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    'German shepherd' retiring from pulpit

    After 14 years of sermons, a beloved reverend retires today with plans to do missionary work with his wife in Lithuania.

    By KATHERINE GAZELLA, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 9, 2002


    TARPON SPRINGS -- Herbert Lange was 7 years old when he, his three sisters and pregnant mother stood in line, waiting to die.

    It was 1944 in Lithuania, and the Langes had been captured by Lithuanian partisans who were communist. Although they lived in Lithuania, the family had retained German citizenship, a fact that did not sit well with their machine gun-toting captors.

    Lange's father was a German army officer who was shot and killed by Lithuanian partisans earlier that year, but surviving members of the family had nothing to do with the war, Lange said.

    Prepared for what he assumed was certain death, Lange stared at the machine gun and the man in a long leather jacket who held it. Then, his mother's Lithuanian midwife dropped to her knees and begged for the family to be spared, noting that the mother could deliver a baby as soon as that night. Her plea struck a chord with one of the captors.

    "A man in the background said, 'Let them go,' " Lange recalled last week. In a matter-of-fact summation of the dramatic scene, he said. "It was pretty close."

    Lange went with his family to Germany after the close call. They came to the United States in 1956, and he became a Methodist pastor.

    Now 65, Lange is retiring today after 14 years as pastor at First United Methodist Church in Tarpon Springs. But his work will not end: He and his wife, Sylvia, plan to serve as missionaries, something they did years ago when Lange began his religious career.

    Their mission work will take them to the land of Lange's early childhood, the place where he once stared at a firing squad.

    "Back to Lithuania," Lange said.

    Lange worked in construction in Cincinnati as a young man, but his experience in Lithuania had stayed with him. It was time to answer a higher calling, he decided.

    "I felt like God really saved my life for a purpose," he said. "We should have been dead."

    He graduated in 1965 from the Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. He and Sylvia worked as missionaries in the Micronesia islands for 14 years, during which they helped build a high school and a biblical studies school.

    When they returned to the United States, Lange served for three years as a pastor at the Interbay and Port Tampa Methodist churches in Tampa, then moved to Pinellas Park First United Methodist Church. In 1988, he was sent to First United Methodist in Tarpon Springs.

    Through the years, the pastor with the thick German accent has become a beloved figure at the church. He is known for phrases such as "yes, yes!" and "sounds good -- just do it."

    "The first time you meet him, you might think he's a little gruff," said parishioner Sue Kuhlman, a Palm Harbor resident who works in real estate. "But he really is the sweetest person on the inside. We love him. . . . We affectionately call him our German shepherd."

    Under Lange's leadership, the church has grown with the addition of a two-story fellowship hall a couple of years ago. He oversees a staff of a dozen people and a parish of 2,300 members.

    "We've made a lot of changes since Herb came," said Janyce Kikta, administrator and treasurer at the church.

    "He's dynamic," church secretary Terri Simpson said.

    Lange will be replaced by Ken Zimmerman, who is at the Tomoka United Methodist Church in Ormond Beach.

    Lange's recent going-away party had place mats with photographs of him through the years, including one when he and his family were leaving Lithuania. He also is pictured during one of his four Ironman triathlons, which consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run. He also has done a grueling double Ironman: a 4.8-mile swim, 224-mile bike ride and 52.4-mile run.

    About 600 people attended the party, he said. Some people would take that as a sign of being liked and respected in the community. Lange took it another way.

    "I think they're happy for me to leave," he said jokingly.

    Today, his last day at the church, will not be a day for sermons, he said. He may offer some encouraging words and some thank-you's.

    "They have heard enough sermons in 14 years," he said. "I've told them everything I know."

    Lange and his wife, Sylvia, have visited Lithuania before, including a trip in June 1994 that was 50 years after the encounter with the firing squad. Along with Lange's mother, they tracked down the grave site for Lange's father on Father's Day.

    "That was quite an emotional time to find that grave site," said Sylvia Lange, who recently retired as a teacher of mentally handicapped students at the Paul B. Stevens school in Clearwater.

    They will take a break after their retirements before leaving for mission work. Both are looking forward to bringing religious teachings to Lithuanians, who were not allowed to practice religion for many decades.

    "For 50 years, Christianity was under covers," Sylvia Lange said. "You had 50 years of emptiness there."

    Lange said he feels drawn to the country. He wants to help fill the emptiness to which his wife referred.

    It won't be hard for him to return to a place that has difficult memories attached to it, he said, because he feels he is needed in Lithuania.

    "The young people really don't know anything," he said. "You can lose your faith in a generation."

    -- Katherine Gazella can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or gazella@sptimes.com.

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