Matthew H. Wiederkehr had several brushes with death before it finally took him, this month, at age 90, on the birthday of the Virgin Mary, whose messages he had fervently spread for years.
A hot-air balloon enthusiast and advertising professional, the Centerville man became dedicated later in life to a little-known rosary called the Chaplet of the Seven Sorrows, which originated in the Middle Ages and was popularized in Rwanda in the 1980s following reported apparitions of Mary there.
Wiederkehr developed an affinity for the people of Rwanda and the Seven Sorrows rosary, a meditation about the ways that Mary suffered along with Jesus. When Wiederkehr died on Sept. 8 — observed as Mary's birthday — he had more than 3,000 followers on the Facebook page where he was known as "The Rosary Guy" and regularly broadcast his Seven Sorrows recitations.
"My message to everyone is, whatever you are doing, if it's anything evil, anything wrong, anything that violates Jesus' command that the greatest of these is love, then I suggest that you concentrate on that message and see if you can work something out," Wiederkehr said in a 2007 video played at his Sept. 14 funeral and celebration. The tape was made at a time when Wiederkehr had just recovered from a life-changing bout of sepsis, during which he saw visions that inspired him to devote his remaining years to spreading the word about love and praying the rosary.
"Don't be afraid of death," he said. "Be prepared for it. … If there's anyone you offended, tell them that you're sorry. ... And if you hate someone, get it out of your heart. Because I would say that 90% of the sickness is caused by hate within one's heart."
Wiederkehr spent much of his life spreading messages, though they were more secular in his earlier years.
Born in Altus, Ark., in 1929, Wiederkehr joined the Navy and served during the Korean War before meeting a woman he called "Bobbie" on a blind date in San Francisco. They soon married. "And somehow it worked out that we were married 65 years," Elizabeth "Bobbie" Wiederkehr said. "There was never a dull moment living with Matt, believe me."
Mechanical engineering skills landed him jobs at 3M and Control Data, but Wiederkehr discovered the passion of his working years at the nation's first hot-air balloon race in 1962, held in White Bear Lake as part of the St. Paul Winter Carnival.
Family members say he was instantly fascinated by hot-air balloons, helping organize and participate in races for the carnival. He eventually formed his own company that owned a dozen different balloons that he used to set world records and to advertise products such as Coca-Cola, Kentucky Fried Chicken and dozens more.
As a pioneer of hot-air ballooning as a profession, Wiederkehr was also among the first to learn some of the biggest dangers, like the time he took a flight at midday and learned that invisible zones of hot air can carry hot-air balloons into cumulus clouds. He came back down to earth after that violent trip with his balloon three-quarters deflated.
"He survived that," daughter Donna Wiederkehr said. "The first thing he did was to call the other balloonists and tell them. … And then he created a tool that said, you don't want to fly when the sun is above X-degrees angle to the earth. Being a pioneer, you're learning. And he didn't just keep that for himself, he wanted to share that message." He went on to help form the first balloon flight school approved by the Federal Aviation Administration and was inducted into the U.S. Ballooning Hall of Fame in Iowa in 2012.
Wiederkehr is survived by his wife, two daughters, a brother, two sisters and a sister-in-law, and 27 nieces and nephews and their children. He is also surrogate grandfather to many of Donna's children of the heart from Rwanda and S. Sudan, including a great grandchild and one great granddaughter on the way. He opened his heart and loved all of his Rwandan families' friends as their grandpa, including all the kids from New Hope Homes.