A gift that healed a deep wound

Merton Strommen’s fourth-floor apartment offers a glimpse of his long life. In a corner of the living room is a Steinway, an impulse buy from decades back that the 98-year-old still plays daily. Artifacts from Norway commingle with books. Framed landscapes mix with family portraits on the walls. Clearly, he’s lived a life of music, travel, scholarship, family, and faith. Yet unless you ask about the large painting of the handsome young blond man gazing out over the mountains, you might miss that his life has included tragedy.

The painting is of David, the youngest of Strommen’s five sons, who in 1985 was struck by lightning while leading a youth group in the Colorado Rockies. David’s death catapulted Strommen and his wife, Irene, into a grief that included a strong desire that something meaningful come out of their loss.

They wanted to further the work that their son, a seminarian with a passion for youth, had been pursuing when he died. As both husband and wife had attended Augsburg and sent their five sons there as well, they decided to support training in youth and family ministry at Augsburg. As Merton Strommen put it in Five Cries of Grief, a book he co-wrote with Irene, he could envision “a thousand young men and women taking Dave’s place in a congregation’s youth and family ministry.”

Fundraising began with the 1985 Twin Cities Marathon, as David’s brothers and friends solicited pledges and ran in his place. In 1986, with support from family and friends, the Strommens established the David Huglen Strommen Endowment to support program and faculty development, and scholarships. The fund later grew dramatically with a large gift from Thrivent Financial (then called Lutheran Brotherhood). Today, the endowment is valued at more than $800,000.

A scholarly approach

The fact that youth ministry exists as a field of study and a career option is in large part the work of the elder Strommen, who in the 1940s when he was a young seminarian and pastor noted how little was being done in the church for teenagers. “There were pastors who believed that God’s intent was that young people would come to faith primarily by preaching alone,” he says. “I thought, My gosh, this isn’t responding to where kids are at.” Strommen’s idea was to allow youth to ask questions about the faith, build relationships with adults and each other, and have fun.

Although Strommen decided to pursue graduate study at the University of Minnesota in educational psychology, his interest in youth ministry didn’t wane. In fact, he decided to make it the focus of his scholarship. His dissertation, a national study of 192 congregations, explored fundamental questions that had never been answered: What did young people need? What did they want?  What did pastors and lay adults think youth needed? His study yielded an important finding. Adults had little understanding of where their youth needed help. Moreover, youth weren’t taking away from the church the most fundamental truths about God’s grace and forgiveness.

There was much more to learn. Strommen founded the Search Institute in 1958, which pioneered the use of social science research to understand young people. Over the years, he was involved in large-scale studies, many of which laid the foundation for youth and family ministry approaches used congregations in major denominations and in seminary and college training, including that offered by Augsburg.

The ongoing impact

For two decades, Augsburg offered a Bachelor of Arts degree in Youth and Family Ministry. And students like 2016-17 Strommen scholarship recipient Leah McDougall graduated with a major in Youth and Family Ministry. Beginning in 2017, students interested in youth and family ministry enroll in the new Theology of Public Ministry major and opt for a youth studies minor. “Students who sign up for such a curriculum receive essentially the same education and experience offered under the older Youth and Family Ministry program,” says Hans Wiersma, a religion professor long involved with the programs.

Wiersma says an important part of each student’s course of study is “discerning the nature of God’s call for their lives.” Some, he says, go directly from Augsburg to a congregation. Some do service through organizations such as Lutheran Volunteer Corps or go to seminary, and some work in public schools or youth service organizations.

At nearly 100 years of age, Strommen remains keenly interested in youth ministry. He’s concerned that not enough are learning that faith is life-changing. “What disappoints me is that there hasn’t been a focus in so many congregations on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” he says. And he’d just love, if he could, to do one more national study, to demonstrate the effectiveness of the peer ministry approach.

He’s pleased with what he’s accomplished. “When I start talking [about my life], I get excited, I get awed,” he says. He knows that he has made a tremendous impact on the field of youth ministry. For indeed, a thousand young people are now taking David’s place.

 

By Carmen Peota.

A Generous Family

A Portrait of Jean and Phil Formo
Jean and Phil Formo

“Go west, young man!” was the mantra guiding the young Philip Formo in his college selection. But after graduating from Pacific Lutheran University in 1968, he must have heeded a different axiom: “Yes, you can go home again.” Home again he came, not only to finish a special education degree at St. Cloud State University and a divinity degree at Luther Seminary, but also to pick up the Formo family legacy where it left off—at Augsburg.

Now a retired ELCA pastor, Phil, his wife, Jean, and their niece, Dawn, are the primary Formo forces behind not one, not two, but three separate scholarships honoring various family members and extending generosity to future Augsburg students.

“I was the first person on both sides of the family not to go to Augsburg,” says Phil. “My mother met my father in chemistry class there. She was in nursing and needed help, and he was good in chemistry. They also both sang in the first Augsburg choir concert that ever took place, after the men’s chorus and the women’s chorus merged.” His parents, Jerome and Winifred, both ’37, were extremely dedicated to Augsburg and stayed deeply involved in all things Auggie throughout their lifetimes. Jerome received a Distinguished Alumni Award in 1983 and was also a Regent Emeritus.

