Luther Alumni Magazine

Austads committed to conservation, learning, and Luther

Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.
~ Wendell Berry

Mike '65 and Karen (Wardell) Austad '64
Mike '65 and Karen (Wardell) Austad '64


The Kentucky farmer and poet Wendell Berry has more than a few verses about the good discipline of farming and all that we can learn from the rhythm of planting and harvesting. Berry also comments on the merits of teaching, referring to this profession as a high calling, a cultivation of the life of the mind, and worthy of a life’s work.

What a privilege it is then to share this profile of Mike ’65 and Karen (Wardell) Austad ’64, who in addition to being consistent and generous donors to Luther College are also lifelong public school teachers, farm owners, and conservationists.

Mike and Karen are quick to credit those upstream. “There are some gifts we receive that can never be repaid,” says Mike. “For example, how can we repay the teacher who taught us to read? Things like the values and beliefs we learned from our parents, valuable lessons from our professors, and especially our education are the basics in determining who we are and how we go about living our lives. Karen and I have long known that we can never repay Luther College for our four years there, but each year we can join thousands of other alumni and give back to our alma mater.”

For more information on giving to Luther College, please contact the Development Office at (800) 225-8664, or go to


Each year the Austads do indeed join thousands of others with a gift of faith as they support the Luther College Annual Fund. In addition to this unrestricted giving, the Austads annually support the Norse Athletic Association (Mike ran cross country and track for the Norse) and the Vanaheim Scholarship.

During Karen’s senior year, she and 16 other women classmates lived off campus in the house on the corner of North and Ohio Streets called “Vanaheim.” Fifty years ago, living off campus was an exceptionally big deal. But perhaps more exceptional is how these friends have remained close, exchanging round-robin letters and in recent years joining in annual summer get-togethers on the Austad farm.  

In 2009, at one of their Vanaheim reunions, these classmates decided to establish a legacy gift at Luther College that might honor their many years of friendship. The Vanaheim Scholarship was created with an initial combined gift of $25,000, the amount needed to establish an endowed scholarship. In six short years, through more gifts and endowment earnings, the fund has attained a market value of more than $35,000 and annually generates a scholarship awarded to a female student “who exhibits a passion for her major,” as stated in the scholarship guidelines.  

In the past two years, Karen and Mike each celebrated their 50th class reunions—Karen in 2014 and Mike in 2015.

“Both of our reunions were wonderful,” Karen says with a smile. “The effort the college puts into these events is visible months before we ever even set foot on the campus, and when the big weekend arrives, everything goes off without a hitch!

“Being married to a member of the class of 1964, I was well aware of the tremendous reunion gift given to the college by Karen’s classmates,” Mike says.  

Luther had been in the Austad’s estate plans since their first will was written in the 1970s, “but we had never informed the college,” Mike says. “At the first meeting of our 1965 reunion planning committee, I learned more about the many and various ways to give financial support to the college, and so to help our class effort, it came immediately to mind that our plans should be formalized.”

The result for Mike and Karen Austad is a three-part bequest intention. The first testamentary distribution will significantly advance the Vanaheim Scholarship. The second distribution will establish the Luther College Track and Field Endowment, which will provide enhanced funding for the Norse team for years to come. And the third distribution will advance the college through an unrestricted Board of Regents–designated gift, to use wherever it is needed most at the time.

Maria (Bringer) Smith ’95, director of annual giving, coordinates Luther College’s 50th reunion program, providing support, counsel, and encouragement to the 50-year classes as they plan their celebrations. It was her pleasure to work closely with Mike and Karen Austad as they discerned their bequest intention.

“Such encounters are emblematic of our reunion giving program,” Maria reflects. “You really get to know how much our alumni love Luther and wish to provide for our current and future students. We’re deeply grateful for Mike and Karen’s generous gifts.”

Beyond supporting Luther College, Mike and Karen have a commitment to conservation, giving generously to the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, and their appreciation for restoration extends even further.

Mike and Karen’s life work has been teaching. However, in 1994, six years before they retired, the Austads embarked on their second life’s work—restoring a ramshackle, 170-acre slice-of-paradise homestead farm in rural Monroe County, Wisconsin. Rebuilding the farmhouse, preserving the original timbers, modernizing the mechanicals, razing dilapidated outbuildings, and making the gardens grow has become their new calling. Guests comment that this farm is a work of art, beautifully restored and providing a wonderful gathering place and landscape treasure.

The good soil of stewardship runs deep for the Austads, and we thank them for their support. Through their bequest intention, we welcome them into the Luther College Heritage Club, an association of more than 1,200 members who share a vision and an inclination to support the future for Luther students.  

As committed teachers, Mike and Karen planted the love of learning in their students. Now they tend the land and do their part to steward creation. Thank you, Mike and Karen Austad, for tending to Luther College and to all those downstream from you.