Making Full-Time Service a Career
AS TOLD BY MAX LARSON
IN 1910 my mother, whose parents had both died, left Denmark and took a ship to the United States. She was only 18, did not speak English, and did not know a single person in the country.
Upon arriving in New York City, she boarded a train for South Dakota, a trip of over 1,500 miles [2,400 km]. In South Dakota, where there was a Danish settlement, she met the man who would be my father. They were married September 20, 1911.
Early in 1913 Dad struck out by himself by covered wagon to Montana to homestead on available land. There he built a one-room log house. When this was completed in the summer, my mother came by train to join him, along with my brother, Norman, who was just a few months old.
Two years later a second child was on the way. As I’ve said in jest, I “helped” Mother shingle the roof, since that is what she was doing to an addition to the house the day before I was born. The next day, April 29, 1915, when Dad came in from the field for lunch, Mother said: “I think I’m going to have the baby.” That afternoon I was born. Yet by evening, when Dad came home again, Mother was up and had the evening meal ready for him!
Three years later my sister Jean was born at the same location. The following year our family moved to eastern Montana, where Dad rented a farm. In 1921 my second sister, Laverna, was born, and we four children grew up in the open plains of Montana.
The Shaping of My Life
My parents were Lutheran, and every Sunday the six of us went to church. But soon a neighbor, an International Bible Student, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then called, began to visit Mother and study the Bible with her. After a couple of years, Mother accepted the Bible truths she was learning, and in 1925 she was baptized in a watering trough for horses. Neither Dad nor we children accepted her newfound faith, but all of us were happy to discontinue going to the Lutheran Church. Mother always told us: “You don’t want to serve Jehovah, but never break his laws.” This advice helped keep us from getting into trouble.
Our family of six were farming 800 acres [320 ha] of land with 14 horses and one tractor. We had no electricity or inside plumbing, and all our water had to be hauled from a well two and a half miles [4 km] away. With the drought in the early 1930’s and the failure to harvest a crop for four years, we decided to move to Washington State. In preparation for the move, we needed to transfer some farm and household items from Montana to Washington. So my assignment was to accompany the railroad car and see that our horses were fed and watered en route. After six days, I finally arrived at the west coast of Washington.
There I helped Dad to set up and operate a dairy farm. After about a year, at the age of 20, I ventured out on my own, driving logging trucks in the mountains and also spending six months in Alaska as a ship’s engineer. In 1938 my sister Jean and I had jobs in Seattle and were living on a houseboat on Lake Union. That summer, Mother, who was living about 50 miles [80 km] away, attended the annual convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Seattle. Since the convention site was within walking distance of our houseboat, we invited her to stay with us. She did, and we agreed to attend the convention.
Deciding on My Career
Saturday evening, Joseph F. Rutherford, then president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, spoke on the subject “Lovers of Righteousness.” His talk dealt with the full-time ministry, or pioneer service. Afterward Bill Griffith, who was sitting next to me, said: “Max, there it is. Let’s go pioneering!”
“Okay,” I answered. “Let’s do it.”
“You’re joking, aren’t you?” Bill asked.
“No,” I replied. “After hearing that talk, I am convinced that it is the right thing to do.”
“But you aren’t even a publisher. You’re not baptized.”
“True, but they just made an announcement that there is going to be a baptism tomorrow. I will get baptized then.”
So, excitedly, we went over to the Field Service Department to get our pioneer applications. There we met Brother Van Amburgh, the secretary-treasurer of the Society. When we told him what we were doing, he took us aside and talked to us like a father. “Now don’t do this as though it were an experiment or an adventure,” he said. “You’re doing the right thing, but go into this as if it was your lifetime career.” And that advice has always helped me a great deal. So we turned in our applications, and the next day, June 5, 1938, I got baptized.
First Pioneer Assignment
The following day, Monday, I informed my employer that I was quitting my job to become a minister. I spent that first week in a careful study of the Society’s latest book, entitled Enemies, and attended all the meetings. The second week, I studied the next newest book, Riches. And the third week, I received my pioneer assignment, which was Raymond, Washington.
There, Bill and I found a group of 27 holding meetings in the home of one of the Witnesses. Our instructions were to conduct all the meetings and to help the publishers and train them to conduct Bible studies, which was a new work at the time.
