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Rev. Nathan Strong 'Was Just a Good Ol' Country Boy'

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Published April 10, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.


Nathan and Vicki Strong - COURTESY OF VICKI STRONG
  • Courtesy Of Vicki Strong
  • Nathan and Vicki Strong

Nathan Strong (March 18, 1953-January 6, 2024) had chosen the hymns for the church service he was to lead on Sunday, January 7. He had prepared the church bulletin, selected scripture readings and started to write his sermon, which he titled "Dodging Bullets." The service at Albany United Methodist Church was held that Sunday morning, but the pastor who had served the congregation for 31 years wasn't there: Strong died of a heart attack at his home on Saturday evening, January 6. He was 70.

The congregants who gathered in Nathan's absence sang the hymns he had picked and read the psalms he'd chosen. Some parishioners stood and talked, recalling a pastor who was always there for them. A few older church members said they were upset Nathan wouldn't be there to preside at their funerals.

"Nate grew up in Craftsbury, so he was just a good ol' country boy," said Amanda Harper, 52, a lifelong congregant of the Northeast Kingdom church. "Us good ol' country Albany people could relate to him well."

Nathan was the second of five children born to Horace and Ruth Strong. The family lived on Craftsbury Common, near the Stronghold dairy farm run by Nathan's grandparents, called Stronghold. The Strongs kept a small herd of Guernseys that Nathan and his two brothers fed and milked every morning before school.

"Chores!" Horace would call out at 5 a.m., rousing his sons.

Matt Strong, Nathan's brother, could expect a corresponding nudge from the bottom bunk of his bunk bed. It was Nathan, kicking his mattress and pushing his youngest sibling to the ceiling.

"Nate was kind of like a rock to me," said Matt, 66, a carpenter and wood-carver who lives in Stowe. "The one thing that made him a great pastor was the same thing that made him a great brother: You could talk to him about anything, and he would just listen."

On Sundays, the seven Strongs would dress for church and walk from their house to the Craftsbury Common Congregational Church (now called the United Church of Craftsbury). The white clapboard church stands across the common from Craftsbury Academy, which Nathan attended from kindergarten through 12th grade. Horace taught industrial arts at the school his kids attended and was a canoe maker.

From left: Jesse, Matt, Heather, Nathan and Vicki Strong - COURTESY OF VICKI STRONG
  • Courtesy Of Vicki Strong
  • From left: Jesse, Matt, Heather, Nathan and Vicki Strong

In high school, Nathan played three sports for the Craftsbury Academy Barons (now Chargers), including goalkeeper for the soccer team and pitcher for the baseball squad. He threw to his brother Russell, who was the catcher. As an adult, Nathan demonstrated his athleticism (and resourcefulness) by using only a putter to play golf at Stowe Country Club. "He'd tee it up and ... send it over a pond if there was a water hole," Matt said.

After Nathan's 1971 graduation from Craftsbury Academy, he attended LeTourneau University, a Christian college in Longview, Texas. His plan was to become an aviation missionary, obtaining his pilot's license and flying to places for short-term pastoral work. But he felt called to come home to the Kingdom and serve as a minister in Orleans County.

Nathan met his future wife, Vicki, when she was a student at Craftsbury's Sterling College, then called the Grassroots Project. She and her classmates went on a field trip to a nearby farm, the Strongs' place, where Nathan was milking cows.

The two were married on July 7, 1977 — 7/7/77, a date Nathan chose — in the church on the common. Soon their first child was born, a son named Matthew. He was followed by Jesse and then Heather — three kids in four years.

Nathan preached in several small towns — Irasburg, North Troy, Newport Center and Orleans — on an interim basis before becoming the minister in Albany. From the pulpit and in personal interactions, Vicki said, he had a way of making a connection with God simple, yet also profound, for people.

Harper, the lifelong parishioner, first attended Albany United Methodist Church as a baby with her grandmother. These days, she attends with her young grandchildren, who are the fifth generation of her family to worship at the church.

"Every week, he would say something in his sermon, and you would think he knew what was going on in your life," Harper said. "You would think he had specifically written his sermon for you. But I think everybody else felt the same way."

Nathan Strong baptizing Kristen Harper - COURTESY OF AMANDA HARPER
  • Courtesy Of Amanda Harper
  • Nathan Strong baptizing Kristen Harper

Sunday worship was only a portion of his pastoral work. Nathan married people and conducted funeral services for churchgoers and nonchurchgoers alike. He counseled couples whose marriages were faltering. Nathan was there in times of hardship and loss, arriving at a house fire in the middle of the night and appearing at the NICU to comfort the parents of a newborn who needed medical care.

When a tragedy occurred, "instantly people would want Nathan there," said Vicki, 67, a former state representative. "He didn't have to say anything — just show up."

The Strongs homeschooled their three children and spent family time on Great Hosmer Pond. Heather Strong Moore, 41, who works in campus ministry in Memphis, Tenn., said she valued her father's keen and devoted presence as a parent.

"My dad had quite a bit of emotional intelligence," she said. "He would cry in front of us. He would cry in front of the congregation. He wasn't afraid to grieve in front of other people."

Nathan Strong - COURTESY OF VICKI STRONG
  • Courtesy Of Vicki Strong
  • Nathan Strong

Nathan supplemented his ministry with other work. He was a carpenter and he made dulcimers; he also wrote books. Nathan performed concerts with Vicki; she played guitar, he played dulcimer. He worked on a roofing crew with his brother Matt, calling himself the "official flower fluffer." That's because Nathan made sure the flowers by the foundation of a house, covered by a tarp during the work, were in fine shape when the job was complete.

"Nate was just happy being who he was," Matt said. "He never needed to prove himself."

On January 26, 2005, the Strongs suffered an unfathomable loss when their middle child, Jesse, was killed in the Iraq War. Jesse and three other U.S. Marines died when a rocket-propelled grenade struck their Humvee. He was 24.

"I personally think Jesse's death took a huge hit on Nate's health," Vicki said. "It took the sparkle out of him. But he persevered."

Jesse's death imparted to Nathan a "deeper understanding of eternal life," Vicki said.

Nathan wrote a book inspired by Jesse, who had asked his father to write a book explaining his theology. Before he went to Iraq, Jesse had outlined a series of topics he hoped Nathan would address in a handwritten list he titled "Dad's Random Theology Topics." These included "Prayer – purpose of, approach to, methods" and "Pastoral care – visiting, dealing w/tragedies, etc." Thoughts for Jesse: A Father's Tribute was published in 2010 and reprinted in Nathan's recently published volume, Meanderings: Collected Writings From an Eclectic Life.

In the new book, Nathan wrote about "characters" he had known — using his mother's word for an unusual person — and playing baseball on the town common. The day he died, Nathan told Vicki he wanted to sell 1,000 copies of Meanderings.

At one time, there were seven churches in Albany. Today, the United Methodist Church, with about 50 members, is the only active congregation in town. The 1842 building on Main Street wasn't big enough to hold the funeral of its longtime minister. So Nathan's service, attended by about 300 people, took place at Albany Community School.

"They were there because Nate touched their lives in some way," Vicki said.

"Life Stories" is a series profiling Vermonters who have recently died. Know of someone we should write about? Email us at [email protected].

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