COOPERSTOWN, N.D. — A photo of the aftermath of a car crash involving a local pastor seems to have amplified the gasps and produced many proclamations of a miracle. How could anyone have emerged from such a twisted, crunched vehicle?
The image soon found its way to local newsrooms, and the story began circulating more widely of an accident in rural North Dakota late last summer. The Rev. Dale Kinzler was driving from a nursing home to one of his four rural parishes to transport Communion hosts when it happened.
“It was on Sept. 14, and what I call providential happenstance,” says Kinzler, “being on what we observe, in the Catholic Church, the Feast of the Holy Cross.”
And it would prove to be the beginning of a deepening understanding of Jesus’ invitation to take up his cross daily.
Kinzler was traveling east on Highway 65 in his 2004 Oldsmobile Alero that day, approaching a cross section, when a semi coming from the opposite direction neared a stop sign — a sign he apparently missed.
As the large vehicle lunged toward his, Kinzler says, “I realized I couldn’t take the ditch, and saw myself sliding straight under the trailer, and in a split second, I wondered, ‘Is this how I’m going to die, Lord? I’m not ready yet!’”
He broke hard as the rear wheels of the trailer met with his vehicle, crushing the front edge of his engine compartment, dragging the car, spinning clockwise, into the ditch. Kinzler was only 3 feet from being crushed to death.
He could hear the windshield shattering as his face and left knee slammed against a door. “The centrifugal force threw me against the driver-side door, which popped open.”
Kinzler suffered a torn left quad tendon and knee, and fracture of his right leg, which was “broken in half,” with the bone protruding, but his spine was spared, despite his chest smashing against the steering wheel, causing him to sound “like a braying donkey” as he gasped for breath.
A nearby soybean farmer called 911, and within minutes, the Cooperstown rescue team arrived to extract Kinzler from the car. For an hour, traffic on either side was stalled by the sheriff as a nurse talked to the priest, keeping him from slipping into unconsciousness.
While being airlifted to Fargo’s Sanford Medical Center, Kinzler prayed the Rosary to stay calm, using his mind to keep track of the prayers. Upon arrival, he called his brother, Forum gardening columnist Don Kinzler, before heading into surgery to repair his legs. Though the conversation lasted just seconds, Don says he was grateful to know his brother was alive.
A few days later, seeing the photo of the mangled car, Don realized the severity of the collision.
“I couldn’t tell if it was the front or rear, it was so smashed,” he says. “When a car accident involves a semi, it usually does not end well for the car.”
He couldn’t help but wonder if his brother, an avid bike rider and marathon runner, even at 72, would walk again.
On Sept. 16, Kinzler was transferred to PAM Rehabilitation Hospital in Fargo, where Don observed his “can-do” attitude as he progressed from wheelchair to walker to cane.
“And now, to see him without a cane,” he says. “He was accepting and never discouraged. He very much took it, literally, a step at a time,” following doctor and therapist orders “to a T.”
Don says his brother has never done anything halfway. When needing to collect insects for a biology class years ago, he learned to sew, just so he could use the type of net entomologists recommended.
“He’s very persistent and determined,” Don says. “Dale was the one who taught the rest of us how to use computers when they first came out.”
His spiritual fortitude complements these attributes. In recovery, Don says, his brother was adamant about detaching from his own will to follow God’s. “I think it’s wonderful for someone in their 70s to have that childlike openness to, ‘What has God got planned for me now?’”
It’s given Don a new perspective, too.
“When something like this happens, whether it’s your brother who’s a priest, or your own pastor, you realize things can really change in a hurry,” and to not take others for granted.
Back to Mass, life
After collecting Kinzler’s personal items from the accident scene, Greg Hazard, lay director for St. George’s Catholic Church in Cooperstown, began preparing for his return, arranging for meals, home health care and a suitable vehicle.
He also helped make accessibility changes to the parish and rectory for Kinzler, who was eager to return to celebrating Mass. Kinzler has been presiding at Mass since Oct. 31, with the help of a chair that could be adjusted for height, Hazard says.
Through the parish’s Knights of Columbus council, Hazard also helped build a ramp to “roll (his wheelchair) in and out of the rectory,” with Kinzler pledging he’d “do this myself soon.”
“He can walk faster than I can now; he healed that good,” Hazard says, noting the community’s appreciation for Kinzler.
Kinzler is responsible for the parishes in Cooperstown, Aneta, Finley and Jessie, N.D.
Chris and Gina Ahlers became great friends with Kinzler through the Marriage Encounter ministry, and think of him as family. “Whenever he comes to Fargo, he crashes at our house,” Gina says.
They’d been texting him the morning of the accident, so it seemed surreal learning his life was in jeopardy.
“It was one of those moments when my world just kind of froze,” Gina says. “I got the chills, and thought, ‘Oh my God, is he going to be OK?’”
The Ahlers readied themselves to help lift Kinzler’s spirits during his stay in Fargo. “He’s the type of person who never sat in one place for very long, and now he’s going to be lying in bed all day, every day, for weeks,” Chris says.
They began doing Walmart runs, bringing him homemade food, and delivering the morning paper, knowing Kinzler enjoys doing crossword puzzles.
Soon, Kinzler shared about a book he wants to write, titled, “Three Feet from Death.”
“He was already moving toward how blessed he was to be alive,” Chris notes, seeking God’s revised plan.
“His recovery is almost as astonishing as what his car looked like,” Gina says, remarking that they are the blessed ones. “Six months ago, this man was in one of the worst car accidents ever, and now, here he is, walking…”
“He really is Superman,” she adds, revealing their new nickname for him. “We get to be completely amazed, share the joy, and just be proud of this man we love.”
Kinzler says a true miracle would have been him walking away from the accident. Instead, he was invited to share more deeply in Christ’s suffering.
In this, he’s developed a greater compassion for others confined physically. “Many bear a cross much greater than mine.”
Indeed, in late March, Kinzler’s physical therapy ended, and he’s already been out on the golf course, riding his exercise bike and elliptical, and hoping to participate in a bike ride later this month.
Recalling St. Paul being “knocked off his horse” on the Road to Damascus, he adds, “This has served as a great wakeup call, to remember what we need to be urgently serious about in our spiritual lives.”
Soon, Kinzler will be celebrating Easter Mass, keenly aware of his own “resurrection.”
“At Easter, we look at the great miracle that Jesus Christ gave us by rising from the dead, making it possible for us to rise to live with him forever,” he says. “That certainly has hit home to me, and I hope that each of us will recognize how our call to eternal life is what God is all about for us.”
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on April 8, 2022.]