Bob and Patricia Krussell from Dellwood pulled their chairs out from a table near the pool area at the White Bear Country Inn and looked around with thin smiles.
“This is fitting,” Patricia Krussell said as they gathered recently at one of their favorite hangouts. “This is where Steve used to hold his business meetings.”
Steve Berger loved to watch the Packers play the Bears with his son. He spent summer afternoons fishing with his youngest daughter. He flew to Chicago on a whim with his almost-16-year-old daughter to buy her an SUV that they drove home.
Steve Berger, a financial adviser who lived in Shorewood, was previously married to Bob and Patricia Krussell’s daughter, and the couple had three children. When a shooter aimed at hundreds of outdoor-concert-goers in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, Berger was one of 59 people killed.
The Krussells’ daughter, Joanna Berger, had a massive stroke in 2014 and has limited movement on her left side.
After Steve Berger’s death, the three of them agreed that Joanna Berger would have a hard time handling “everyday activities” with three kids. So this month Bob and Patricia Krussell signed the papers to adopt their grandchildren — who are ages 16, 14 and 10.
THE DECISION TO ADOPT
Bob Krussell is 70, and Patricia Krussell 74. They’re used to taking long walks, sipping on a drink on their deck or golfing during their summer afternoons. They have tan skin, wear sandals and drive around in a convertible. They’ve been in “retirement mode” for more than four years, ever since Bob Krussell ended his 40-year career as a material handler.
Steve Berger’s sister Christine Moore, who has two children of her own, took care of the Bergers’ children in Milwaukee for six months after his death. During that time, the Krussells teenage-proofed their basement, adding a “hangout spot” and two bedrooms.
The Krussells say they were the “natural choice” for adoption. Out of all the extended family members, the children were the most familiar with their mother’s parents. Plus, the Krussells have the financial means to support the children comfortably. They have a roomy house in a quiet neighborhood, right next to the White Bear Apple Orchard.
The Krussells said even though they adopted their grandchildren, they aren’t replacing Steve or Joanna Berger. “We’re still their grandparents,” they said. And Joanna Berger is still active in the lives of her three children.
Joanna Berger, who lives in Mahtomedi, did not want to be interviewed.
CHILDREN: ‘NOT QUITE READY TO COME FORWARD’
Bob and Patricia Krussell said their grandchildren didn’t want to speak to the Pioneer Press or be named in the story because they didn’t want to be the objects of pity. She said the children will come forward about their father’s death when they are ready to speak about it publicly.
At home, the topic of their grandchildren’s father comes up naturally. Sometimes, the kids scroll through their camera rolls quietly: photos with their dad from vacations to Monte Carlo, Hawaii, Arizona, Superior Shores. Or from a night out at Benihana — their favorite restaurant.
Sometimes, they sniff the pillows Patricia Krussell made out of Steve Berger’s golf shirts. Sometimes, the younger girl will ask to go fishing: her favorite thing to do with her dad. Sometimes, the 14-year-old boy will slip into bed late at night with his grandparents.
And sometimes, they ask the unanswerable: “Why did Dad have to die?”
Patricia Krussell said the children have spoken to counselors. This summer, they are being connected with a woman from their church who is a professional psychologist.
But the Krussells think their grandchildren are more likely to respond when conversations about their father come up naturally with people they trust, instead of at 4 p.m. appointments with strangers.
“I think a lot of emotional help comes from a natural setting,” Patricia Krussell said. “When they’re ready to talk, they’ll do it on their own.”
DEALING WITH A STROKE
Joanna Berger was a marathon runner whose parents describe her as “very athletic and very active.”
In 2014, she had a massive stroke — one that typically results in death, coma or paralysis — that required the right side of her skull to be removed for three months in order to allow room for her brain to swell.
The following Christmas, Joanna Berger was slowly walking.
But in 2017, the Bergers divorced.
“They were the best of friends,” Bob Krussell said. “But sometimes when you let go of something, it’s better.”
Joanna Berger has made a miraculous recovery, the Krussells said, but she can’t use her left arm and she walks with a minor gait. They said it would have been too difficult for their daughter to be held responsible for the day-to-day activities required to bring up a young family, but she’ll take one or two of the kids for the weekend to go to Valleyfair, downhill skiing or inner tubing.
STANDING OUT IN THE CROWD
The Krussells said the 6-foot-6 Steve Berger always stood head and shoulders over the rest of the crowd — so he was probably an easy target standing in the front row at the country concert in Las Vegas.
