First President of Luther College (1861-1902)
Peter Lauritz (Laur.) Larsen, the first president of Luther College, was born August 10, 1833 in Kristiansand, Norway. He was the oldest of nine children. One of his teachers, Christian Thistedahl, had a major influence on Larsen's spirituality. Larsen said of him, "The one thing for which I owe Thistedahl the greatest thanks is that he made me a conscious Christian during the first year that he was my teacher. Very soon I reached the decision that I would become a pastor" (quoted in Kolsrud Thistedahl 245. cited in Karen Larsen Laur. Larsen 15).
After growing up in Kristiansand, a town of about eight hundred residents during Larsen's childhood, Larsen moved to Kristiania in 1850 and began attending the university there at the age of seventeen. After earning his bachelor's degree, he was a theological student from early 1852 to June 1855. Larsen worked as a part-time tutor throughout most of his university years, and he continued to teach after he completed his courses.
Larsen and Karen Randine Neuberg were married in Bergen, Norway, on July 23, 1855. Their families were distantly related through cousins and had known each other for several years. The Larsen's first child, Thora, was born on July 16, 1857.
There was a surplus of pastors in Norway during that time period, and Larsen was in the midst of trying to find a job when he learned of six pastoral calls in America. He decided to leave Norway and emigrate to America, where he knew that he would be able to address the needs of other Norwegian Lutherans. After he was ordained in Our Savior's Church in Kristiania on September 23, 1857, he and his family left for Fillmore County, Minnesota, where Larsen had accepted a call.
On their way to Fillmore County, the Larsens visited the parsonage of Adolph C. Preus, who was at that time the president of the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (NELC). Larsen felt comfortable with the Norwegian Synod, and he later said that he believed the Synod to be "the true daughter of the mother church at home" (quoted in "Atter nogle gamle minder" in Symra 9:244-246 (1913). cited in Larsen 37).
On October 10, 1857, the Norwegian Synod decided to establish an institution of higher learning with a Norwegian background in America. They first used Concordia Seminary in St. Louis (which was, in turn, a part of the Missouri Synod) in order to have a professorship there until there was enough money to start a college. The church council that made this decision met at Washington Prairie church. (David T. Nelson 33)
Laur. Larsen started his position as professor at Concordia Seminary on October 14, 1859. This day is now recognized as Founder's Day for Luther College. (Nelson 38-39)
When the Civil War began in April 1861, Concordia Seminary was closed, the NELC decided to open its own college that fall in a former parsonage at Halfway Creek, Wisconsin, just north of La Crosse, Wisconsin and close to present day Holmen, Wisconsin. On September 1, 1861, classes for Luther College officially began with an enrollment of 16. The college was initially focused on training young Norwegian-American men to become members of the clergy.
The following year classes moved to Decorah, Iowa, with NELC Pastor Ulrik Vilhelm Koren successfully arranging the college's relocation and permanent settlement. On September 2, 1862, the first classes were held in Decorah. Luther College was dedicated on October 14, 1865, and the day owed itself in substantial part to the efforts of Larsen.
Larsen was placed at the head of Luther College. While he worked as one of the two professors, Larsen taught seventeen of the forty-four class hours. He was also in charge "of all general affairs of the institution, including the purchase of supplies" (Larsen, Karen. Laur. Larsen 142). When necessary, he also acted as nurse for his students.
On February 6, 1871, Larsen's wife Karen died. She had been a major presence in his life, and their relationship had been a strong, loving, and vibrant one.
Larsen continued to teach and to serve on committees for the Synod and the college. He also wrote several editorials and papers that were intended to help share the views and beliefs of the institutions.
There are countless stories and recollections of students who remembered Larsen's acts of dedication and kindness to them. Some of them even continued to keep a correspondence with him after they graduated.
While visiting in Kristiania during the summer of 1872, Larsen met Ingeborg Astrup. They quickly became engaged, and they were married on August 20, 1872. Larsen's final visit to Norway was in 1882, when he returned to his native country for his parents' golden anniversary celebrations.
In the early days of the college, the majority of its classes used Norwegian to communicate. Over time, Larsen began to advocate the increased use of English. Norwegian was to still be used as a mother tongue, but he believed that an effort towards bilingual abilities must be attempted. Larsen also worked hard to "lengthen the course from six to seven years and to separate the preparatory and collegiate departments" (Larsen 251).
The fire of Main May 19, 1889 came as a shock to Larsen, the faculty, the students, the Synod, and the citizens of Decorah. The primary building - where classes, meals, offices, and sleeping quarters were housed - was destroyed. After a debate within the committee about what the next steps should be, the decision was made to rebuild the college in Decorah, which pleased Larsen. The new Main building was dedicated on October 14, 1890.
After forty-one years as the president of Luther College, Larsen stepped down on July 31, 1902. He was replaced by C. K. Preus. Larsen continued to teach Hebrew for nine more years before retiring from his professor duties in 1911. He had been a teacher for sixty years.
Larsen continued to be a voice in the Synod and in the Norwegian-American community. A significant amount of his energy was spent reading, writing, and speaking in ways that would help Luther College and the Synod. He worked as the editor of Kirketidende for a few additional years after he retired from the presidency. Larsen retired from Kirketidende in the summer of 1912, following his second minor stroke.
Larsen died peacefully in his sleep on March 1, 1915. Ingeborg died on November 19, 1923 in her sleep.
The first separate dormitory building was built a few years after Larsen retired from the presidency. Laur. Larsen Hall, as it was named, opened in 1907.
The King of Norway bestowed on Larsen the Order of St. Olaf in 1908.
Larsen's dedication to Luther College was immense and thorough. He spent long hours in his office taking care of college necessities, and his mission to lead the college through its early days often eclipsed his personal needs and wishes.