Remembering Dane Russell: A story of love, compassion and autism

This is the story of a man who taught a whole lot of people more about love, compassion and understanding than they ever thought possible.

His name was Dane Russell, and he passed away Saturday at the age of 53 at his home in Howell, leaving behind a community of heartbroken friends. All of whom will tell you they’re better for having known him.

I first met Dane about 10 years ago, when we were holding the Livingston Sensation singing auditions in Brighton. Livingston Sensation was an “American Idol”-style singing competition that I started when I was an editor at the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus. Every summer, we would hold open auditions in both Brighton and Howell, and then the finalists would compete during a big event at the Howell Melon Festival.

As we were getting ready to start the auditions at the Brighton Mill Pond that night, a big guy with an even bigger presence came over and introduced himself to me.

“Hello, sir! My name is Dane Russell, and I have autism. I’d like to enter your singing competition, please.”

“Well, sure,” I said. “It’s nice to meet you, Dane. As soon as I say your name, just come up to the microphone and start singing.”

“Yes, sir! Thank you, sir!”

When it was Dane’s turn to sing, he introduced himself to the audience in much the same way. “Hello! My name is Dane Russell, and I have autism.” I don’t remember what he sang, but I do remember that he got by far the loudest ovation of the night.

Dane came back year after year, and even though he never made it to the finals, he kept auditioning. He always introduced himself to the crowd by letting them know that he had autism. That’s how Dane introduced himself to everyone. “Hello, my name is Dane Russell and I have autism.”

A few years later, I saw Dane again when he started coming to our church, Shalom Lutheran Church in Pinckney.

It turns out that Dane had been turned away from some other churches because, quite frankly, they couldn’t handle the way this autistic man would behave during the Sunday-morning services. So they asked him to leave and not come back.

He found his way to Shalom, and at first, some of the people there had the same reaction. They didn’t know what to make of him.

That’s the way a lot of people are when they come into contact with someone who has autism – especially someone who was as large in every way as Dane was. It makes them uncomfortable. It makes them nervous. They simply don’t know how to react.

So when Dane started coming to Shalom Lutheran Church every Sunday morning – this great, big autistic man – it caught everyone a little bit off guard. It caught them a lot off guard.

Dane always sat right in the front row, and when it came time to sing, Dane would SING! He would SING and he would DANCE, and if the mood struck him, he would YELL!

During Pastor Kurt’s message, if Dane agreed with something that was being said, he would shout, “AMEN!” And then he’d shout it again.

And at this point, this is where the other churches would usually politely ask Dane to find another church. I’m sorry, sir, but we can’t have this. We can’t have someone who dances so big and sings so loudly and shouts whenever the mood strikes. This is church. We can’t have this. You’re going to have to leave.

But you know what happened at Shalom? They asked him to come back next week.

It took a while, but eventually, the congregation at Shalom Lutheran Church became Dane’s family. When they realized that Dane was having a hard time making it to church every Sunday, they organized a car-pool schedule. On a rotating basis, three different families started picking him up and taking him home every week. Eventually, those families started inviting Dane to spend holidays with them.

When the congregation learned that Dane liked to dress up every Sunday – you never saw him in church without his suit and tie – they took up a collection to get him a new suit.

The community at Shalom also learned that this man knew his Bible as well as anyone. I mean, he KNEW his Bible. In every manner, Dane loved Jesus Christ in a way that every Christian should.

So while Dane came to Shalom Lutheran Church so that he could get to know Jesus Christ better, the people at Shalom were getting to know Dane better. And they were getting to know autism better.

I can’t speak for other churches, but I know that in large part because of Dane, Shalom Lutheran Church has become an especially welcoming place for people with autism.

My wife Kathy is the school director at Light of the World Academy, the Montessori school that was founded at Shalom before transitioning to become a charter school last fall (the preschool program is still located at the church). Kathy has a special place in her heart for people with autism, to the point where she’s become an autism therapist. So when Dane started coming to Shalom, it filled her with joy.

She loved Dane, and she loved seeing the growing impact that he would have on people – how they’d go from fearing him, to trying to understand him, to loving him. She loved hearing Dane explain to people, “I’m 50 percent autistic and 50 percent savant!”

My daughter Amelia was the same way. She’s in college now studying to become an autism therapist, and she was likewise fascinated with Dane and the effect he’d have on people.

Dane only went to Shalom for a few years, but I can honestly say that in that time, he taught the people at the church so, so much.

He taught them that if you love Jesus Christ, there’s nothing wrong with dancing and singing like you mean it.

He taught them that if you open your heart to someone who’s a little bit different than you, you might be surprised about what happens next.

And most of all, he taught them not to be afraid or uncomfortable when you meet someone with autism. Nobody at Shalom will ever again be afraid or uncomfortable when they’re around someone with autism.

That’s what Dane taught us. Compassion. Understanding. Love.

It was a total shock to everyone when Dane passed away on Saturday, and there’s a hole in our hearts that will be impossible to fill. Sunday mornings at Shalom Lutheran Church will be way too quiet from now on.

Pastor Vicky Lovell, one of the pastors at Shalom, recalled one of her favorite memories about Dane.

“There’s a woman at the church who was really upset when Dane first started coming here,” she said. “She didn’t like his singing and his dancing and the way he’d interrupt the message whenever he felt like it. She came to us and said, ‘You need to do something! He can’t act like that in church!’ But you know what? After a few weeks, that same woman actually got to know him a bit, and then after a while, at the end of every service, she’d go up and give him a big hug. I could tell that Dane had changed her life.”

Pastor Vicky also said that they’re going to be adding a new tagline to the sign out front of Shalom on M-36 soon.

“It’s going to say, ‘Everyone Welcome – No Exceptions.’ That’s because of Dane. Everyone IS welcome here, and there are no exceptions.”

I’m going to miss Dane, too – a whole lot – but it does warm my heart to know the impact he had on the people at Shalom. It reminds me of what Jesus said in Matthew 25:40: “The way you treat other people, even those you might consider to be the least among us, is the way you treat Me.”

How true.

Rest in peace, Dane.

A memorial service for Dane Russell takes place at 10 a.m. Monday, March 21, at Shalom Lutheran Church, 1740 E. M-36, Pinckney, with a service following at 11 a.m.

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