Elwin D. Farwell, Luther College’s sixth president, died at home in Decorah on Friday, May 5, 2017, age 98. The effects of his dedication to Luther, which he served as president from 1963 to 1981, are still felt profoundly throughout campus.
In February 1963 Elwin Farwell entered the life of Luther College with a rhetorical flourish that challenged its Nordic reserve. Luther stands “at the edge of greatness,” he announced, with the sort of confidence that both startled and energized the community. The “Challenge of Change” was the theme of his inauguration as president, balanced by respect for Luther’s century of history.
Profound changes were in store for the 1960s. It was a hopeful decade, promising to continue the postwar confidence of the 1950s; it became a wrenching decade that shook the foundations of society. College enrollments and campus development grew rapidly. At the same time the civil rights, women’s liberation, and antiwar movements converged by the end of the decade to create one of the most fractious episodes in the history of the country.
Farwell was an unlikely choice to lead Luther College. A Lutheran-come-lately, with no Scandinavian roots, he was the candidate left standing after the usual suspects of the day had declined the offer. However, his credentials were impeccable: a doctorate earned through the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley; ordination as a Lutheran pastor; and some years of administrative experience.
It was quickly apparent that he was an excellent choice for the time. He recognized an urgent need to expand the college’s constituency, thoroughly review the curriculum and calendar, and develop campus facilities. In short order the faculty adopted a new calendar and a revised curriculum; student enrollment increased rapidly, including increased recruitment of African American students; a faculty exchange program with St. John’s University in Minnesota boosted the number of Catholic students from almost none to several hundred; finally, the sounds of new construction—field house, dormitories, library—were the background music of life on campus.
Change is not painless. There were tensions—disagreements on campus, critique from constituents, fiscal challenges. Remarkably, through it all President Farwell avoided personal rancor. Where there were differences, he brought antagonists together to work toward resolution. When someone took exception to a presidential decision or action, he found a way to involve that person in the issue. Above all, he did not openly contend every opinion expressed. He often chose to stand aside and allow the argument to proceed without participation.
Farwell had a gift for expressing appreciation. He affirmed the value of college personnel of long standing, including public commendation for their contributions, and hailed the promise of youthful beginners. He noted special occasions of both pain and pleasure in the lives of faculty members and students, with notes, gifts of flowers, invitations to dinner. He recognized the value of community and worked to nurture it, including the larger community of Decorah. In this Helen Farwell was a full partner. A loaf of sourdough bread was her signature gift for occasions of grief and joy. Her generous grace endeared her to the community and larger constituency of Luther College.
The Farwell presidency was collaborative. The administration of the college to that point was lean, and members of the faculty often had managerial tasks that in subsequent decades were spun off into administrative positions. That required cooperation and mutual trust, which Farwell nurtured. He found a way to include students as well in deliberations concerning the college in contentious times through the creation of the Community Assembly, with administrative, faculty, and student members.
In many ways the 1970s were a decade for Luther College to catch its breath and take stock following the exhaustion of rapid change. The challenge was to maintain enrollment and fiscal stability. That was the setting of the major project of the decade, the Center for Faith and Life. Planning had earlier shifted from a chapel that could serve as a performing arts auditorium to a performing arts auditorium that could serve as a worship center. In fall 1972 it was time to move toward construction. That prospect elicited intense opposition on campus, largely on the grounds that the project was a luxury the college could not afford.
President Farwell was not alone in his determination to proceed. However, as president, he was the prime target for attack. When the completed building opened in fall 1977, it quickly became apparent that it was a genuine center for the college, the crown jewel of Farwell’s presidency.
Elwin and Helen Farwell chose to remain in Decorah following retirement, though other assignments occupied a few of their years. They came as a young couple with a young family and stayed. Through 54 years they have been a gift to the community as well as the college.
Of the many chapters of Luther College history, the Farwell years are among the most remarkable and memorable, a time when change transformed continuity.
Helen Farwell (1920–2017)
Helen Farwell, wife of President Emeritus Elwin Farwell, died at home in Decorah the morning of July 27, 2017, age 97.
She had studied at Michigan State University and assumed nursing positions at East Lansing, Michigan, and Richmond, Berkeley, and Thousand Oaks, California. She and President Farwell married in 1942. An indefatigable supporter of Luther, she helped organize the faculty women and wives group at Luther (advising that group for 18 years), was active with the Luther College Woman’s Club, and served as the president of the First Lutheran Church Women in Decorah. She also served as a member of the Decorah Nurses Organization and the Winneshiek County Memorial Hospital Auxiliary.
In 1984 Helen Farwell received the Distinguished Service Award from Luther.
She and President Farwell raised four children: Don ’71, Helen, James ’75, and Judith ’80; and had 11 grandchildren.
Wilfred Bunge wrote an in-depth essay about Elwin Farwell that ran in the journal Agora, vol. 8, no. 1 (Fall 1995). Issues are available in Preus Library and online via digital.luther.edu.