In 2009, Phil designated proceeds from their estate to establish the Jerome and Winifred Formo Scholarship for music majors or those with a strong interest in choral music directing. Seven students have already benefited from this fund, but it was not the first Formo scholarship. That distinction belongs to the David J. Formo Scholarship, which was established in 1979 and is awarded annually to a junior or senior student who has successfully overcome adversity to achieve academic and extracurricular excellence.

“My brother David graduated from Augsburg in 1964 and became a U.S. Navy commander whose plane went down in the Mediterranean Sea on November 3, 1979, the same day that Iran took U.S. captives. Before that, he had delivered to the Shah of Iran the gift of a new jet. It’s really a small world,” mused Phil.

The scholarship to honor his brother was the first for the Formo family, but not the last. When Phil retired in 2011, he decided to write a book about his maternal grandfather, Andreas Helland, who immigrated from Norway in 1889, attended Augsburg Seminary, and served there as New Testament professor for 35 years. “He was also very involved in fundraising. In those days you did everything, and he was really good at stewardship. One of his daughters, Beatrice, married Norman Anderson, who was the fundraiser for the first science building at Augsburg, and they were all there for the groundbreaking. My grandfather was the first to give a major gift,” Phil recalls.

Proceeds from Phil’s book, Papa—A Life Remembered, along with contributions from his own family and his parents’ estate, fund the Andreas Helland Scholarship, established In 2012 for students with financial need and academic achievement. “Education is so important, but we all know how expensive college is,” Phil says. “If students can get through in four years instead of five or six, they will have saved the equivalent of two years’ salary.”

Phil is sold not only on the value of affordable education, but also on the value of Augsburg. “I’ve always been amazed by what Augsburg, long known as a conservative Lutheran school, has become. What they are today is just awe-inspiring—their involvement in the community and openness to everyone is incredible. Culturally, they have really been able to reach out, to take minorities seriously,” he says. “For the only ELCA college in the city, what a unique opportunity.”

A Sisterhood: Strong, Adventurous and Daring

Sisterhood had long been the goal of Kathryn Kingsbury, who grew up in rural North Dakota with two brothers. “I wanted sisters so bad! I kept praying to God, but that doesn’t always work,” she says. Or does it? What she got instead of siblings may well reveal the mysterious power of prayer.

A photograph of the Fairvew Nurses class of '69
Fairview Nurses Class of ’69.

 

Kingsbury used to sit with a dictionary in that North Dakota kitchen, studying every word of the “Tell Me Doctor” feature in her mother’s Ladies Home Journal. Fascinated by all things medical, she first pursued medical technology but eventually found herself in nursing school at Fairview Hospital, one of 33 women in the class of ’69. Today she is among the many donors who contribute to Augsburg nursing scholarships through the Fairview Hospital School of Nursing Alumni Association, of which she is the treasurer, database keeper, and indefatigable fan even as health care education evolves dramatically.

The Fairview nursing school, which began in 1916 and ended in 1976, trained nurses in three years. “You couldn’t beat a three-year grad. We could function at 100% on day one of our hire,” Kingsbury says. The student nurses attended psychology, chemistry, and biology classes on the Augsburg campus and lived together in a dorm since replaced by Fairview’s corporate offices. It was rumored that their proximity to the Augsburg boys’ dorm across the street created some jealousy among Auggie girls, but what Kingsbury remembers most is the indelible bond linking the future nurses.

“Mrs. Torland, our housemother from Norway, was strict and firm but loving. She was a mother hen who scrutinized our dates and invited us to her house for Norwegian coffee,” Kingsbury says. It was a time of penny loafers and skirts at all times on campus, and, on the hospital floor, glass intravenous bottles that required nurses to count each drip (10 or 12 drops a minute, depending on the IV fluid brand).

“It’s not quite the same, is it?” the Fairview alumni say when they gather for their annual luncheon, Kingsbury reports. About 1,000 nurses from 38 states and 5 countries populate her database; about 100 attend the luncheon, which, this year, included a table of graduates from 65 years ago. “Oh, they’re funny – so strong, adventuresome, and daring,” says Kingsbury. “Later grads, who did not live in the dorm, don’t have the sense of unity that we did. We were tight.”

Sisterhood reigned, but change was inevitable. By the ‘70s, a four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) became the gold standard, but out of reach for many. In 1996, the Fairview alumni created an Augsburg nursing scholarship fund with proceeds from the estate of Clarice J. (Vaardahl) Laushkin, Fairview class of ‘35. Ann Good, Fairview class of ’70 and wife of former Augsburg board member Mike Good ’71, still works three days a week at a chiropractic clinic in Alexandria and has made several donations to the fund.

“We were a very close community,” she says of her fellow students. After a decade of work at Fairview, she wanted to go back to school for her BSN but was unable to do so. “Scholarships are so important. I want returning nurses to have the opportunity I didn’t have at the time, to be able to go back and get their degree.”

A photograph of the Fairview Nurses Class of '69
Some of the Fairview Nurses Class of ’69 today.

While she recognizes that the Fairview Nurses Alumni Association will eventually die out and is currently archiving its artifacts with the Minnesota Historical Society, Kingsbury is happy that the scholarship program is endowed in perpetuity, though of course new gifts are encouraged. For her, it has been a worthy journey. “I got my sisters—wonderful sisters,” she says. “We were there for each other in good times, in bad times, and in between.”