Elwin D. Farwell dies at age 98

Elwin D. Farwell, Luther College's sixth president, died at home in Decorah, Iowa, on Friday, May 5, 2017, at the age of 98. Hailed as a leader in higher education, Farwell dedicated his life to serving Luther College and higher education in Iowa and the nation.

"President Farwell was a kind and gracious man who loved Luther College. He transformed the college during his nearly twenty years as president, and the Luther community is forever grateful for his visionary leadership," said Luther president Paula Carlson.

Born May 1, 1919, in Quincy, Michigan, Farwell graduated from Roosevelt High School in Coldwater. He married Helen Hill in 1942.

Farwell graduated from Michigan State University in 1943. He served with the U.S. Army during World War II and was discharged in 1946 with the rank of captain. He earned a master of science degree from Michigan State in 1947, a doctorate in education from the University of California–Berkeley in 1959, and a bachelor of divinity degree from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in 1959.

From 1947 to 1955, Farwell served on the faculty at Michigan State, during which time he helped establish an agricultural college in Colombia. From 1955 to 1959, he was administrative assistant to the director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of California–Berkeley.

Farwell was a deeply spiritual man. After ordination in 1959, he became pastor at Salem Lutheran Church in Andrew, Iowa, for two years, but eventually found his calling in Lutheran higher education. He was academic dean at California Lutheran College prior to becoming president of Luther College in 1963, in which capacity he served for the next 18 years. He spoke frequently at daily chapel on campus and he and Helen were active members and leaders at First Lutheran Church in Decorah.

Farwell was a visionary. Local papers dubbed him "Farwell the builder" because during his tenure the college added several new buildings to its campus, including the Field House (now the Regents Center); Preus Library; an addition to the Union; Storre Theatre; Ylvisaker, Miller, and Dieseth residence halls; and the Center for Faith and Life, once nicknamed “Farwell’s Folly” and now a centerpiece of campus.

Until Farwell's tenure, Luther had a largely homogeneous student body, but in 1964 the college for the first time graduated two black students, women who majored in elementary education. Farwell greatly encouraged efforts toward the further recruitment of black students, even traveling to meet with prospective students himself, and by the end of the decade they were making a significant impact on the college's curriculum development and social organization.

Luther was becoming more well-known in and more welcoming of the larger world. Under Farwell's leadership, Luther increased enrollment by 71 percent, from 1,215 to 2,072. The initial influx of new students was so great that area homeowners were asked to house students until more residence halls could be built. The Farwells themselves hosted seven students in their basement.

Farwell believed strongly in liberal arts education, and in 1977, he helped develop Luther's signature Paideia program, an interdisciplinary course sequence that exposes all Luther students to a core liberal arts foundation. Also under his leadership, the college moved from a semester to a 4-1-4 calendar, which lets students engage in focused learning each January. Farwell was responsible too for building up faculty in the social sciences, leading to the creation of college departments in psychology, anthropology, and social work. He steered the college through periods of intense social and political unrest, and the quality of education and the national reputation of Luther College improved dramatically under his leadership.

A great advocate for affordable education, in 1969, Farwell helped establish the Iowa Tuition Grant Program, which allows Iowa students to receive financial aid to attend an Iowa private college or university. In 1983, Luther founded the Farwell Endowed Scholarship as a tribute to the former president’s recruitment and support of minority students.

Farwell held leadership positions with a variety of higher education organizations. He served on the Iowa State Advisory Committee on Area Schools, as president of the Lutheran Educational Conference of North America, as president of the Iowa College Foundation, as chairman of the Iowa Association of Private Colleges and Universities, and as chairman of the Council of College Presidents of the American Lutheran Church. He was elected to the first board of directors of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.  

Farwell’s advice was sought outside of higher education as well. In 1966 he was tapped as a member of the Advisory Commission on Governmental Reorganization for Iowa governor Harold Hughes. He was appointed in 1978 to the State Advisory Commission on Mental Health. In 1977 he was named to the Iowa State Campaign Finance Disclosure Commission, and in 1986 he became its vice chairman.

After retiring from Luther in 1981, Farwell served for 15 months as interim president of Dana College in Blair, Neb. In addition to holding honorary degrees from four colleges and universities, he received the King Olav V of Norway Award, Knight First Class Order of St. Olav, and the King of Sweden Award, Knight First Class Order of North Star. He also served as an interim bishop for ELCA synods in Omaha and Denver.

When Farwell retired, the Elwin and Helen Farwell Lecture Endowment was created. Funded by the Humanities Endowment and the Farwell Endowment, the Farwell Distinguished Lecture Series generally hosts two major speakers each year who are connected to important current conversations at Luther. The Farwells attended every lecture together until 2016.

Farwell is survived by his wife, Helen (Hill); son Don Lucian Farwell, Luther class of  1971, California; daughter Helen Kay Kennedy (David Tardy), Michigan; son James Lyman Farwell (Elizabeth Sadhu), Luther class of 1975, Oregon; daughter Judith Anne (Brian) Bumpus, Luther class of 1980, New Jersey; 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Fjelstul Funeral Home handled arrangements and a service was held at First Lutheran Church in Decorah.

Elwin D. Farwell, left, with other past presidents H. George Anderson, second from left, and Richard L. Torgerson, far right, and current president, Paula J. Carlson.
Helen and Elwin Farwell