Remembering Arne Sorenson, a major Luther influence

February 18, 2021

Arne Sorenson, chief executive officer of Marriott International Inc. and a 1980 Luther College graduate, died of pancreatic cancer on Monday, February 15. Sorenson, who served on the Luther Board of Regents and supported the college through many strategic, philanthropic and other endeavors, was a major influence on life and learning at Luther.

"When I think of an exemplar of Luther's mission, Arne Sorenson was that exemplar," said President Jenifer K. Ward. "His life demonstrates what Luther stands for: learning actively, living purposefully and leading courageously for a lifetime of impact. One of the last times we met in person, we got lost in a discussion over the book he had with him, about the disputes in the Middle Ages between Erasmus and Martin Luther. Ever the scholar-citizen, Arne's curious mind never rested, even when he was otherwise in the worldly realm of business leadership on a global scale." 

Born in Japan to missionary parents Dorothy and "Bo" Sorenson Jr. '49, Sorenson followed in the footsteps of his father and both grandfathers, Morris Alvin Sorenson Sr. '20 and Otto Austin '12, to attend Luther, where he majored in religion and business management. 

He earned his law degree from the University of Minnesota Law School, then specialized in mergers and acquisitions at the highly regarded Latham & Watkins in Washington, D.C. He was recruited to help guide business development at Marriott, where he eventually became the first chief executive officer outside the Marriott family in the company's 85-year history. As CEO, Sorenson managed a $13 billion acquisition that made Marriott the world's largest hotel chain. 

Sorenson was a global citizen. As a Luther student, he took his first trip abroad as an adult, to Beirut, Lebanon, during a civil war. The experience ignited a lifelong passion for learning through travel. "There is nothing more extraordinary than gaining a deeper knowledge of global issues through first-hand exposure to other cultures," he said. In addition to leading a company with hotels in 131 countries and territories, he and his wife, Decorah native Ruth Christenson, and their four children made trips to India, Russia, East Africa, the Middle East, Egypt, Tanzania and various European nations. In many cases, Sorenson's travel experiences carried over into philanthropic endeavors. 

A lifelong learner and humanitarian, Sorenson was moved by a genuine desire to give back. At Marriott, he adopted several programs related to sustainability worldwide, from the Amazon rainforest in Brazil to the headwaters of the Yangtze River in China. In his personal life, he and Ruth funded an ELCA and Lutheran World Relief initiative that fights malaria, especially in Africa. And the couple's commitment to Luther ran deep. Sorenson was a passionate advocate of the liberal arts model and of Luther in particular, saying Luther was a place "where I could explore numerous academic disciplines with faculty that could know and care about me; where I could sing in a choir without being a music major; where I could explore how my developing faith fit in the world around me."

Sorenson served on Luther's Board of Regents for 12 years, as well as on various strategic planning committees. In 2005, he was recognized by the college with a Distinguished Service Award, and in 2013, he received a Luther college honorary degree. His long history of philanthropy at Luther, with Ruth, includes support for the Morris A. Sorenson Family Scholarship, the Luther Fund, the Black Alumni Association Scholarship, the Class of 1980 Scholarship, Sampson Hoffland Laboratories, the Center for the Arts, the Aquatic Center, the Richard and Judith Torgerson Sesquicentennial Scholarship, and the Judy Torgerson Study Abroad Scholarship. In the spring of 2020, the J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation awarded Luther a grant of $100,000 in his honor. 

Arne and Ruth Sorenson's son Lars graduated from Luther College in 2017. 

Sorenson's legacy at Luther will be felt for generations, and the life he lived will inspire future business leaders, global citizens, and humanitarians. In bestowing his honorary degree, Nancy K. Barry, professor of English, remarked that Sorenson approached the world and everything in it "with curiosity, with passion, and with deep sensitivity to the lives of others."