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Devotion and emotion: Speaker at Cottage Grove Area Prayer Breakfast shares stories of loss, luck and love

Jerry Molnar delivered an inspirational talk at the 11th annual Cottage Grove Area Prayer Breakfast Nov. 7 at River Oaks Golf Club. Molnar described growing up poor, overcoming alcoholism, and dealing with the devastation of losing his friends and livelihood during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 at the World Trade Center. William Loeffler / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 2
Keynote speaker Jerry Molnar regales the crowd at the 11th annual Cottage Grove Area Prayer Breakfast. Guests included (from left) Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey, Mayor Sandi Dingle of St. Paul Park, Angela Sedlacek, outreach representative for GOP U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis and Rep. Keith Franke, R-St. Paul Park. William Loeffler / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 2

The community flew its faith flag at the 11th annual Cottage Grove Prayer Breakfast, where civic leaders, elected officials, business owners, clergy, veterans and residents celebrated their shared devotion to a higher power.

Nearly 200 attended the interdenominational event at River Oaks Golf Course in Cottage Grove.

It was organized by Michael and Paula Bushilla, owners of the Hope Glen Farm wedding venue.

Keynote speaker Jerry Molnar, a Christian businessman and Bible evangelist, spent the night in the treehouse suite on the property.

"I had pizza delivered. When the pizza guy came up he said 'Wow! Do you mind if I look around just a little?'"

Molnar, 74, was a wry and world weary presence who elicited laughter and lumps in the throat, often in the same sentence. With his raspy New York accent, he spoke in the cadences of a Borscht Belt comedian.

"I know I sound terribly New York but I can't help it," he said.

Molnar described his beginnings as a slum kid in Jersey City whose parents were alcoholics. He shined shoes to help support his family.

"I took the box out and after eight hours with the shoe shine box, I came back with $5. I grew up appreciating, hustling."

He prospered in the financial orbits of New York City, wining and dining clients. But his drinking became a problem. In 1983 he enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous, where he met a man who would become one of his best friends. He let the guy talk him into attending a Bible study. Eventually, Molnar was conducting his own Bible studies. At his financial firm on the 79th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, colleagues sometimes would ask if they could tag along.

On Feb. 26, 1993, terrorists detonated a van packed with explosives in the parking lot below the North Tower. Six people were killed. Employees at Molnar's business on the 79th floor had to evacuate by descending the stairs.

The epicenter of the blast was in parking space B-2, Molnar's parking space. But he wasn't there that day. His wife wasn't feeling well and he had taken the day off to stay home with her.

Two months later, a fire broke out on the 78th floor. Molnar wasn't there. That morning, his wife had impulsively suggested he take the day off and take her to the Jersey Shore.

Again, Molnar's employees and partners on the 79th floor took the stairs to safety.

"When they saw me the next day they said, 'Where were you? You missed twice.' They said 'If you ever miss again, call us. We're not going to work.'"

He no doubt wishes he would have called them on that sunny September morning eight years later. Molnar did not report to work on Sept. 11, 2001. His wife had died two months earlier, and he was still sunk in profound grief. He was sitting at home drinking coffee when the American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower.

His wife had saved him a third time.

Molnar lost dozens of friends and colleagues that day. His business was wiped out. But his miraculous survival motivated him to share his life lessons, refracted through the Bible, at speaking engagements around the country.

"God does not waste pain," he assured the crowd.

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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