Bill Pilgram, in a tidy black suit and white lapel carnation, greeted visitors at the door of Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church last week. Most folks had no idea of Pilgram's unusual claim to fame: He's been ushering here for nearly 80 years.
That's not to mention 70 years of nonstop church committee work and more than 25 years as a church carpenter who — at age 101 — is still wielding a hammer and saw.
While many churches have decadeslong volunteers, the scope of Pilgram's work and its duration put him in a rarefied league, church leaders said. And as Christmas Eve approaches, they know they can count on him to take his favorite post at the side door.
"Bill is always ready to do what needs to be done — even at 101," said the Rev. Judy Zabel, senior pastor at Hennepin United in Minneapolis.
Church volunteers today typically pitch in about one to five years, church leaders say. Pilgram and other longtimers belong to a generation and an era when helping out at church was a lifetime commitment.
Pilgram, a retired attorney who remains sharp and articulate, would have it no other way.
"The church was practically our lives," said Pilgram, referring to his now deceased wife, Caroline. "I love all the people."
Pilgram estimated he's volunteered at least 12 hours a week since the 1940s, doing everything from laying hardwood floors to lighting worship services to serving on the board of trustees.
That includes 50 years on the church finance committee, he said, and 23 years on the missionary committee.
It's a minister's volunteer dream.
On a recent Sunday, Pilgram handed out church bulletins to worshipers streaming into the landmark church near Loring Park. Red poinsettias lined the steps near his perch, and Christmas was in the air.
He clearly was a familiar face. People gave him hugs and asked how he was doing.
"Catch any spies lately?" joked an older parishioner, referring to the usher's World War II counterintelligence work for the U.S. Army.
When the service began, Pilgram took a seat next to his son Michael, getting up later to pass the collection plate. After the last hymn was sung, he headed to a social hall where photographs of every Hennepin United minister are displayed. He pointed to an old photo and said, "I started coming when he was here."
The year was 1939, and Pilgram and Carolyn, his new bride, began attending Sunday services. Apart from the roughly five years he served in the military, Pilgram, his wife and three children were staples — rain or shine.
On this day, Pilgram insisted on giving a tour of the stately church, which shed light on both its rich history and his role as volunteer extraordinaire.
Walking into the social hall downstairs, he pointed to a wall of cabinets: "I designed and built them," he said matter-of-factly. Passing a kitchenette, he remarked, "I put a new floor in here." Walking into the library, he twirled around a four-sided bookstand — another of his creations.
Nearly every room had a book case, cabinet, window or other feature that Pilgram and his fellow carpenter volunteers made. The workshop for their "Recyclers" club is his second home in the church basement.
Pilgram's volunteer work ran parallel to his paid career, which included being a "cowboy" herding cattle, an insurance investigator and a real estate attorney.
But ushering is the only job to span his lifetime.
Pilgram still walks up and down the church aisles with ease, bending over to pick up a piece of paper on the floor. He's agile in body and spirit, said Zabel.
"As times changed over the years, he's been able to embrace the changes for the good of the community," Zabel said. "He is a pillar of our church."
As Pilgram continued his church tour, the conversation shifted to a more intense era. When he was in the Army, he worked in counterintelligence to prevent German spies from infiltrating the Manhattan project, the secret U.S. plan to create an atomic bomb.
In a brush with a key moment in world history, Pilgram screened job applicants and others seeking entry into Ford, General Motors, Chrysler and other factories that were making parts for the bomb.
"Nobody knew what they were building, because they split it [production] up between all these companies around the country," he said. "All they knew was that it was critical, and it was a secret."
Pilgram later worked in Minneapolis as a war crimes investigator, interviewing former prisoners of war returning to Minnesota to determine violations of international law.
When Pilgram takes his post on Christmas Eve, he'll remember those days and some of the old hymns.
The midnight service, illuminated by flickering candles, still brings wonder. Said Pilgram: "It's something everyone should see."