1925 — 2021
Harry Bollback: An Incredible Journey and the God Who Made It Possible
With deepest sorrow, we announce the passing of Word of Life Founder, Harry Bollback, into the presence of his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, after 95 fruitful years of life. While Harry will be profoundly missed by many people around the world, we wish to celebrate his passing into glory by commemorating and remembering the legacy of a tenacious man from Brooklyn whom God used to achieve far more than he ever could have dreamed.
“I look back over my life and thank God every day for the way He has blessed Millie and me beyond measure. We know we have had bad days, but honestly, we can’t remember them. They were part of the whole process that God was leading us through. We can say with great assurance that God has done the impossible with our lives.”
Harry was born to Anthony and Elizabeth Bollback on January 20, 1925, in Brooklyn, New York. His parents were two very different individuals, which led to Harry being a fun-loving, hard-working boy (much like his mother) with a good dash of strong-willed determination, courtesy of his father. The trajectory of the Bollback family changed when Harry was very young, thanks to the prayers of a godly Sunday School teacher, Miss VanDyke. Miss VanDyke had been praying for Anthony Bollback for 16 years, and through her dedication, Harry’s parents came to know the Lord. Soon thereafter, Mr. Bollback prayerfully dedicated his life- and his children’s lives- to the Lord. It wasn’t until many years later, when all three of his children were actively serving God, that this prayerful dedication was shared. Anthony Bollback didn’t want his children to be influenced by his own decision to live for the Lord. His desire for them was that they would serve God of their own volition. There’s no way he could have known that Harry especially would go on to do such incredible things for the Lord.
One of the most important aspects of life in the Bollback home was music. Anthony felt it was necessary for his children to grow up with a strong grasp of music, which came to serve Harry well throughout his many years of ministry. When neighbors complained about Harry’s hours of piano practice, Anthony simply moved the piano into the basement next to the coal furnace. As the building caretaker, Anthony would come down to check on the furnace- and Harry- often. In order to afford music lessons, Harry’s family would collect 50 lb. stacks of newspapers, rip old clothes into rags and remove the silver lining of cigarette packages in order to sell them for money. There’s no way anyone could have known that Harry’s musical aptitude and ability to make something from nothing would become intrinsic parts of his ministry as a missionary and Co-Founder of Word of Life.
Harry met Jesus in high school at Bible camp, thanks to his Sunday School teacher, Miss Gertrude Bethge. Her $10 investment in sending Harry to camp eventually led to millions of young people hearing the gospel all over the world. How sweet their reunion in heaven must be! Harry was a firm believer in investing in the lives of young people, because he knew from experience the difference it could make.
In December 1941, Harry met one of the most influential and important figures in his life, Jack Wyrtzen. Thanks to a God-ordained meeting where Jack was looking for a pianist, Harry began his role in the budding ministry of Word of Life at just 17 years old. He spent much of his time loading and unloading Gospels of John during those first years, but he had no idea the plans the Lord had for him.
Harry’s strong sense of patriotism led to his desire to serve his country, so after graduating high school, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. In the Marines, Harry experienced some of the most intense battles in the Pacific. During the Battle of Peleliu– in which over 9,800 U.S. soldiers were killed or wounded– Harry was one of only seven who were neither killed nor wounded out of his company of 200 men. Harry remained grateful throughout his life for the grace of God in allowing him to survive Peleliu, which later became known as the bitterest battle of the war for U.S. Marines. After landing on Okinawa on April 1, 1945- Easter Sunday- Harry took part in the final big battle of the Pacific theater, where he heard that the war in Europe had ended. After the campaign in Okinawa, Harry’s unit was poised to enter mainland Japan when the atomic bombs were dropped. As this put an end to the war in the Pacific, Harry was sent to China in October 1945, and then back to the U.S.
Nearly as soon as Harry returned from the war, he resumed working with Jack Wyrtzen. That year, 1946, was an incredible year for Harry and Jack. A brief tour of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales- where Harry saw incredible faith and generosity despite great hardship- helped him to regain some of his former vigor for life and ministry. In his own words, this trip chartered a course for the direction of his life. Thanks to that trip and to Jack, Harry’s faith blossomed with confidence and strength.
