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Augsburg Roots Spring A Generous Heart in Arlan Oftedahl ’64

Arlan OftedalAfter a lengthy career as an educator, Arlan Oftedahl ’64 has settled in Inman Park on Atlanta’s east side, where he lives comfortably in a century-old, Craftsman-style house. He recently planted 500 tulips in preparation for a springtime show of color in the historic district that he calls home. In another era, he might have become a landscape architect, but in this one, he is content to value beautiful surroundings, which is just one of the reasons he has chosen to donate to Augsburg University.

Oftedahl, who shares a common heritage with Augsburg’s third president, Sven Oftedal, has given serious thought to why he will include Augsburg in his estate plan. In addition to campus beautification, he cites his support for quality education and small liberal arts colleges as well as paying tribute to his Norwegian heritage.

“I grew up in northern Minnesota on land that my grandfather homesteaded in 1901. He emigrated from Norway in 1881, when he was 23 years old, and he lived right next to Augsburg,” says Oftedahl, who gleaned the street address from letters his grandfather mailed to relatives in Norway. Those letters were saved, and Oftedahl, having absorbed Norwegian while growing up on the family farm in Bagley, translated them. He is also a frequent visitor to his ancestral digs; he was there 2017 to celebrate Syttende Mai, Norway’s independence day.

“I have feelings for my Norwegian heritage,” he says, and his genealogical research shows that he indeed shares roots with Sven Oftedal, although his grandfather added an “h” to the spelling of their surname when he homesteaded in Clearwater County. Arlan Oftedahl was the second in his immediate family to attend Augsburg, accepting the encouragement and help of his cousin, Harlan Christianson ’57. Because his family lacked financial means, Oftedahl combined a part-time job with scholarship assistance to pay his own way through college, including rent in an older house he shared with fellow students. Thriftiness and hard work sufficed, and the experience was a fulfilling one.

“I got a very good education. Because it was a small campus, I got to know my professors. They invited me to their homes and encouraged me to make the most of my education and abilities,” he recalls. An English major, he earned a Master’s degree and taught at the University of New Orleans (then part of Louisiana State University) before shifting to special education and teaching in Fulton County, Georgia, for more than 20 years.

He enjoyed the sense of educational community that Augsburg provided and that he worries may vanish as small liberal arts colleges disappear.

“A small liberal arts college may not be for everyone, but for me, and for a lot of other people, it was a wonderful way to get an education,” he explains. “I experienced much personal growth because of that environment, and the teachers made a real effort to open my mind and make me think. I felt supported.”

As a donor, Oftedahl has designated a scholarship for an English major with a Norwegian background as well as a gift to endow Augsburg’s Urban Arboretum. A beautiful natural environment is part of the small liberal arts college experience, he contends. “Most of these colleges are in smaller towns, in an almost idyllic kind of setting. They are not just a collection of buildings,” he says. “Large trees and walkways between buildings are particularly important in a city. The real advantage of Augsburg’s location is that it owns land that could become a park-like setting, instead of just a campus crammed between high-rise buildings.”

While some students in Oftedahl’s time found the extremely conservative religious culture alienating, Augsburg has progressed in many ways since then, he adds. “It’s more in tune with the rest of society, even as its identity remains tied to the Lutheran church and Christianity, which will be around for a long time in one form or another,” he says. “My reasons for donating may be more rational than emotional, but I feel good about making a financial contribution to Augsburg’s future.”