Kellgren named Citizen of the Year

When Tim Kellgren conducts his final service at Elim Lutheran Church on April 27, he will be saying goodbye to the congregation he has led for 37 years. But he'll be heading out on a high note after being named Citizen of the Year this week, for the years he's spent advocating for Petaluma's most vulnerable citizens.

"It was a remarkable, completely unexpected surprise," he said of the award, which he learned about Tuesday while having his morning latte at Apple Box. "I'm still processing it. I was kind of at a loss for words, which I guess shouldn't happen to clergy."

The genial, bearded Kellgren, now 68, helped launch Petaluma Ecumenical Properties (PEP), which builds and manages housing for seniors and the handicapped. He also cofounded the Committee on the Shelterless (COTS) as well as Petaluma Bounty, the production farm to grow necessary food for the community among other projects.

Elece Hempel, director of Petaluma People Services Center, said "There's not a program or a project in this community" that didn't include Kellgren, "who was there at the beginning saying, 'How can we make a difference?"

She added, "He's just been an inspiration to a lot of us."

The award, given by the Petaluma Area Chamber of Commerce and the Petaluma Argus-Courier, will be formally presented to Kellgren during the Petaluma Community Awards of Excellence on March 27.

Kellgren moved to Petaluma in 1977 from his previous position at a church in the Midwest. "The story goes I was sitting at my dining room table in Illinois asking how one gets on the list to get a parish in California, and the phone rang. The person said he was from Petaluma, and asked, 'Have you ever thought of coming to California?'"

Falling in love with Petaluma's location, climate and community was easy. "I remember thinking I didn't even know they made places as incredible as this." He soon turned his attention to the social needs that he could help repair through his new position.

"We discovered that there was no subsidized senior housing at all in Petaluma," he remembers of his founding of PEP in 1978. "We began to discover people living in all kinds of substandard housing, and decided that that was something that shouldn't happen."

PEP has proven its value over the years, having built 330 units of affordable, quality housing for seniors in Petaluma. Another 100 or so apartments will open later this year, half of them at the eponymous Kellgren Senior Housing on Wood Sorrel Drive at McDowell Boulevard.

Following on his success in helping to create housing for low-income seniors, Kellgren came to see the need for food services as equally valuable. "Probably 10 to 20 percent of Sonoma County, and therefore Petaluma, is food-insecure," he said. "People who aren't sure where all their meals in the week are coming from," he explained.

He added, "It's rather a staggering for such an affluent community and county. We thought that was not acceptable."

The result was the creation in 2006 of Petaluma Bounty, which supports community gardens, food gleaning projects and the educational urban farm growing sustainably farmed food for the community on Shasta Avenue.

"It was Tim who, with the help of the other nonprofit leaders, was able to secure some land," said Hempel, whose organization manages Petaluma Bounty. "Our mission is to provide the healthy food, not just to grow and teach people how to be self-sufficient, but it's really to produce the food that this community really needs."

Kellgren makes no secret that his work with his congregation and his work in the community are part of the same religious impulse. "I think it's the place of the church to be wherever there's human need," he said. "That's where we're called to be as disciples of Jesus."

Within his own congregation at Elim Lutheran, "Pastor Tim" is at least as highly regarded as he is in the community at large, if not more so.

"He's been the face of Elim, and for many people the only pastor that they have known," said congregational president Ed Sellai.

"The thing about Pastor Tim is that he not only is able to come up with a vision of where there's a need in the community, but he also has the knack of being able to organize, and see that need become a reality. Not only once, not only twice, but time and time again. He's been a real asset to the community, as well as for Elim."

A goodbye event is already being planned for when he retires as pastor. It will be held at Luchessi Park on the afternoon of April 26. In retirement, Kellgren will continue to live in Petaluma, though his wife, Mary, will still be working.

"I have lots of projects around the house, and I'm looking forward to doing some painting, reading and relaxing. Also, I'm excited to see what new thing God might be calling me to," he said. "I'm hoping to be open to whatever that is and still be of service to the larger church and the community, and whatever else God might have in mind for me. "

To find out more about the Community Awards of Excellence or to purchase tickets to the award presentation, call 762-2785.

(Contact Christian Kallen at argus@arguscourier.com)