What was to come just after the trip was nothing short of a miracle. After encouragement to start a camp and a visit to the tiny town of Schroon Lake, Jack offered $25,000 to Miss Clark, the eighty-three-year-old owner of Clark’s Island, situated right in the middle of Schroon Lake. The Lord saw fit to allow the purchase, and Miss Clark accepted their offer- an offer that was $100,000 lower than the original asking price. Well, you can imagine Jack and Harry’s surprise, especially because they didn’t have a dime! However, donations for the purchase came pouring in, and within 30 days, Jack and Harry were able to present Miss Clark with the full $25,000.
Harry’s work and preparations on The Island during the winter of 1946- digging cesspools, breaking up concrete as well as other difficult, menial labor- was challenging but necessary. In order for the Island to open for Summer 1947, the work had to be done. What Harry didn’t know, however, was that the Lord was using his time on The Island to prepare him for missions service in Brazil. Harry also didn’t realize that his handprints were literally and figuratively all over the “Island that Touches the World”, and that his handiwork would have a direct impact on hundreds of thousands of young people for years to come. Not to mention the millions of lives he indirectly influenced through his hard work and willingness to do the small, “unimportant” tasks. That’s simply the kind of man Harry was.
In 1946, Harry also met the love of his life, a wonderful young lady by the name of Mildred “Millie” Winkler. Millie had begun working as the secretary for Word of Life in January 1946, and she and Harry immediately hit it off. However, Millie was a woman of integrity who had already dedicated herself to missions a few years prior. She wasn’t willing to compromise her decision for anything– even love. The Lord knew, though, and the Holy Spirit was already working in Harry’s heart. Later that year and independent of Millie, Harry decided he was ready to fully dedicate his life to the Lord, no matter where He would have him go. Harry and Millie got engaged and were married on June 12, 1948, until her death on January 7, 2021. Harry missed her with a depth that only 72 years of marital bliss could bring. It’s a joy in the midst of grief to know that they are reunited in the presence of their Savior.
In December, 1949, Harry and Millie’s beloved daughter, Linda, was born, and in 1950 Harry graduated from the Philadelphia School of the Bible with both Millie and Linda by his side. That summer, they attended the Summer Institute of Linguistics through Wycliffe Bible Translators. In October they were accepted as missionaries with the South American Indian Mission, and in December they were fully funded and sailing from New York Harbor, ready to share the gospel with the unreached tribal natives in Brazil.
Harry, Millie, and Linda stepped off the ship onto the field in January, 1951. Their first home was Cuiaba, where they began to learn Portuguese and prepared to move into the Jungle. Their son, Larry, was born on June 1, 1952– the same day that one of Harry’s dearest friends and companions in ministry, Harold Reimer, entered the field. Harry, Harold, Millie, and the kids left Cuiaba in September, 1952, after an incredibly loving send-off attended by nearly 80 people. It was a testament to the faithfulness Harry and his family exhibited in ministry and was a sweet encouragement as they stepped into the unknown.
The spot where Harry and Millie chose to plant themselves was called Paranatinga, as it was off the side of the Paranatinga River, but it was not much more than a whitewashed hut made of cow manure. However, to Harry, Millie, and the kids, it quickly became home. Harry had learned as a child in Brooklyn how to make incredible things from almost nothing, and he soon put that invaluable skill to use in the Bollback’s new home. Harry’s ministry with the local Bacarie tribe started off slowly– the other missionaries from the South American Indian Mission who had worked with the tribe hadn’t had much success. Usually, the missionaries held church in the mid-morning, but they hadn’t seen much attendance. When Harry expressed an idea to change the service time to 5 am- before the Bacaries left to hunt and fish for the day- the other missionaries expressed that it “simply wasn’t done that way.” However, when they changed the service time after much persuasion from Harry, more and more Bacaries began to attend the service. Harry wasn’t content to allow “the norm” to get in the way of the gospel. If it hadn’t been done before- well, he’d simply do it first. What was “the norm” in comparison to eternities changed?
Harry, Harold, and a senior missionary by the name of Tom Young began seeking out natives who had never heard the gospel before by making long trips down the uncharted Kuluene River. They were in search of the Xavantes, a fierce, warlike group who had killed anyone who ever attempted to reach them. However, despite the seemingly impossible thought of reaching the Xavantes, Harry was never afraid to move forward when God laid something on his heart.