At the first Service Meeting, on Thursday, I asked the company servant, as the presiding overseer was then called, to go along with me the following evening to try to start a Bible study. He said that he was busy. So Bill and I went out alone. When returning, we were stopped at an intersection to allow an American Legion parade to pass. To our amazement, the leader of the parade was the company servant.
That first Sunday, I started my first home Bible study with a man. Afterward, I conducted my first congregation Watchtower Study. Of all things, it was in the June 1, 1938, issue, which introduced theocratic administration within the congregations. Of the 27 associated, only 3 accepted the new theocratic arrangement.
A Family of Pioneers
Soon after I started pioneering, my sisters and my brother, Norman, also took up the full-time ministry. Norman and his wife sold their farm, bought a 12-foot [3.7 m] trailer, and with their three-year-old daughter, Joan, went out preaching. Incidentally, when they worked in Raymond in 1941, Norman wrote me that the 24 that had objected to the theocratic arrangement had left and joined an apostate group. However, that first Bible study of mine was by then the company servant!
Norman’s daughter Joan and her husband, Maurice O’Callaghan, are now in their 24th year of visiting congregations in the circuit work. My younger sister, Laverna, attended the 12th class of the Gilead missionary school in 1949 and was assigned to Italy. The early success of the missionary work there resulted in her deportation to Switzerland, where she still lives with her husband.
Desire for Expanded Service
After serving as a regular pioneer for two months, I was assigned to the special pioneer work. Joining Bill and me at that time was Warren Henschel, the older brother of Milton Henschel. Milton is now a member of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
It was in the first month of special pioneering that I stopped one evening to visit Albert Hoffman. He was the regional, or traveling, overseer and was staying in a trailer with his wife, Zola, across the street from the Kingdom Hall. During those Depression years, we often traded literature for items of food. That day I had traded for a large basket of pears, so I called on Brother Hoffman and asked him if he would like to have some. He was very pleased and invited me in.
It was about nine when he proceeded to tell me about the Bible House (now called Bethel), the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn, New York. Finally, his wife said: “Do you know what time it is? It is 4:30.” We had talked all night! Before going to bed in the attic of the Kingdom Hall, I wrote a letter asking for a Bethel application, and I went out immediately and mailed my request.
Every day I kept the matter before Jehovah in prayer, and three months later I rejoiced in receiving my letter of invitation to Brooklyn Bethel. In preparation for the trip, I gave my car to my sister Jean, who by now was also a special pioneer. For six days and six nights, I rode a bus through two blizzards in Montana and the Dakotas and finally arrived in New York City, January 14, 1939.
I was enrolled by the Bethel servant, Grant Suiter, and then sent to the factory to report to Nathan Knorr, the factory servant. My first assignment was tying book cartons in the Shipping Department. The second week, I was assigned to the rotary-printing-press floor. Brother Knorr said: “If you can learn to operate this press in six months, you can be the operator, since the present operator is going to be put on a new press.” I did learn and totally enjoyed operating the press.
After a year and a half in the pressroom, Brother Knorr came by the press one day and said: “Max, how would you like to work in the office?”
“Oh, Brother Knorr, that is the last job I would pick. But if it is my assignment, I will make it my first interest.”
“Report to me in the office Monday morning,” he replied.
I have been there ever since. First, I worked as Brother Knorr’s assistant, and then when Brother Rutherford died on January 8, 1942, Brother Knorr became president, and I was appointed factory overseer. I was 26 years old and had only three years of Bethel experience. So I felt the heavy burden of responsibility.
However, the anointed overseers of the various factory departments were of loving assistance to me. Their humble, helpful attitude greatly deepened my love and appreciation for such ones. My main source of assistance and training was Brother Knorr. For over 35 years, until his death in 1977, I had the privilege of working with him in the business operations of the publishing and construction activity of the Society. He had remarkable management ability, and he assisted me greatly in fulfilling my assignment.
Before Government Officials
During World War II, there was a great shortage of raw materials that we needed to carry on our publishing work. Therefore, I made several trips a year to Washington, D.C., to meet with War Production Boards and with Senate committees. I appealed to them for paper and other supplies, and Jehovah greatly blessed these efforts.
On one occasion I made my presentation by displaying various pages from prominent newspapers that advertised nonessential items. Pointing to one full-page advertisement for a fur coat in the principal New York paper, I said: “The amount of paper used for this ad in one Sunday’s edition is equal to the total extra tonnage that we are requesting for the entire year.”