Patricia Krussell looked down at her hands as she thought about the shootings.
“I think he went down right away.”
The Krussells distinctly remember the day they met their daughter’s boyfriend in 2000. They were walking down Hennepin Avenue on their way to a restaurant, when a tall, muscular man with “movie-star good looks” confidently walked up to them to shake their hands.
Bob Krussell said that when his daughters were in college, he always told them to avoid talking to strangers in parking lots or at bars. But that’s exactly how Steve and Joanna Berger met: She looked lost at a bar near the University of Minnesota, he asked if she needed help, and five months later, they were engaged.
“But that’s OK, because it was Steve,” Bob Krussell said.
Steve Berger was disciplined: He worked out every day and logged long hours on the job. But he made the most of his free time, particularly with his family. Steve Berger was never bored.
“He was so enthusiastic about life in general,” Patricia Krussell said. “It was almost like, ‘Did he know he wouldn’t live long?’”
BOOMING VOICE AND REFRIGERATOR HUGS
On Sept. 27, the day before Steve Berger left to celebrate his 44th birthday with friends in Las Vegas, the Krussells met him at a Maple Grove restaurant. Before he left, he hugged his in-laws and said, “I just love you guys.”
“It was like hugging a refrigerator. He was so huge,” Patricia Krussell said.
She said that when someone dies, it’s easy to romanticize the good about them. “Not Steve,” she said through tears.
Steve Berger was human, the Krussells said. Sometimes he got angry — particularly when he was driving. But he didn’t gossip, unless he was talking politics. And he rarely disliked anyone he met.
The death of this man — who had a booming voice and flashing white smile and suffocated people with his hugs — created such a dent in the lives of so many clients, friends, teammates and family members that it would be hard to exaggerate the impact he had, Patricia Krussell said.
“He crammed so much over-the-top living into his short life,” she said.
He never cut corners. When he vacationed it “wasn’t just on the beach.” He’d plan adventures like like scuba-diving. Mountain biking. Fishing.
70 GOING ON 30
Before becoming round-two parents, the Krussells went golfing and sat down for happy hours at Dellwood Country Club. Now they grocery shop and drive the kids to soccer practice. They used to go to bed at 11. Now they’re “dead at 10.” They used to buy a quart of milk for the week. Now they buy a gallon every few days.
The Krussells said their grandchildren keep them young but that trying to act 30 at age 70 isn’t easy. The kids argue with each other, they need breakfast and lunch and dinner prepared every day, they need to be driven to Bible camp and volleyball and soccer practice and — yes — slime camp.
“I told them one day, ‘We want to take good care of you, but you have to realize we’re not 30 anymore,’” Patricia Krussell said.
“But our grandkids are so lovable,” Bob Krussell said. “And that’s the hook.”
The Krussells said they hear “I love you” multiple times a day. They get kisses on the cheek from their 14-year-old grandson (“What 14-year-old boy does that?”). The 16-year-old girl is able to pitch in with some of the driving.
The kids check in with their grandparents often by asking if they’re doing OK. A lot of times, the answer is no.
NOT AN EASY ROAD
The couple said the hardest part about their daughter’s stroke followed by their son-in-law’s death has been when they’ve questioned their faith. The Krussells attend and volunteer at St. Andrew’s Church in Mahtomedi. They said it was really hard to imagine a God who would allow something so “senseless” to kill their son-in-law.
Bob Krussell struggled to speak without choking up when he talked about Steve Berger. “He was my best friend.”
Patricia Krussell said they’ve had their fair share of “I’m-not-OK” moments. They are surprised when they hear themselves questioning God. Those moments usually happen in private: on their deck in the back yard, in the car, at the kitchen table. And since their faith has always been their identity, she said, to question God is to question their entire existence.
“It’s really hard,” she said.
The Krussells said the help they’ve received from the community is what helps keep their faith. Dozens of neighbors, family and church members cooked them meals, offered to help with chores or driving, and sent them letters.
“Somebody told me God speaks through people,” Patricia Krussell said. “And I see that.”
But it doesn’t stop the pain, which they say will never go away. And for them, it will never make the mass shooting in Las Vegas any less senseless.
“You see headlines, and then you forget about it,” Patricia Krussell said. “But people involved … How many people are involved whose lives are forever changed?”
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