Islanders this week are remembering the life of longtime resident and prolific pastor Burdette “Bud” Palmberg who died on May 21 while on a mission trip in Bali. He was 83 years old.
Bud Palmberg was described by those who knew him as a wise counselor, humble servant and dedicated minister who continued to serve the community both on Mercer Island and beyond until the end of his life. Bud Palmberg and his wife Donna were married in 1957 and moved to the Island a decade later after serving in churches in both Alabama and Illinois before deciding to settle down in Washington.
Bud Palmberg led Evergreen Covenant Church for 26 years and in that time founded Operation Nightwatch, a homelessness outreach organization which is still active today. His son Jeff Palmberg said even into his later years, Bud Palmberg tried to hit the streets as part of the outreach team, talking with the homeless. It taught him that even though on the surface those living on Mercer Island and those surviving on the streets seemed different, they struggled with the same basic problems like depression, alcoholism and a sense of loss.
“It kept him grounded and reminded him of what sometimes people are really good at hiding,” Jeff Palmberg said.
By many accounts, Bud Palmberg had a knack for listening, and not only hearing those who talked with him, but offering sound advice throughout his life. Julie Steel is the current executive pastor for the Mercer Island congregation, and she said he always supported her ministry, a quality not always seen in people of his generation, she said.
“He had a big presence — he left a very large footprint,” she said. “When I think of who I go to for wise counsel, that is who I go to.”
Longtime church member George Duff remembers many times when Bud Palmberg would host large Thanksgiving dinners at the church. The invitations would go out, and often times many new faces would show up. Regardless, Duff said there was always an open spot at the table for those who needed it.
Even when Bud Palmberg stepped down as the lead minister for the church he was gracious, moving to Switzerland with his wife to pastor a church there, giving the new pastor space to breathe and develop their own vision. When the Palmbergs returned in the early 2000s, he always made himself available to fill in for sermons and to pray with those who wanted him to.
“He always relished the opportunity to fill in and be able to preach,” Jeff Palmberg said of his father.
In addition to their time in Switzerland, the couple made nine trips to the Holy Land and three mission trips to Bali. The decision to make their final trip was a difficult one, Jeff Palmberg said. Bud Palmberg had been having balance issues. However, those close to him said he never viewed retirement as a chance to stop doing what he felt called to do.
“He always loved the opportunity to share the truth of the Gospel with people, and there was this idea of going back to Bali 10 years after the last time they had done this — it took a little bit of thinking,” Jeff Palmberg said. “There was this passion for service, still playing a role, and they had this compassion.”
While he spent time behind the pulpit, much of Bud Palmberg’s time was spent in closed rooms offering counsel and advice to people, but Palmberg also had a sense of his limits. He partnered with a mental health professional who still has an office in the church and Palmberg would refer those in need of medical assistance to them.
“A huge part of his schedule was meeting with people,” Jeff Palmberg said.
While not originally planning on being a pastor, Jeff Palmberg ultimately became one and serves at the Covenant Church in Twisp. It seems ministry may run in the family as Bud Palmberg’s grandfather was also a preacher. In fact, Bud Palmberg kept his grandfather’s pulpit in his apartment, along with his own hand-whittled creations ranging from trinkets to furniture.
“I saw the reality of the demands and all the reality of what my dad did, but when I eventually felt like God was calling me into this new role, and I was open to that, I discovered that he had been preparing me and it was a good thing,” Jeff Palmberg said. “And I definitely looked towards my dad and have looked towards him as a role model and an example.”
Golf also played a large role in the late Palmberg’s life, and every Monday for years he would hit the greens. Gofling is how former Evergreen Covenant Church head pastor Greg Asimakoupoulos met him. When Asimakoupoulos was fresh out of seminary in 1979, he recognized Bud Palmberg’s talent and compassion as a minister and set out to befriend him, joining him on the golf course for those Monday sessions.
And it would seem he was a good lead to follow, as those who knew him said his leadership vision was as solid as his counsel. Duff remembered in the 1970s, when the region was reeling from Boeing layoffs, that Bud Palmberg asked the congregation to stay in their current downtown location and even expand the sanctuary. While Duff said this was a gutsy move, it ended up benefiting the church. This was a common experience with those who knew him. Under his leadership, the congregation grew from fewer than 100 to more than 1,000.
“He would, in a very gracious manner, say what needed to be said,” Steel said. “He wanted to be honest and helpful.”
Bud Palmberg was also active in the local Kiwanis Club.
A prayer service was held on May 22 and a memorial service will likely be held in coming weeks after the family and church have a chance to plan and process his death. Bud Palmberg is survived by his wife Donna Palmberg, his children Jeff and Chrisi Dotson, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.