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.