Church members search, pray for Johnson County man after mysterious disappearance

Church members search, pray for Johnson County man after mysterious disappearance

Harry Rosenberg, age 82, has been missing since Jan. 13.

LAUREL BLOOMERY, Tenn. -- On a warm Sunday afternoon in January, 82-year-old Harry Rosenberg went for his daily walk in the Cherokee National Forest. He never came back.

A few hours later, his wife called 911. In addition to rescue parties from three states, members of First United Methodist Church of Mountain City responded quickly to the disappearance of the retired mathematics professor.

Church members not only joined in the search, they brought food and stayed with Harry’s wife, Donna. They prayed.

“He was a gentleman and a gentle man,” said John Borst, a friend and fellow church member. Borst sang in the church choir with Rosenberg before Alzheimer’s disease interfered with his activities.

“On good days, we could still have some good conversations,” said Borst. “This is a pretty small congregation, and Harry was well regarded in it.”

Rosenberg disappeared on Jan. 13. Exhaustive searches – including those with helicopters, all-terrain vehicles, and dogs – provided no clues. Johnson County, Tenn., is so close to the state line that search parties from North Carolina and Virginia were also involved. 

“At the end of the second week, the sheriff came by and said they had used all their resources and leads,” said the Rev. Boo Hankins, pastor at First United Methodist Church.

Yet, members of the community continue to search for the quiet grandfather of four.

“We won’t stop praying or searching until we find something,” Hankins said. “We just wish there was something more we could do.”


Rosenberg spent most of his life in Colorado before relocating to Johnson County, Tenn., in November 2002. He taught math and geography at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., for 34 years.

“He was a very spiritual man, a good mathematician,” said his wife, Donna Rosenberg, age 75. “But his main concern was helping his students -- teaching them to think and not just passing on information. He loved his students so much.”

The Rosenbergs retired in upper east Tennessee and soon discovered the nearest United Methodist church. Harry Rosenberg was Catholic until he and his first wife divorced. Donna Rosenberg had attended Episcopalian churches.

First United Methodist Church of Mountain City, a congregation of about 100 regular worshippers in the Holston Conference's Abingdon District, seemed to be a good fit. 

“We have never had as many friends as we’ve had in this one small community,” Donna Rosenberg said.

Harry Rosenberg was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2007. Both he and his wife were frustrated by his progressive memory loss. His afternoon walk into the section of forest near his property was one of his favorite things.

On the day he disappeared, the temperature was about 60 degrees, Borst said. A day later, heavy rains set in, followed by snow. Family and friends began to lose hope that Rosenberg could survive exposure to the weather conditions, while wondering if he was the victim of drug-related violence or if he had somehow managed to be transported back to Colorado.

Because Rosenberg had talked about visiting Barter Theatre in Abingdon, friends also alerted employees at the theater, in case he showed up there.

“The unknown is, what in the world happened?” said Donna Rosenberg. “I don’t worry about the spiritual part of him. But the physical part … I won’t go there. I would like to have some closure.”

More than a month after her husband of 30 years has been missing, Donna Rosenberg says that “Sundays are the worst.”

However, she’s impressed by the continued support of church and community members. (“All these wonderful people have rallied around me.”) She finds comfort in a friend’s written tribute that encourages all to love their neighbors in Harry Rosenberg’s honor.

“There was something about Harry that touched lives,” said Donna Rosenberg. “We can remember him by trying to bring joy to our communities. He had such a deep love for his fellow man -- and for me.”

Rosenberg is about 5 feet, 8 inches tall and weighs about 160 pounds. A Facebook page has been created: Help Find Harry

See also:
"Johnson County man still missing" (, 1/20/13)    


Annette Spence

Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.