Harry, Harold, and Tom’s first interaction with the Xavante Indians ended in a volley of arrows. The men began a long trip down the Kuluene on June 4, 1953, and, for more than a month, they saw no sign of the tribe. However, on July 7, they were suddenly surrounded by 85 Xavantes, seemingly out of nowhere. What began as a potentially peaceful interaction soon devolved into four days of arrow fire; yet they survived, and in a wonderful way God allowed them to reach the Xavantes with the gospel in the years that followed.
Not everything went smoothly as Harry and Harold began to minister to the natives in the jungle. As they began the work of sharing the gospel, a terrible disease spread through different tribes so quickly that Harry and Harold spent much of their time taking care of the sick, unable to do much more than provide food and water and bury the dead. When they visited the Waura tribe to share Jesus with them, the disease preyed upon the people with such insatiable hunger that Harry left Harold to go get a nurse to help. When he returned after 21 days, Harold and one native boy were the only ones left alive.
Harry was well-known for his ability to write poignant poetry and music. His journals from the time he spent with the natives chronicled the terrible pain he felt over the loss of the Waura tribe– especially for their souls. He wrote a song, “Too Late”, in an attempt to mitigate some of the pain:
Lonely faces I see in my memory,
Lonely faces looking at me.
Dear Lord, help me to see
It could have been me
Lost for all eternity.
Harry never forgot those faces, but he also never forgot to thank God for the many opportunities he had to share the gospel in the jungle. He was always grateful for God’s compassionate hand of preservation. He and Harold reached many during those incredible times, including the Xavante Indians, to which Harold and his wife, Debbie, became the first missionaries.
After a furlough in 1955, during which Elizabeth, Harry and Millie’s third child, was born, the Bollbacks returned to Brazil. With Jack’s encouragement, Harry began to seek out ways to reach the rest of Brazil with the gospel. The answer was already an important part of the Word of Life ministry–camps. In Atibaia, Harry and Harold began a Word of Life Youth Camp, followed shortly by a Word of Life Inn for adults. Later, the first Word of Life Bible Institute began in Atibaia. Soon after, Harry and Millie’s youngest daughter, Suely, was born.
Harry continued to travel for many years after returning to the United States, and in 1969, he became the Co-Director of Word of Life and started Word of Life International Ministries. His focus and passion for missions was unparalleled, and, under his leadership, Word of Life expanded into Germany, Argentina, Philippines, Kenya, Australia, Ecuador, Chile, Uruguay, Portugal, Spain, and Colombia. He and Jack founded the Word of Life Inn and Conference Center (now Word of Life Lodge), and a Word of Life Bible Institute in Schroon Lake as well as a campus in Hudson, Florida. Harry also wrote and traveled with 13 incredible Gospel Productions, such as “Let Freedom Ring”, “Revelation”, “Daniel” and more.
Harry was able to return to the Xavante Indians in 2000 with Millie, Harold, Debbie and several other friends. He was embraced with love and brotherly affection by this once volatile tribe because he had brought to them a message that had changed their lives– the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It was a poignant moment of praise to the Lord as they saw the change that had occurred amongst the Xavante people. Harry never stopped thanking God for that transformation, and he is sure to be surrounded by Xavante friends in heaven, all ready to tell their dear friend, “Sherry Pu Pu”, about what the Lord did in their lives.
Thanks to the humble service of a “simple kid from Brooklyn”, Word of Life is now in 81 countries around the world, and over one million people are reached with the life-changing gospel news through its ministries every year. Harry never lost sight of what was important to him- his God, his family, and the unreached people groups around the world. Even up into his last years, he spent as much time as he could with students from the Bible Institute, sharing his desire to see every nation reached for the gospel– always with a dash of Brooklyn humor and a whole lot of passion.
Harry is survived by his sister, Elizabeth Frair, his son, Larry and his wife Cindi, his daughter, Elizabeth and her husband John (Nelson), his youngest daughter, Suely and her husband Brad (Cecil), his son-in-law Rick Warken, 11 grandchildren, 22 great-grandchildren and numerous nieces and nephews. He joins his beloved wife, Millie (1927-2021), and his eldest daughter Linda (Warken, 1949-2016) in the arms of his Heavenly Father.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Bollback Missionary Fund. Harry and Millie created this fund to bless and help missionaries, and it has been used to fill financial gaps for decades in Word of Life ministries around the world.
Bollback Missionary Fund
Information coming soon.