Mrs. Krieger said. "He had grown up Lutheran and wanted to stay in the Lutheran Church."

He graduated from Wittenberg University and then from the former Hamma Divinity School in Springfield, Ohio. He was ordained in 1949.

Mr. Willer's first church was in Cambridge, Ohio.

After marrying the former Florence Leatherman, Mr. Willer went to a church in Akron, where he stayed from 1955 to 1970.

"When he was in Akron, and gangs were hanging around the church, he had a weapons turn-in program," his daughter said. "He ended up baptizing the gang leader and officiating his marriage, so he really changed that community."

The couple came to Toledo in 1972 when he was installed as pastor of Bethany Lutheran.

Citing his experience with the street gangs, Mrs. Krieger said, "The bishop thought he should come to Toledo and save the church because it was in a changing neighborhood."

He remained at the church until he retired in 1990.

In his retirement, Mr. Willer served as interim assistant pastor of St. Mark Lutheran in 1991; interim pastor at St. John Lutheran in Hicksville in 1998, and interim assistant pastor at Olivet Lutheran in Sylvania in 1999.

Surviving are his wife of 53 years, Florence; sons, Roger and David; daughter, Sherry Krieger; sister, Mary Elizabeth Liles, and nine grandchildren.

Services will be at 11 a.m. today in St. Mark Lutheran Church. The family suggests tributes to the Rudolf and Florence Willer Scholarship for Evangelism and Outreach in care of the Toledo Community Foundation, 608 Madison Ave.

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