When John Welckle ’57 pledged $100,000 to create an endowed scholarship for underrepresented teachers, his cash gift represented not only gratitude to Augsburg for his education, but also appreciation for the transformative worldview he shares with his alma mater.
In his 87 years, Welckle has become part of the social history he used to teach to students at Burnsville High School, St. Olaf College, and other schools throughout his career. He grew up an only child on a small farm in Wood Lake Township, where diversity was marked by cattle, pigs, and sheep as well as row crops, flax, and alfalfa. His dad planted with horses before buying a tractor in 1940.
“As a child, my big issue was whether the rows were straight,” says Welckle, who was doing the plowing by the time he was 12. “When you get to work that early in life, you have experiences that are remarkably challenging in retrospect.”
He had planned to join the Navy after graduating with his Hanley Falls senior high class of 10, but the Navy rejected him for flat feet and poor eyes. A friend suggested Augsburg instead. He had never heard of it, but he applied and, despite a “very provincial background” and lack of academic prowess, was accepted.
“To be thrust immediately into what I thought was a pretty large environment was bewildering and confusing. It took some time to get my feet on the ground, but I eventually came around,” he says. He played baseball, studied hard, majored in business administration, and graduated. Out in the world, he found a job he didn’t care for, so he returned to Augsburg for a teaching certificate. In 1961, Burnsville High School hired him to teach social studies.
Welckle’s reflections on his past inform his donor decision in myriad ways, affecting not only his reasons for giving but also how his gift might best be used. Spotting a religion column in the New York Times that featured a “small college in Minnesota” hiring an imam (“big news” then), he sensed that change was afoot on campus. He began paying attention to the statewide disparity between staff and students, noting that Augsburg, 99.9% white when he entered, is now 44% white. Burnsville High was smaller and just as homogenous then; now only 37% of its students are white.
“Two institutions very important to me have transformed radically in my lifetime, and I know how important it is for students to have teachers who look like them,” Welckle says. “Making a contribution to an institution like Augsburg that is making a dramatic and genuine effort to adapt to the demographic change taking place made sense to me. Here’s a place where I could help, be useful, and share some of my own good fortune.”
Welckle also takes note of “settler colonialism,” a term that describes his heritage on a family farm located within 20 miles of native land and six miles from the Dakota Conflict’s last encounter, the Battle of Wood Lake. “I came along 85 years after that treaty, and we were able to create a life of stability, generating enough wealth and an amazing experience. But as I get older, attend events, and listen to reminders that we are on indigenous land, I begin to feel that I can’t ignore that,” he says. “How do we live with the harm we cause others? That, to me, encapsulates neatly and succinctly the moral issues I’ve been wrestling with. It’s hard to avoid what’s happening around you.”
Augsburg’s Great Returns campaign provides the opportunity to do something positive with the rewards of a life well-lived, one that provided not only generous income but also more opportunities than Welckle had ever imagined. He is thrilled to see how the now-University is no longer the “rather conservative, myopic place” he first encountered in 1951, and instead displays an openness “consistent with their mission throughout history: to be a college of the community. As the community has changed, Augsburg has changed, too.
“Their commitment to transform the institution is genuine, true, and honest. It can be grounded in scripture, I’m sure, but that’s not my field. It certainly can be grounded in social policy and democratic living,” Welckle adds, the catch in his voice underscoring his passion for meaningful change. “I am truly grateful.”