Renewing the soul in college history

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The late Norman Fintel, president of Roanoke College from  1975 to 1989, and his wife Jo were supposed to have been at a long-planned Salem Historical Society meeting  in which one of his  admirers, Robert Benne, spoke of the Fintel legacy to the entire Roanoke Valley.

But Fintel died of cancer  at 92  on April 7, and his wife  was with family in South Carolina  as  a  full room  of  society  members heard Benne relate  how the Fintel years  marked  a return  to  specific Lutheran religious  emphasis  on the Salem campus.  Its 175th  Anniversary  is being  observed in 2017.

Benne’s  lecture, “Norm and Jo Fintel—Change Agents Extroidinaire,” was the last of a series  on  the college’s  presidents  which  the  now-retired faculty member has been giving  over the past school year. The talks are taken from Benne’s latest book, “Keeping the Soul in Christian Higher Education, “ soon to be released by William B. Eerdmans  Publishers.

Benne, who joined the college faculty in 1982 at Fintel’s invitation, admitted he gives “heroic” stature to the  fellow Mid-Westerner of heavily   German Lutheran background. The two men shared the conviction that a strong grounding in the Christian faith  is needed  to  form the character of  collegians.

Benne in his latest, as well as previous lectures on the presidents, makes no secret of his conviction that religion belongs in colleges  and should be natural and easy for young adults to absorb. He deplored the  “party school”  atmosphere into which he thinks the college had drifted in the 1965-1975 period before Fintel came and resolved  to lead it back to a high moral standard.

During “the wild days”  with a lot of alcohol and illegal drugs on campus, three collegians died in accidents related to the unregulated behavior, Benne recalled. Many in his audience remembered that  nearly all colleges, except some supported by conservative Christian groups,  dropped the long-standing practice of “in loco parentis” in which young adults under 21 were subject  to specific and enforced rules relating to separation of the sexes, use of alcohol and being absent without permission. Curfews, especially for women, were routine.

During his years as president Fintel oversaw the erection of several major building projects which were made possible, Benne said, because the president spent a lot of time cultivating wealthy Lutheran laity who had used their Roanoke educations to succeed in businesses or professions.

In his desire to return to the campus the strong evangelically religious tone with which it had been started by the Rev. David Bittle a decade before the Civil War, Fintel hired Benne from Chicago  to bring about the Center for Religion and Society and gave him an endowed chair.  Over the next 20 years more professors, strongly committed to a generally conservative Lutheran position,  moved  to Salem.

Benne himself, as well as his successor, Dr. James Peterson, now attend St. John Lutheran Church at Cave Spring which broke from the  liberal Evangelical  Lutheran Church in America  over such issues as gay ordinations.

An overriding goal  of Fintel, Benne  emphasized, was  to use the college to help educate the secularized  community. To that end many nationally respected theology scholars visit the campus for usually free public lectures. In addition, the Elderscholar program for adults over 55  exposes more local folk to  seasonal talks by faculty members.

And did you know that in the West the Fintel name carried the German pronunciation  with the accent on the first syllable?  To folk nearby it’s never been anything but Fin tel accented on the final syllable, Benne related.