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My Christian life: A man of truth

From the Depression and working for pennies to becoming a famous artist, a man stays faithful to his Savior.

A person of truth, who can find? Especially in our culture!

Jesus found one, Nathanael. “Truly, here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” (John 1:47 EHV).

Another one is Otto Pfeiffer, a 90-year-old member at Hope, Andover, Minn.

Teen years and odd jobs

Otto’s father was no Nathanael. He left Otto, his mother, and his brothers at the height of the Depression. Otto’s mother had to work as a cleaning lady in New Ulm, Minnesota. The boys had to get odd jobs. Each had to contribute.

Otto Pfeiffer military photo
Otto Pfeiffer joined the National Guard and served during the Korean War.

When each of Otto’s older brothers turned 14, Otto watched them go through a rite of passage. His mother handed them a grocery bag containing a change of clothes, 40 cents, and a pack of gum, and sent them on their own.

When it was Otto’s turn, his mother repeated the rite of passage and offered some advice: “Otto, never tell a lie. You won’t have to remember exactly what you said, because you’ll always be telling the truth.” Truth needs no cover.

Otto took that advice to heart. For him, it was more than just not telling a lie; he was truthful and honest. Before he was off on his own, being truthful got him his first job, at a time when jobs were hard to find. He was hired as a go-fer for some builders.

Otto Pfeiffer self portrait illustration
A line drawing of Otto Pfeiffer. Otto made his living through his art and painted portraits of numerous celebrities.

At first they didn’t trust him. They asked him all sorts of questions and thought he was little more than a pest looking for some way to scavenge for money. That changed when a carpenter dropped his hammer. Otto proved his true intentions. He quickly grabbed the tool, clambered up the ladder, and returned it to the worker. Otto wasn’t there to take advantage of those workers. He was just living the lessons he’d learned from his mother and in St. Paul’s Lutheran “Day School.” He got that job, earning pennies each day by shagging nails and tools. It didn’t amount to much, but it did help pay the bills at home and taught Otto lessons in responsibility and faithfulness. He also learned how to build a house. It could be said that God was writing Otto’s resumé.

Otto Pfeiffer when elderly
Otto Pfeiffer today.

Otto’s brothers left home to work on nearby dairy farms and then to serve in WWII, but Otto chose a different path. He hitched a ride to the Twin Cities with a kindly trucker. He slept by the river, wrapping himself in a tarp he found. He used his 40 cents to buy a pad of paper and pencils. Then he staked out a bench in Como Park and posted a sign, “Portraits by Otto, 25 cents.” By the end of the first day he’d earned $4.50! He was rich! He bought supper at an all-day café and bowed his head to give thanks to the Lord. That meal was memorable, satisfying in multiple ways.

Otto bought a bicycle and rode back to New Ulm. He wanted to check on his mom and go to church with her. True to the Scriptures, if you don’t work, you don’t eat. Otto worked setting pins at a bowling alley. He slept there too, in exchange for extra janitorial work. Then he worked at the movie theater. Again, through an honest arrangement with the owner, Otto made meals of the leftover popcorn. Otto saved his money. His goal was to buy a lot and build his own house. And he did! He was 16 when he designed a house, pulled a permit, bought the materials, and built his first home—with his own hands.

Marriage and Korea

When Otto was old enough to take the oath of enlistment, he joined the National Guard. His unit was called up for action in the Korean conflict. The unit trained at Ft. Rucker in Alabama. While on a weekend pass—in a scene that could only be scripted for the movies—Otto and another soldier came to the rescue of a young lady being accosted. Otto followed through by walking the young lady to her home 5 miles in the country. What he found was appalling. Dorothy’s family was extremely poor. Their house was in ill-repair. Their roof leaked. So, on weekends Otto spent his passes, his money, and his time fixing and repairing. But Otto was driven to do something more, something big, to help this girl and her family. He proposed. She accepted. This was not done on the spur of the moment because he was going off to war. Otto had carefully and prayerfully thought the matter through. He envisioned coming home in a flag-draped coffin, and he wanted Dorothy to receive the government death benefit. So, they were married before a justice of the peace for a fee of $2.

Otto put it this way, “I figured I’d have the best in heaven, and she could have it a little better on earth.” Truth is compassionate.

He was shipped out to Korea. In one of the engagements, there was an explosion. Otto was thrown. In seconds that seemed eternal, he rolled down an incline. The wounds he sustained led to an honorable discharge as a disabled veteran. He doesn’t say much else about Korea. Many don’t.

He reunited with Dorothy and brought her to Minnesota. Son John was born. Then Molly came two years later, but she lived only a very short while. That little baptized child of God was taken up into Jesus’ arms. Otto hurt. The wounds to his heart seemed harder to endure than the wounds to his body.

Otto Pfeiffer sidebarOtto still mourns for little Molly, but he finds comfort for his wounds in Jesus’ wounds. He finds life renewed in Jesus risen and certainty for his bewilderment in the Word of truth. Molly’s little body awaits the glorious resurrection in St. Paul cemetery in New Ulm. “I’ll be buried by her to wait for Jesus’ call,” Otto says confidently. God doesn’t lie. His Word is truth.

When their daughter Tammy was born two years later, Otto found new joy and added consolation.

Artist, mayor, and baron

Otto needed a source of steady income in order to provide for his family. He could draw and paint. So, he drew and painted signs for businesses. He built a large garage so he could paint logos and information on vehicles. Otto’s gifts allowed him to expand. Soon he began painting portraits. He went to the malls in the Twin Cities where he was given space to display his work and paint portraits for people on the spot. One afternoon at one of his set ups, Otto recognized a body builder, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Otto’s “New Ulmer Deutsch” delighted Arnold so much that he let Otto paint his portrait. Otto’s brush with celebrities had begun.

Otto took to traveling in a motor home/studio displaying and painting. Nearly a thousand of his portraits included celebrities: preachers (Billy Graham), presidents and vice presidents (Jimmy Carter, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale), politicians (Ted Kennedy, 100 senators total), performers of all varieties (Elvis; Loretta Lynn; Bob Hope; Robert Redford; “Mr. Spock,” that is, Leonard Nimoy), and some from professional sports (Hank Aaron, Bud Grant). As Otto painted and captured these people on canvas, he’d pray that they’d be captured by the Spirit of grace. Some already were, many weren’t.

While Otto remained true to his wife, she didn’t remain true to him. The divorce broke Otto emotionally and financially. But Otto trusted that the Lord mends broken hearts and won’t let the bruised reed be broken off. He still had John and Tammy. So, he built, with his own hands, a second house. He carried on. He had to. Truth in the Lord carried him on. It has to.

When Otto was 32 years old, he was eligible to run for mayor of New Ulm. So, he did. He was elected for one term. Otto thought his campaign slogan was a winner: “You Otto Vote Otto!” During his term as mayor, the German Broadcasting System of Stuttgart, Germany, filmed a documentary about New Ulm. As part of this cultural exchange, the mayor of Ulm, Germany, bestowed an honorary title on Otto: “Baron von Pfeiffer.”

Now, after 90 years, Otto’s voice is raspy, and he wheezes a bit. But when the preacher speaks the confession of sins before Otto communes and asks him, “Is this your sincere confession?” Otto responds with the renewed and firm voice of a young man, “Yes!” Then, with hands folded and with eyes heavenward, Otto smiles with joy and relief that his sins are forgiven. And when he receives the Lord’s body and blood, he prays with deepest sincerity: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.”

Author: David Russow
Volume 108, Number 4
Issue: April 2021

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