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A heart attack couldn’t stop him. Not back surgery. So what’s next for this 79-year-old NASCAR-loving, marathon-competing priest? – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

A heart attack couldn’t stop him. Not back surgery. So what’s next for this 79-year-old NASCAR-loving, marathon-competing priest? – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
26 Dec
3:14
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PRINCETON – He’d like to run another marathon.

The twinkle in his eye tells you he’s serious, even if it’s been a decade and a knee replacement since he last ran the big one in New York City.

Even if, in the last year alone, he’s had a heart attack and a back surgery that nearly killed him.

Even if he’ll be 80.

“One more,” he says. “Somewhere.”

The Rev. Dale Grubba doesn’t believe in limitations.

He’s been past retirement age for four years. The Diocese of Madison checks in occasionally but pretty much leaves him alone. He fits in well at his two small-town parishes, St. John the Baptist, where Main Street turns the corner on the edge of this tiny central Wisconsin town, and St. James, up Highway 73 in even smaller Neshkoro. He understands the communities. He gets his parishioners and they get him.

A preacher and a principal, a winemaker and woodworker, a promoter and historian, Grubba has pictures of Jesus and Dale Earnhardt on the walls of his office and trophies on a shelf from his days as a track and cross country coach. 

“I think to myself, I wonder if I’d have become like John Dillinger, the bank robber,” Grubba says. “And I know that if I had, I would have (contacted) Dillinger and said, ‘Look, I’m going to rob a bigger bank than you tomorrow and then it’s going to be up to you to rob a bigger bank.’ There would have been that whole competitive thing in it.

 “Thank God I didn’t end up being a bank robber. This has worked out much better.”

Started in a one-room schoolhouse

Grubba’s story begins on a farm outside of Endeavor, a village of 500 located along what is now Interstate 39, between Portage and nowhere, and St. Mary Help of Christians church in Briggsville.

His mother taught in the one-room school Grubba and his younger brother, Bruce, attended, and she later became its principal.

The boys learned to work. One summer when Grubba worked in a poultry processing plant, he averaged 70 hours a week. Shortly after he got his driver’s license, the plant’s semi-truck driver didn’t make it to work. The boss asked Grubba if he could drive the semi to pick up a load of chickens and bring them to the plant. His answer was more of an exaggeration than a lie, really; either way, Grubba is pretty sure he’s been forgiven.

 “It was fun to be a teenager running down the road with all these 18-wheelers and doing your thing,” he says. “The lesson I learned from that was if I had not accepted that challenge then I would have been sitting at that factory doing those other factory jobs and wouldn’t have had the opportunity that was really fun and was really kind of exciting.

 “I try to tell young people that same thing. Yeah, you may hesitate. (But) if they ask you to do it, do it. You never know what door it’s going to open.”

Getting an education

The lesson stuck.

Grubba went on to attend St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee and Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and then later teach at Holy Name Seminary in Madison. Although he had never run competitively, he coached track and cross country with some success, as attested by the trophies from the State Line League and the old private schools athletic association atop the shelves in his office.

Another passion was auto racing, first as a fan — Grubba sneaked away from Catholic University to attend his first NASCAR race — and later as a writer and photographer for the now-defunct Checkered Flag Racing News weekly paper, Stock Car Racing magazine and other publications. That, in turn, led to Grubba writing and publishing seven books, the first on faith and subsequent titles on racing history.

Meeting champion Bobby Allison, a rare Catholic among drivers in a community of Baptists, was an in for Grubba in the southeastern sport of NASCAR. When the man scheduled to deliver the prayer before a race at Charlotte Motor Speedway failed to show up, speedway President Humpy Wheeler asked Grubba if he would step in.

“Yeah, I can do that,” Grubba recalls telling Wheeler. “And then that leads to a whole bunch of other things.”

In 2014, when NASCAR champion Kurt Busch accomplished the rare feat of racing 1,100 miles in one day in two cities — the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 — Grubba was “riding shotgun” from Indy to Charlotte for morning Mass, blessings before each race and emotional support in between.