“You have made your point well,” one senator replied. As a result of Jehovah’s blessing on these trips, we never had to stop our presses during the war because of running out of paper or other supplies. But, obviously, we did not need the tremendous supplies of paper that we do today.
Expanded Factory Facilities
Twelve years before I came to Bethel, the Society built its first eight-story factory at 117 Adams Street, covering one half of a city block. But by 1949 it became necessary to build a nine-story factory and office building on the remaining half of that city block. This filled out the block with one large factory of about 160,000 square feet [15,000 sq m] of floor space.
It was at that time that I was assigned to oversee the construction work for the Society here at headquarters. In Brooklyn we then had only the one building for both office and factory operations and one residence building. But now, 40 years later, we have over 10 buildings for factory and office operations and some 20 residential buildings here in Brooklyn alone!
In the early 1950’s, we tried to obtain the property just across the street to the north of our 117 Adams Street building, but the owner would not accept our offer. In fact, he was not open to any negotiation, since he figured the Society would pay his high price. So we turned our attention to the block east of our Adams Street factory, just across Pearl Street. This was an area consisting of eight separate parcels of land. Each owner had to be dealt with separately, but Jehovah opened the way to obtain all eight properties in one year’s time at an average cost of only $9 per square foot [$97 per sq m]!
On this location the Society built its 13-story factory building at 77 Sands Street in 1955 and 1956. This was our second factory, and it more than doubled our floor space to some 350,000 square feet [33,000 sq m]. However, since the organization was growing rapidly, it was realized that we would soon need more space. So in 1958 we purchased the existing factory on the corner of Prospect and Pearl and began using it for storage.
Now the only area left where we could connect with our other buildings by bridges over the streets was the one to the north that we had earlier tried to buy. We realized that the owner would likely still try to obtain his excessively high price if the Watchtower Society tried to buy it. So we asked someone else in the real-estate business to try to buy it. He worked out a purchase price that was considerably below what we had offered. Needless to say, the owner was quite explosive when he learned that title was later transferred to the Watchtower Society.
In 1966 and 1967, we built on this property a ten-story factory with 226,000 square feet [21,000 sq m] of floor space. Now we had four city blocks of factory buildings—all connected by over-the-street bridges. Later, in 1983 and 1986, we purchased two factory buildings across streets to the south, over which we were able to build a 161-foot-long [49 m] bridge that connects these buildings with our other four factories. These six connected factories have 1,022,000 square feet [95,000 sq m] of floor space, or some 23 acres [9 ha]. In 1983 we also purchased the huge 1,000,000-square-foot [93,000 sq m] building on Furman Street, on the waterfront a few blocks away, where our shipping facilities are now located.
Acquiring an Office Complex
Another interesting experience in my dealing with real-estate purchases was the Squibb Pharmaceuticals complex of ten interconnected buildings. Following our purchase, four of these were torn down, and a new building was united with an existing one to form 25 Columbia Heights, the present world headquarters of the Watch Tower Society. This is how the purchase of this property came about.
By 1969 we were looking to further expand our publishing facilities. But the business economy was good, so, as I called on every property owner in the area, not one was interested in selling.
During this time, I made a trip to North Carolina, where the paper mill that supplies our Bible paper is located. There I happened to mention to one of the mill men our need for property in Brooklyn. By chance this man’s brother was a personal friend of one of the owners of the Squibb complex of buildings. He made the necessary contacts and then informed me that upon returning to Brooklyn, I should call this man.
When I did, the man confirmed that Squibb was considering, in due time, selling its properties in Brooklyn and moving out of the city. He said that when they were ready, he would call us, and we could negotiate a deal. After several months the call came, and I was told they were ready to sell and that we should come to their office the following day.
Brother Knorr and I got together and determined what price we thought we would pay. At the meeting the next day, we were told the price was nonnegotiable. “We want three million dollars in cash,” they said. We tried not to look surprised, since that was considerably lower than what we were prepared to offer. Needless to say, the purchase was promptly made. At the time, we had recently completed the construction of our four-million-dollar new factory, but when the Lord’s people learned of our further financial needs, the funds were quickly available.
More Residence Buildings
During the 1950’s, we acquired property across the street from 124 Columbia Heights and in 1959 and 1960 put up a large new residence building. But since 1965 it has been more difficult to build new residences. That year the government designated the area where Bethel is located a historic landmark area. This has resulted in tremendous restrictions on building construction and renovation. However, with Jehovah’s help we have always been able to provide for our needs.
