Tenacity: Mel Rosche

Melvin G. Rosche. February 27, 1921 to March 16, 2015. Photo: Brigette Weis

Melvin G. Rosche. February 27, 1921 to March 16, 2015. Photo: Brigette Weis

Several weeks ago, I lost my mother to cancer. One of the first people I talked to after my mother died was my former Young Life leader, Mel Rosche. At 94 years of age, Mel took my hand and prayed with me and cried with me. Mel Rosche was one of the most remarkable people I have ever known.

A farm boy growing up in rural Illinois, Mel Rosche went off to serve as a pilot in the Army Air Force during World War II. On a bombing mission out of Italy in December, 1944, Mel’s plane was shot down over Hungary. I remember as a high school kid sitting at Mel’s feet, enraptured as he told us about being picked up by some Hungarians out of a corn field in his parachute, when he pulled out a Sunday School picture of Jesus from his wallet, whereupon his captors realized that Mel was a Christian. Several months later, while on a train bound towards a German camp for prisoners of war, the train stopped so that the prisoners could see Werhner von Braun’s V-2 rockets being fired off, presumably against the British. Little did Mel know at that time that he would have the opportunity to work near von Braun at NASA in the 1960s in the development of the United States space program. Mel’s prisoner of war camp was eventually liberated by the Soviet army.

Mel came back to the States after the war to marry Ruth, his high school sweetheart. Mel and Ruth moved to Virginia with his degree in aeronautical engineering and served in NACA, which eventually became NASA, and raised two children along the way. Mel’s career was fascinating as he helped to lead a team of structural engineers in designing and testing spacecraft that could carry people back and forth to the moon. One of his most famous colleagues for a brief period was the indefatigable visionary Buckminster Fuller.

While living in northern Virginia, the Rosches met Scott Dimock, an area director for Young Life, a ministry whose mission is dedicated to reaching disinterested high school kids with the Good News of Jesus Christ. When Mel and Ruth moved to Williamsburg, near where Mel was working at NASA Langley Research Center, they met up with a former Young Life student, Bill Clark, then a young man attending the College of William and Mary in 1972. Following Clark’s leadership, they started the ministry of Young Life in the Williamsburg, Virginia area (currently led some 43 years later by area director Nathan Havasy).

When Bill Clark graduated from William and Mary in 1974, Mel had a bit of a crisis. What would become of the Young Life outreach to teenagers that they had started? Well, just as Martin Luther King Jr. had his “kitchen table” experience which led to his commitment to the civil rights movement, Mel Rosche had a “kitchen table” experience of his own. Mel’s experience might not have been as dramatic as King’s, but it still impacted a whole generation of people. As Mel sat and prayed, he got a clear sense that God had called him to be a missionary to teenagers. God gave Mel a love for high school kids.

Over the next few years, Mel took early retirement from government service so that he and Ruth could dedicate their lives to loving teenagers for Jesus Christ. Mel would invite kids to come over and play pool in the Rosche’s basement, and he would teach dozens of young people how to water ski off of his boat. Countless young people were impacted by this man and his determination to answer the call of God in his life.

By 1979, I had received dozens of invitations to attend a Young Life meeting in high school. I never showed any interest. But then one day, a friend of mine told me that there were good-looking girls at the Young Life club. So I went. Sure, there were some good-looking girls there. But I was really intrigued by this “old” guy with white hair. Here was this retired NASA engineer standing in front of a group of rowdy teenagers, trying to lead the group in singing some song terribly off-key.

Mel could not hit a note even if it was painted on the side of a barn. What was it that would possess this man to hang out with a bunch of rascally teenagers?

I kept coming to Young Life meetings, and I listened as Mel shared stories of Jesus from the Bible. Even though I had grown up in a church, I was filled with a lot of doubts and questions about the Christian faith. But within a few months, I continue to listen and learn, and I was drawn in.

I even got up on water skis myself.

Later when I was in college, I would come back to ask Mel more questions. I was going through a crisis of faith. Caught up in the academic rigor of a secular university, a number of well-intentioned Christian friends of mine had told me that I basically had to choose between the Bible and science, between following after Jesus and pursuing the life of the mind. One of the issues at stake was the Creation vs. Evolution controversy. After I poured out my anguish with Mel, I listened to his story of when he was about my age. Growing up in the post-Scopes Monkey Trial era in the 1930s, the question of evolution dominated Mel’s mind. As Mel put it, “I got so tired of thinking about it, I asked God, my junior year [in high school] to free me from it. He did and still has. When I saw that He had answered my prayer, I asked Jesus Christ to be my Savior.

Mel’s answer impressed me so much. It was not theologically sophisticated, but it was genuine, honest and simple. For Mel, there was no conflict between accepting the findings of modern science and accepting the Biblical testimony about the Risen Jesus. Mel was determined not to let anything stand in the way between him and his love for God.