A master of promotion

Wheeler became a mentor of sorts, with Grubba learning the art of being spectacular from a master.

 “Most of what I do — and other priests don’t see it that way — is promotion,” Grubba said.

At his parish school in Princeton, “We do things like we have Paul Stender (a motor sports showman from Big Bend) come with his jet school bus and start the school year out. It’s neat.”

Grubba said he told the superintendent that at every other school, the meetings are dominated by mothers. “I said, I’m the only one that gets all dads to come because they’ve got to see the latest jet vehicle or whatever’s going on.”

So why not, right?

The St. John’s school, located across a glorified alley behind the church, has about 20 students, ranging from 3-year-olds to eighth graders. Grubba serves as the principal, as well as its principal fundraiser.

“That’s a big part of why I continue on,” he says. “I want to make sure that school continues to exist.”

A man of varied interests

The school and the racetrack are just two of the places Grubba spends his free time.

He has taken a woodworking class at Madison Area Technical College for decades. Chairs he built from whiskey barrels sit in a large event space at Yahara Bay Distillers in Fitchburg. His latest projects include two auto bodies, a Ford Woody truck and a car.

Another significant project he recently took on was leading the restoration of the Shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Endeavor. The facility — complete with a mosaic assembled from pieces of brown and green beverage bottles, red taillights and blue face cream containers — was built by two Dominican nuns in the late 1960s and initially served as a center for migrants. Then it was re-purposed and fell into disrepair. A $35,000 donation this year permitted structural work to begin.

Just last month, Grubba was able to brag to Wheeler he’d successfully done something Wheeler never tried: promoting a ballet for a Madison-area dance company on the opening weekend of Wisconsin deer hunting season, up against the Green Bay Packers vs. San Francisco 49ers football game.

“If people can’t figure out what you’re doing next, they’ll always come back,” Grubba says.

“Sometimes I honestly feel like God leaves me on this earth because he can’t quite figure out what I’m going to do next and he wants to wait and see what it might be. I’ve just always lived that way.”

CLOSE

A new dedication

Grubba got into running on a lark.

He was looking for something to make his 40th birthday special when an idea leaped off an airport magazine rack.

 “There was a Runners World there and it said, ‘How to run your first marathon.’ I said, ‘You should not pick that magazine up. You should not do that,’” Grubba says. “And I picked it up and read the article and said, y’know, that’d be kind of neat to do that on your 40th birthday.”

That was in February. By Memorial Day, he’d completed the Mayfair Marathon in Milwaukee, and before the Fourth of July — as the sensation of pain lessened in his memory — he was plotting his next.

In all, Grubba has run 63, including the prestigious New York City and Boston events, races in Cuba, Spain and France, and numerous full and half-marathons across the state.

When his right knee wore out in 2007, he switched to hand cycling. While easier on the body overall, the discipline is not without peril. Taking a corner coming off New York’s famed Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge connecting Brooklyn and Staten Island, Grubba flipped at about 40 mph in 2015.

 “With no roll bars,” he says in a nod to his racing heroes. “That’s not a fun thing.”

The start of a medical odyssey

Last Dec. 15, Grubba woke up with excruciating pain — “lay-down-on-the-floor-and-die, scream kind of pain,” is how he describes it — from his lower back into his legs.

A visit to the chiropractor didn’t help. Nor a physical therapist. Pressure? Nope. Needles? Nope.

“My Christmas Masses, I said them all sitting down and people were betting I was going to end up in the emergency ward before I got done,” Grubba says.

The athlete who had hand-cycled 26.2 miles through the streets of New York City at a 6-minute pace just six weeks earlier now had to side-step to climb the rectory steps.

Finally, X-rays showed Grubba’s fourth lumbar vertebra, at the top of his pelvis, had shifted forward, pinching nerves to his legs. Surgery was set for March 17.

But nothing is that easy, right?

