'Brooster' Bruch passes away at 56

ARLINGTON Bruce Bruch's battle with lung cancer came to an end on the morning of May 28, when the owner of Brooster's Cafe on Olympic Avenue passed away at 56 years old.

Bruce's friends and family members will conduct a memorial ceremony for him on June 6, from 5-8 p.m., at Pioneer Hall, but they're not waiting until then to pay tribute to him.

Harry Bruch, Bruce's brother, will be unable to attend Bruce's memorial ceremony, but he shared his memories of the man he's been glad to have as a brother.

"Bruce and I both were in the Navy," Harry Bruch said. "We were the only men in our family to join the Navy. Everyone else was in the Army."

Bruce was born April 18, 1952, in Plattsburgh, N.Y., and joined the Navy a couple of years after Harry, after hearing Harry tell stories about being stationed in Puerto Rico. Bruce joined the Navy in 1970, at the age of 18, just in time for the commissioning of the USS Blue Ridge. He spent his four years in the Navy as a cook on board the Blue Ridge, off the coast of Vietnam.

"That's how his career as a cook started," Harry said. "He became a plank owner of the ship, and joined the Sons of Neptune when he crossed the equator."

Bruce's son, Brandon Van Tassel, recalled how proud his father was, both of his time in the service and of his career cooking for others.

"The way he described being a cook in the Navy was like being everyone's best buddy," Van Tassel said. "They're so far away from home that they need their comfort food. He went through his Navy yearbooks a lot."

Harry left the Navy in Brooklyn and remained on the East Coast, but Bruce left the Navy in San Francisco, where his ship was home-ported. Bruce lived and worked in California through 1996, from Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo to Modesto, where he lived for 28 years. California was also where Bruce met his wife Robyn, whom he married 33 years ago May 30.

Bruce's charity and commitment were lauded just as much by those who've known him since he opened Brooster's Cafe in Arlington, after he moved here from Modesto in 1996. Bruce took it over as the D & J Cafe, from former owners Cindy and Paul Albert, and both Van Tassel and his sister, Stephanie Crabtree, agreed that their father had "really connected with the community."

Van Tassel and Crabtree joined Christy Whetstine, an employee of nine years at Brooster's whom Bruce and his children have called "his other daughter," in expressing amazement at Bruce's enduring energy levels, both before and after he was diagnosed with cancer in August of 2007.

"He had such tenacity," Van Tassel said. "He was the hardest-working man I've ever come across. I never saw him on the couch until it was dark out. He fought as hard as he could fight."

"He ran circles around all of us," Whetstine said. "He was convinced he was going to kick cancer's ass."

Bruce's determination was tempered by generosity and a playful sense of humor, that longtime friends Buzz and Mariana Hellett also noticed.

"He was always smiling and joking," Buzz Hellett said. "He was constantly trying to get a rise out of Robyn."

"I think he just liked seeing her nose flare," Whetstine said. "We would play pranks on him, but he always got even. The local schools got a lot of support from him. He let them hang up their posters in his windows and always gave them donations. He didn't want people to know, though, because he was such a tough guy."

"I never saw him turn away anyone who needed help," Van Tassel said. "He was modest about it. He gave private offerings, out of respect for people's dignity. We've heard more about those from other people than from him."

Crabtree cited the "Blast from the Past" car show as another example of his giving spirit, since it never made any money for Bruce, and actually cost him money each year. While Brooster's won't be able to pitch in for the car show this year, Bruce's family and employees promised that Brooster's will remain a fixture of Arlington.

"We're keeping it the way it is for him," Whetstine said. "It'll be how he would have wanted it."

"They've all done a phenomenal job of supporting it," Van Tassel said.

Jeanne Watanabe, president of 360 Home in Arlington, was not only a fellow member of the Downtown Arlington Business Association with Bruce, but had also sold him his home in Gleneagle. She reflected on the man she'd come to know both professionally and personally.

"As a business owner, I truly respected that Bruce always welcomed his customers with a big smile and hello when we came in," Watanabe said. "That made a big difference for me. As a friend, I realized that his welcome was sincere, and not just a way to get more customers. Bruce was truly an amazing man, always thinking of how to make sure others were taken care of. I feel fortunate that I was able to get to know him. His kindness and friendship have made a difference in my life, and I suspect many others."

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