Several years ago Mr. Running was relaxing in my living room when my then teen-aged son, Karl, came in to say hello. After fielding some spontaneous questions from our guest about his future plans, Karl suddenly realized there was somewhere else he needed to be. After he left, Mr. Running leaned back in his chair, laced his meaty hands across his stomach, and stared up at the ceiling. He maybe even closed his eyes and assumed an introspective expression that suggested a pronouncement was on its way. It was. “When I look back over my life,” he said, “I’m always amazed at the number of people who didn’t take my advice.” Well, Mr. Running lived a good long time, so even if a few people each year didn’t take his advice, that would still comprise a fair amount of stony ground his seeds fell upon. But that’s not the whole story, since there was plenty of fertile ground as well, including a rich harvest of students, some of whom are here today, who blossomed into creative and confident adults under his guidance.
I moved to Decorah in 1976 and met Mr. Running shortly thereafter, about the time he transitioned from fulltime to part time teaching at Luther College. I had already earned a degree in art from another institution and imagined myself as some sort of artist who shared an affinity with Mr. Running for woodblock printmaking. Our first meeting didn’t go that well, perhaps because I mistook his ultra-dry humor for gruffness. Nevertheless a relationship – dare I say a friendship? - developed and sustained itself for over 30 years. So even though I never formally studied with Mr. Running, I had plenty of time to learn from him. I learned that good art is also good craft, and the way artists treat their tools reflects something of their character. I learned that it’s possible to be both generous and frugal, by sharing wisdom and saving string. I learned that even the most humble of objects can be made to be beautiful, such as the hand-lettered poster he made that still reminds students how to behave in a printmaking studio. And he tried to teach me, but I haven’t yet learned, to “chat with the women with the biggest pocketbooks” when you’re trying to sell your art. In short, he taught me something about being an artist, but the deeper lessons seemed to be about life.
I once asked Mr. Running about the relationship of art and faith, and his answer surprised me. He said that for him, they were entirely separate things. I took him at his word, but to those who knew him as both Professor Running and Pastor Running, art and faith were two sides of the same coin. And even though much of his art was not explicitly religious, his body of work is clearly a celebration of creation, and it can lift the spirit. That was the case when the art was made, and it’s still true today. I witness it whenever I show some of Mr. Running’s work to the current crop of Luther students who still pull prints on the press he designed. And that provides today’s final lesson, or perhaps a last piece of advice: We should pay attention to what we do, because the things we do can certainly outlast us, even if we live to be one hundred and one.