Driving to Green Lake for a principals’ retreat Feb. 21, Grubba felt a sharp pain in his chest. Not the tingling or numbness he expected of a heart attack, this was outright pain experienced by a man who’d come to know extreme physical discomfort.

When a Tums and a quick walk didn’t help Grubba, a St. John’s eighth grader got her police officer father to help him. He went first to a local hospital and then to ThedaCare Regional Medical Center in Appleton.

“They decided I had a couple of veins on the back of my heart that were giving me trouble,” Grubba says. “They decided where it was and the size of the veins they just wanted to treat without stents or anything.”

Another setback

Even with that hiccup, back surgery was still on for March 17 at Rush Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Grubba had had his knee replaced there a year earlier and the facility and doctors had earned his full confidence.

Two friends took him. They were surprised when the doctor called them to a conference room shortly after the procedure was to have begun. The doctor told them, and later Grubba, that his heart rate had dropped to 25 beats a minute during anesthesia.

“(He) said, ‘I’ve never had anything like that. We almost lost him. I would have been on the front pages of the Chicago paper for killing a priest,’ ” Grubba says with a laugh. Joking is a coping mechanism for him.

“The funny thing is, I don’t think I ever got far enough into the anesthesia that I lost consciousness because I can kind of remember being wheeled out and into the recovery room right away. Then we found out that I was allergic to something.”

Between the first try and the rescheduled procedure, doctors at the Heart and Vascular Institute in Appleton implanted a pacemaker that keeps his pulse rate above 50. The second try at back surgery Aug. 1 came off without a hitch.

Three months later, Grubba was headed back to the Big Apple with his hand cycle for his favorite marathon.

Always a competitor

When Grubba began hand-cycling, he told himself he could do it for exercise and enjoyment, but that lasted about as long as it took for him to see another hand-cyclist. Then nature took its course.

So back on the Verrazzano Bridge on Nov. 3, Grubba found himself engaged with another competitor, Grubba pulling away on the climb and the other man whistling by on the downhill. He warned the man the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan would be harder.

“Before you get to the Queensboro Bridge, there’s a kind of a sweeping bridge that you go up and over, then you go up and down …” Grubba said. “I caught him, and as I’m going by him, I said, ‘This is a beast, isn’t it?’ ”

Yes, this priest talks trash.

First Avenue is long, straight and relatively flat. Grubba fell back. But the last mile or so of the course is a gradual climb that tears at an athlete’s weary limbs.

 “I caught him again and I said to myself, ‘This time he is not getting back by me,’ ” Grubba said. “And then there were two other guys that were ahead of me. I thought, maybe I can catch them.

“Then right at the finish, they kind of hesitated a little bit, maybe not knowing where the finish line was. And I beat them both in the last 50 feet. Shooomp! Like that. Got ’em. And then there’s no greater feeling to nail somebody right at the finish line.

“Then I looked in the paper the next day, because they print the name and the ages, and the one guy I beat was 27 and the other guy was about 34 or something. I just thought, yeaaaahhh.”

He finished 40th among the 69 hand-cyclists.

Always looking ahead

Racing in the marathon was big, especially considering the obstacles of the past year, but Grubba already has his next big adventure planned.

Since the 800s, faithful have made pilgrimages to pray in Santiago, Spain, where the remains of St. James are said to lie. Of the five routes, the shortest is 60 miles. Grubba has a guide lined up; she helped him on a similar trip from Fatima to Lourdes and Santiago and Barcelona.

“So I figure I want to train so I can walk 10 miles a day and do it in six days,” Grubba said. “I don’t know how it’s going to go. I haven’t run, and I haven’t really done anything extreme, walking, in probably eight to 10 years.

“So it’s going to be kind of interesting to see if I can do it. But knowing myself, I will.”

Of course. Then maybe a marathon.

Source: https://www.jsonline.com/story/sports/2019/12/26/priest-nearly-80-loves-marathons-woodworking-and-nascar/2715227001/

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