CHICAGO, IL (October 7, 2016) – Dr. Roger Thorpe, who served for 30 years in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, died this morning. He was 84.
“Roger was a truly astounding person of exemplary faith, skill, dedication, humility and compassion,” ECC president Gary Walter said this afteroon. “He was a remarkable husband and dad, brilliant physician, and servant-hearted in every relationship and circumstance. He is the rare person who made you want to be a better person just by being with him.”
All of those traits were seen in the multiple instances in which he also exhibited great courage. Roger, along with former executive minister of World Mission Curt Peterson, were nearly killed when they were taken hostage by a militia during an uprising in Kinshasa in 2007. Both barely managed to escape amid the chaos. They shared their story in a Companion article published that year.
Prior to their capture, they had been sheltered in the police station while fighting continued around them. The article noted that, “For Roger, almost as bad as the tension of being under fire was the feeling of helplessness. He wanted to help but had nothing with him—no bandages, no needles, no stethoscope, no sutures. There was nothing he could do to help the wounded. It was a feeling that ate at him as he waited.”
“Our experience in the valley of the shadow of death in Kinshasa in 2007 bonded us as brothers,” Peterson said. “From that day on we greeted each other with comforting hugs, asking ‘How are you doing?’ and sharing recurring dreams of the trauma. We also shared with gratitude the deep awareness of the grace and peace of God during those days. I’m thankful that Roger had nearly a decade more time to love and serve Christ, his family and his beloved Covenant church.”
In 1991, most Covenant missionaries evacuated Zaire, as Congo was called then, due to war. However, Roger and his wife, Eileen, stayed behind to help with a medical transition process before they returned to the United States.
For Roger, almost as bad as the tension of being under fire was the feeling of helplessness. He wanted to help but had nothing with him—no bandages, no needles, no stethoscope, no sutures. There was nothing he could do to help the wounded. It was a feeling that ate at him as he waited.
He was always teaching. Eileen shared during a chapel service at Covenant Offices how Roger had broken the bone around his eye in a motorcycle accident in 1972. He oversaw his own treatment despite great pain. There was no other doctor so he was treated by two nurses.
“Roger did not want any pain killer because he wanted to give directions as the nurses proceeded—you manage cuts on the eyelid and around the eye differently than other cuts because scarring can make a bad-fitting eyelid,” Eileen said. “So he laid on the OR table with cerebrospinal fluid coming from his nose, sign of a skull fracture, going into shock, and gave instruction on the repair of the skin.”
“His extraordinary skills as a surgeon and tropical medicine physician saved the lives of countless men, women and children,” Peterson recalled. “One of his greatest joys was seeing some of his former students serving with distinction in clinics and hospitals in recent years. Roger was always the teacher, always the encourager.”
The couple retired from missionary service in 1996, and he worked as a part-time physician at Swedish Covenant Hospital.
In 1994, the Thorpes received the Commander of the National Order of Zaire award, which was one of the highest honors given in that country. The couple was named Alumni of the Year at North Park University in 2001 and received the Paul Carlson Award, named for the slain missionary physician, at the 2008 ECC Annual Meeting.
Roger felt the call to missionary service by the time he was in the eighth grade. He decided the summer before starting college that he also wanted to combine that ministry with a medical career.
Roger was born February 19, 1932, in Stephenson, Michigan. He earned an associate’s degree at North Park College and a bachelor of arts at the University of Michigan, where he also graduated from medical school. He studied one year at North Park Seminary.
Roger married Eileen Adell on December 21, 1953.
In addition to Eileen, Roger is survived by two daughters, Christine Olfelt and Dr. Laurie Thorpe; and two sons, Charles Thorpe and Douglas Thorpe.
A memorial service will be conducted at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, October 11, at North Park Church.