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Harley Refsal

Professor emeritus of Scandinavian folk art

First year teaching at Luther: 1972

Hands-on history: Farmed with horses with his dad until he was 16 and spoke Norwegian at home.

Summer gig: Teaches woodcarving and other folk arts at Telemark University College in Norway.

In many ways, Harley hasn't really left the farm he grew up on in west-central Minnesota. For one thing, he's still fluent in the Norwegian his family spoke. He still whittles wood, as he did when his material of choice was the bottom of the family's peach crates. And he still believes in the versatility of being a "generalist."

"Working with my dad and grandfather was my first liberal arts education," he explains. "When something went wrong, you couldn't call a specialist. You learned to work with your hands and fix things yourself."

At Luther, Harley resourcefully adapted to meet staffing needs. He first served as campus pastor and head resident of Dieseth. Then he taught Norwegian and, at the president's bidding, further developed both Luther's study-abroad and international-student programs ("sending and receiving," he called it).

In his third decade of service, he's teaching Norwegian and fine Scandinavian handcrafts--including the hand-carving of spoons, ladles, handles of filet knives, and other tools.

"I'm interested in the kinds of things most people knew how to make--the art of everyone that was so common historians didn't often record it."

Having studied and taught in Scandinavia for decades (he first saw the countries while touring with his college choir in the 1960s), Harley has learned most of his technique from mentors, and he feels a sense of urgency as older craftspeople dwindle in number.

His next project involves carving household tools from horn and bone--the plastic of the pre-industrial age--practicing skills he dug up in archives and heard about in conversations with various first-hand sources. "I'm lucky that I've intersected with so many people over the years and that I can speak the language to understand the little things they tell me."

"I'm not a high-tech guy," Harley concludes. "I learn by doing." That's the value he's hoping to demonstrate to students by wearing a handmade carving knife in a sheath on his belt every day. He has a wardrobe of them, in fact, with the most ornate having been crafted by his wife, Norma.

"To me, having a knife is missionary work. I wear it to introduce students to the knife as a tool, not as a weapon."