Special Father’s Day for newly ordained Macomb native, 70
By: By Tom Dermody
MACOMB — As a NASA engineer involved in the Apollo and shuttle projects, Roy Runkle formerly launched rockets into space.
Now, as a newly ordained priest at age 70, the Macomb native says with a smile that he is “launching souls to heaven.”
This Father’s Day weekend had special meaning for Father Roy Runkle — a widower, father, and grandfather who entered the seminary in 2005 after the death of his wife of 37 years, Mary. Ordained a priest of the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama on June 6, Father Runkle was the principal celebrant and homilist of all three Masses June 19-20 at the church of his childhood, St. Paul’s Parish.
He is the first native son of St. Paul’s to be ordained a priest, according to Msgr. Richard Pricco, pastor.
“There were a lot of familiar faces, even back from when I was in grade school,” Father Runkle, the farm-raised son of Mildred and the late Harold Runkle, told The Catholic Post Sunday afternoon.
In his preaching last weekend, Father Runkle spoke of his own father’s influence, including that he “taught us how to pray.” Father Runkle recalled nightly family rosaries, and how he would sometimes accompany his father to his weekly adoration hour at St. Paul’s Church. Harold Runkle volunteered for the midnight to 1 a.m. prayer shift.
“We’d go back home and, as a farmer, he would get up at 4 a.m. or so. That made a real impression on me,” said Father Runkle.
FROM SPACE TO SEMINARY
Young Roy Runkle would go on to make a real impression on the U.S. space program. After obtaining a degree in physics from Western Illinois University, he landed a job at NASA in Huntsville. He eventually helped design a deployment mechanism for the lunar rover — the dune-buggy like vehicle used to transport astronauts further around the moon’s surface during the last three Apollo missions.
When the Apollo program gave way to space shuttle missions, Roy Runkle engineered the “world’s largest parachutes” — three chutes weighing 2,200-pounds each — to float the massive solid rocket boosters safely back to an ocean splashdown after lift-off.
While as a boy he had felt God’s “nudge” toward the priesthood, it “was never the right time.” He even considered it early in his career, “but then I met Mary.” He called his wife “the closest thing to a saint I’ll ever know.”
They had a daughter, Desiree, who is now married and has two children.
The Runkles were active members of Good Shepherd Parish in Huntsville. Roy served two terms as president of the parish council. He helped start a parish tithe program in which 10 percent of parish income is donated to outside causes, and led the parish’s Habitat for Humanity effort to construct a home each year for a needy community member. Both Roy and Mary made a Cursillo retreat in 1984, and Mary was active in bell choir and painted the image of the Good Shepherd that hangs in the church.
In 2003, Mary was diagnosed with liver cancer and given three months to live. She battled for two years, long enough to see her grandson born.
Early on the morning of the Fourth of July, 2005, it was evident Mary would soon die. At 5 a.m., Roy called his parish pastor, who came and administered the sacramental anointing of the sick.
Father Roy Runkle will never forget what happened at that moment.
“For me, the room lit up with bright lights — and I knew angels were present,” he recalls. “No one else saw them.” But he knew he wanted to be an instrument of such grace as well.
After the funeral, he told the pastor of his experience and desire to pursue the priesthood.
“He told me ‘I’m not surprised, but let’s give it another two months.'” Two months later, the desire remained.
While her father was certain of his new direction, his daughter wasn’t. “She’d just lost her mother and was worried she would now be ‘losing’ her father and the grandfather of her children, too,” said Father Runkle. “I said I would always be those things, but that God was asking her to share me. And she saw that.”
He enrolled at Blessed John XXII Seminary in Massachussetts, which specializes in older vocations. “It was great,” he said. “I never doubted for a moment I was in the right place.”
Father Runkle was ordained on June 6, and in July begins his first assignment as associate pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish in Madison, Ala., which is very near Huntsville.
“God is good,” he said of the appointment near his family — including his mother, now 92 and a resident of a nursing home in Huntsville.
The former NASA official is grateful for how God has engineered his life.
“God has blessed me with great parents, a wonderful job, a wonderful marriage and family,” he said. Now he hopes to bring joy and hope to others as a priest.
“I’m not worthy, but God uses us as his hands and feet,” he said, adding he hopes to be “a loving, caring priest.”
He expressed gratitude to Msgr. Pricco for his graciousness last week, and said “without exception” he has been welcomed by the priests of his new diocese.