When it came to fighting for justice, the Rev. William Rhodes Brice was never a bystander.
In fact, he preferred to be on the front lines.
During World War II, he begged his parents to sign the papers necessary for him to enlist in the Marines at 17. He fought during the Battle of Okinawa, earning a Purple Heart.
In 1964, he joined other ministers from the North and traveled to Mississippi to help register black voters. And during the Vietnam War, he was a regular at antiwar marches.
In life, said his daughter, Pam Foster, of Mapleton, Minn., “He was not an observer. He was a participant.”
Brice, of Edina, died earlier this month at Masonic Homes in Bloomington, after a bout with pneumonia. He was 91.
He grew up in Minneapolis as the youngest of three children. He felt a calling to become a minister while serving in the war, recalled his other daughter, Teresa Fane of Bloomington.
“At one point during the battles, he said the bodies were piled 15 to 20 high in trucks. The trucks were coming back from the field. He passed them going out to the field. He said, ‘I knew I was going to die,’ ” she said.
He was sitting by the Pacific Ocean in Okinawa, and he suddenly had a vision of Jesus, Fane said. “This verse came to him: ‘Though I walk in the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.’ He said, ‘I knew I was going to survive.’ He knew he had to go into some kind of ministry from that point. It set his direction.”
After the war, he returned to Minnesota and went to Bethel College where he met his wife, Bernadette. Brice continued his studies at the University of Minnesota, where he graduated with a degree in psychology and sociology. He earned his master of theology degree from Bethel Seminary, delivering the commencement address.
Over the course of his 40-year career as an American Baptist minister, he served congregations in Washington state and Mapleton, Duluth and Edina, Minn.
While living in Mapleton, he felt moved to get involved in Freedom Summer, a volunteer campaign to try to register as many black voters as possible in Mississippi — a place where black voting rights had largely been denied.
The risk was great.
“At that time, they were killing northern pastors, so you couldn’t open your mouth,” Fane said, explaining that a northern accent was a dead giveaway for being associated with the Freedom Summer movement.
Not everyone in the Mapleton congregation approved of Brice’s involvement in the movement, his daughters said, but many did.
Church members even took out a life insurance policy for Brice in case he was killed in Mississippi to make sure his family had financial support.
For Brice, his activism was an extension of his faith.
“My father was really driven. A real man of action. And he was a humanitarian,” Fane said. “Everything he fought for was for the rights of others.”
Even in retirement, he continued to minister, visiting prisons throughout Minnesota through Charis Prison Ministry.
“He just loved those men,” Fane said.
Brice also founded an unusual, albeit unofficial, ministry, reaching out to morning dog-walkers around Lake Harriet.
A fixture on the walking paths around Lake Harriet, he carried a fanny pack stuffed with dog biscuits, which he doled out to four-legged passersby. For this, he earned the nickname, “Biscuit Bill.”
He knew many dogs by name, and they surely knew him too, his daughters said.
“He walked Lake Harriet, every morning he was out there. He carried biscuits and fed the dogs,” Fane said.
A few years ago, Brice’s Lake Harriet buddies placed several pavers near the Lake Harriet Band Shell as a tribute to him. One of the bricks is inscribed: “Bill Brice, A man of God and doG.”
In addition to his daughters, Brice is survived by a son, Will Brice, of Issaquah, Wash.; six grandchildren; nine great-grandchildren, and two great-great grandchildren. Services will be at 11 a.m. on Jan. 21 at Calvary Baptist Church, 2608 Blaisdell Av. S., Minneapolis, with visitation at 10 a.m.