In 1967, for example, we applied for a six-story residential building at 119 Columbia Heights. Because of the landmarks ruling, we had already reduced our originally proposed 12 stories to 6. The local authorities, however, were now trying to make us cut off at least another floor.
In June, I contacted the Brooklyn borough president, who said that if we could get the foundations in before the September meeting of the Board of Estimate, the top city government board, he would try to maintain our building at six floors. Our construction organization went into high gear, and we were able to pour the foundations by September.
The borough president called me the day before our case was to be heard publicly. He requested us to be at City Hall two hours before the Board of Estimate opened its public meeting and to meet with him backstage. So Brother Knorr and Brother Suiter, our secretary-treasurer, and I appeared at City Hall very early the next morning. While we discussed the best way to present our case before the Board of Estimate, a technicality surfaced that involved the City Planning Commission. A call was made to clarify the matter. Immediately, the city planning commissioner said he would come down to handle the situation himself. “Since there will be a great deal of public objection to your case,” he said, “I will volunteer to represent the Watchtower Society before the Board.”
We were naturally delighted with his offer. Now, the procedure before the Board of Estimate is that they call off the cases on their calendar for the day, and if there are any objections to be heard, then the case is held over until the afternoon. If there are no objections, they decide on the case right away. Our case was called early in the morning, and the city planning commissioner got up and said to the mayor: “I would like to speak on behalf of the Watchtower Society.”
“You know it is not our procedure to allow discussion when the matter is first called up [ordinarily discussion is held over for the afternoon],” the mayor replied. “However, I know you are very busy, Commissioner, so I will make an exception and grant your request.” The commissioner proceeded to present our case, and the Board of Estimate voted unanimous approval of our request. As we were leaving the hearing room, the lawyer for the opposition came running up the hall shouting: “I have an hour’s argument against this case.” But he was too late! We just passed by, thanking Jehovah for the victory.
I must say it has been a very rewarding privilege over the years to represent the Society in these business matters. And it has been a great joy to witness the enormous increase in the worldwide preaching work that made the purchase of all these buildings necessary. A great help in caring for these business matters was my being made vice president of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., on January 1, 1977.
Happy in Bethel Service
Since I first arrived at Bethel in 1939, the Bethel family has grown from about 185 to over 2,800 regular members in Brooklyn and more than 900 at Watchtower Farms! Often I have been asked: “What helped you stay at Bethel these 50 years?” My answer has always been: “I have never thought of anything else but Bethel service.”
Also, the application for Bethel service that I filled out and signed asked: “Do you agree to stay at Bethel until the Lord takes you away?” He has not taken me away, so I am still here enjoying service to Jehovah. From the day of my dedication, I have been determined to make full-time service my lifetime career.
During my early years at Bethel, the arrangements did not allow for marriage, so, like many others, I contented myself with singleness and Bethel service. However, when the policy of the Bethel family changed, permitting marriage, I married Helen Lapshanski on April 7, 1956. She had come to Bethel in 1951. We have treasured very much the helpful companionship we have provided each other.
Early in our marriage, Helen contracted multiple sclerosis, and in recent years the disease has become more advanced. But with the aid of a walker and a battery-powered cart, she is able to get around well. She has continued to maintain a wonderful, joyful spirit and shares in work at Bethel each day, serving in the office of the Bethel Home.
During our early, growing-up years, my sister Jean and I were very close and did things together. Hence, she was always determined to follow me, and in 1943 she was invited to Bethel. In 1952 she and Russell Mock were married, and they both serve here side by side with us as members of the Bethel family.
I firmly believe that Bethel is the best place on earth this side of the coming earthly Paradise. I have never regretted for a second having made full-time service my lifetime career. What a joy it has been to witness and to have shared in the great growth of Jehovah’s earthly organization! It is my determination, with Jehovah’s help, to continue to make Bethel my home and apply myself whole-souled to the advancing of Kingdom interests.
[Blurb on page 30]
“I firmly believe that Bethel is the best place on earth this side of the coming earthly Paradise”
[Pictures on page 24, 25]
Above: The property at 360 Furman Street, purchased in 1983
Below: The property on Columbia Heights that we purchased from Squibb Pharmaceuticals in 1969
Left: My main source of assistance and training was Brother Knorr
Below: By 1986 we had six factory buildings connected by over-the-street bridges
[Picture on page 27]
The factory after it was expanded in 1949
[Picture on page 30]
Our wedding day