Mel eventually left Young Life staff in the mid-1980’s, training my dear friend, Charly Franks, to take over the leadership of the local ministry. But when Charly left Williamsburg, Mel stayed on Young Life committee and mentored me when I was the local ministry staff.

Soon, Mel’s life changed dramatically when he began to have difficulties standing. Not too long after that, his partner for many, many years, Ruth, died, and Mel suffered more health difficulties. Mel had been beat up pretty bad by all of these trials in his life.

But this did not stop Mel. His passion for young people found a new expression through the ministry of Heart for Orphans, an outreach in Ukraine with a mission to provide small, family-style transition homes to teens who have graduated from orphanages.

As Mel entered the last decade of his life, he was beset with continued health problems. But Mel’s attitude was incredibly inspiring. He would always say that he “never felt better.” He was a blessing and shared this blessing with everyone around him. At the retirement community where he lived, to date he is the only person to have been sent into “skilled nursing” care, only to return back to assisted living… not simply once, but twice!

That is why I can say that the best word to describe Mel is tenacity. Once Mel got a grip on something, he could never let go, whether it was a joyful passion for teenagers, his love for his children and grandchildren, or even his health. After every setback, he would always bounce back. But most importantly, Mel had an incredibly tenacious grip on the grace of God.

Whether or not I ever live to be 94 years old, I want to be just like Mel Rosche.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

7 responses to “Tenacity: Mel Rosche

  • Fred nice

    Nice tribute Clarke! Mel will certainly be missed by many. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Virginia

    Clark – thank you for sharing this uplifting tribute to Mel! What a man of God…his open heart, open mind, open spirit welcomed us all & drew us to Jesus Christ. He will be missed!

    Blessings to you! – Virginia

  • Jim Shaw

    Great testimony to Mel!

    Jim Shaw MD FCCP Lackey Free Clinic 1620 Old Williamsburg Rd. Yorktown VA 23690

  • Charly Franks

    Nicely done!

  • Mel Rosche: Faith, Friendship… Fun | Roses in the Rubble

    […] from high school, Clark Morledge, wrote a moving tribute to Mel’s life, faith and tenacity.  (You can read it by clicking here)  Mel also led my brother-in-law, Woody, to faith 35 years ago.  And, at 94, Mel had just […]

  • Jeffrey Wrobel

    Clarke, Well done. I would say that Mel would be proud but that would be wrong. He would just say “Ah, shucks” Thanks for sharing. Jeff

  • David R. Chin

    Thanks Clarke, so rich a story . . . perhaps a good place to share one more?

    Mel Roche, my Mentor at WCC 2010 – 2015 . .. too short . . .

    Mel Roche at age 90 donned a bright pink lifejacket (his choice) and boarded “Genesis” from a wheel chair. I understand a onetime avid boater, he would have nothing to do with a fancy Hoyt lift or crude “crew crane” off my dock, and rather wrestled himself aboard, across the combing and comfortably into the cockpit, so excited to be a part of the crew comprised of all his favorite women (except me, as skipper), – affectionately called “Mel’s Angels” for a circumnavigation of Jamestown Island under power.

    All along the journey, he would be sharing stories of the history of Williamsburg and of the farmers he knew who once
    owned property within eyesight of the water we were sailing. He was like the grandfather I never had, humble of his monumental accomplishments achieved in his earlier lifetime, immeasurable wisdom acquired over the decades, short stories always with a lesson or laugh at the end, patience beyond measure, and presenting tough questions to challenge one, often closing with biblically led answers, and always, ALWAYS, so appreciative of life and full of joy.

    A few years later, Mel’s attendance at my Re-Affirmation Baptism at NewQuarterPark was just another maritime ministry experience reminding him of his boating days! That long off-road gravel trail down to the floating dock where the ceremony was taking place was no deterrent to his spirit, as his wheelchair was simply tailgated behind him in the Gator, as the Park Ranger gave Mel a special ride to the water. There, he joined the dozens of friends who all agreed Mel’s presence made the words of life and the love of Christ delivered by Travis Simone even more alive and meaningful.

    I loved having dinner with him at the Landing, then talking for hours afterwards back at his apartment; and even more seeing him at Services at the Chapel, soaking in the Word and Worship, (again, usually surrounded by his entourage of “Mel’s Angels” . . . Carol-Jo, Brigitte and Christine, et.al, – so many “sons and daughters” he’s adopted over the years who truly loved and cared for him). He loved and served his sensitive singles ministry, (likely many of his former Young Life mentees), and faithfully tended to this flock of the Chapel community quietly behind the scenes . . . Mel was very much loved by all he encountered.

    Talk of tenacity, I will always remember Mel reaching out to grasp your hand in friendship, a surprisingly strong grip, matching his spirit and smile, and penetrating sparkle in his eyes, even shining through those cataracts or smudges on his often crooked glasses we continually cleaned and adjusted for him – how we loved Mel. How we celebrate his Home Going, gone to us, gained by Heaven.

    David R. Chin

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