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A Lutheran Vocation: Philip Nordquist

Counting his time as a student and faculty member, retiring Philip Nordquist has been part of Pacific Lutheran University for nearly half a century. His 42-year tenure on the faculty is among the longest in the history of the university.

For decades, Nordquist ’56 has played an important role at the university, from his days as standout basketball player to his integral role in shaping the history department and the vital work of inspiring students.

In all of this, Nordquist has been guided by the best principles of the Reformation, Martin Luther’s commitment to faith and reason, and his willingness to wrestle honestly and intensively with the most challenging issues facing church and society.

Evidence of that is found in Nordquist’s work as campus historian, especially in his centennial volume, “Educating for Service: Pacific Lutheran University, 1890-1990.”

Nordquist has described, modeled and inspired in others the Lutheran ideal of vocation, and it is his vocation as a Lutheran scholar and teacher that is celebrated in a new book, a Festschrift in his honor.

“A Lutheran Vocation: Philip A. Nordquist and the Study of History at Pacific Lutheran University,” was published this spring to mark the retirement of the man who has become an institution. Edited by history professors Robert Ericksen and Michael Halvorson, the book contains essays written by 11 of Nordquist’s former students who continued their scholarship with advanced degrees. Nordquist himself, of course, wrote the chapter on the history of the department.

Christopher Browning, an acclaimed historian who served with Nordquist for 25 years before taking a position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1999, wrote a tribute detailing how Nordquist helped bring him to PLU and their lasting friendship.

“Phil continues to personify what is best about this institution. His commitment to excellence and high standards, his conviction that PLU can and must strive to preserve its sense of tradition and identity but simultaneously never compromise on issues of quality, his belief in the transformative powers of education that he conveys to his students, his call to colleagues that they take responsibility for their own faculty self-governance, and his unwavering integrity have helped to shape this institution in fundamental ways,” Browning wrote. “He may retire, but equal to any of the key figures he has written about in his history of the university, his impact on PLU and his students and colleagues will be enduring.”

PLU President Loren J. Anderson says Nordquist is the heart of PLU.

“Wherever Phil goes, ambling across campus, walking into the classroom, going to the Faculty House or giving a speech off campus, he literally is PLU,” Anderson said. “And because he is, we not only understand our history more fully, we are made richer each day, and our future is brighter.”

Nordquist is characteristically reluctant to take the spotlight, crediting other faculty for their contributions and wondering about the fuss made over him.

A Lutheran Vocation:

Philip A. Nordquist and the Study of History at Pacific Lutheran University

Table of Contents

“Reading by Heart: Books of Hours and Women’s Ways of Reading,” Megan Benton ’76

“Luther’s Early Thoughts on Social Welfare,” Samuel Torvend ’73

“Lutherans, Jesuits and Jews: Confessional Conflict in Late Reformation Hildesheim,” Michael J. Halvorson ’85

“Defense and Diplomacy: Danish Mercenaries in English Service, 1689-1698,” Mary Elizabeth Ailes ’89

“The Fashion for Physics: Public Lecture Courses in Enlightenment France,” Michael R. Lynn ’89

“Rebellions and Non-events in Late Tokugawa and Meiji, Japan,” Neil Waters ’67

“If this is Democracy, then Democracy is Ugly: Posting Columns and the Berlin Landscape, 1918-1936,” Molly Loberg ’98

“Hiding the Nazi Past: Denazification and Christian Postwar Reckoning in Germany,” Robert P. Ericksen, ’67

“History, Memory, and Identity in W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz,” Gerald A. Fetz, ’66

“Nixon and the Clergymen: Politics, Religion, and the Anti-Communist Threat,” 1953-1960, Laura J. Gifford ’00

“Historical Analogy and the Façade of Russian Constitutionalism,” Christian M. Lucky ’89

“There are a lot of important people retiring this year,” he said.

But his many students and colleagues are determined to honor him. Detailing everything Nordquist and his wife, Helen ’57, have done for PLU could take up several volumes, so the editors decided the best tribute to him was to showcase the legacy he leaves in the countless students he has encouraged to follow their own scholarly quests.

“Most of all, Phil’s students remember his inspiration toward learning. They have known him as a knowledgeable, wise and demanding teacher who exhibited a passion for history and a willingness to apply the methods of historical inquiry to the most important questions facing young students, Lutheran and otherwise,” Ericksen and Halvorson wrote in their preface.

Contributors to the book compiled thoughtful essays on topics ranging from Nixon to Nazis. (See sidebar for titles.)

Scene asked each of the contributors to provide some personal insight into their relationships with Nordquist. Most have very specific memories of his wry wit, encompassing knowledge and utter dedication to his students and university. Here are some of their remarks:

Defending free speech

Then-assistant professor Philip Nordquist’s medieval history course in 1965 proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, leading to my decision to drop a major in chemistry in favor of history. The course worked synergistically with Curtis Huber’s class in medieval philosophy that I was taking at the same time. It served as an introduction to some of the most accomplished historical writers of the 20th century, and stimulated an intellectual engagement with historical thinking that never left me.

Phil’s influence at that juncture proved critical, but it was another event outside of the classroom that impresses me most now, almost 40 years later. In 1966 I was editor of The Mooring Mast, and Phil had the misfortune to be appointed faculty advisor to the student newspaper during perhaps its most tumultuous year. One issue of the paper in particular so incensed President Robert Mortvedt that he called me and two staff members into his office for a presidential tongue-lashing that lasted more than an hour. Phil accompanied us, staunchly defended us in the name of free speech, and probably prevented the summary termination of The Mooring Mast.

It was only years later when I, too, was an untenured member of a college faculty, that I came to fully understand and appreciate how much sheer courage Phil’s vigorous defense of the student newspaper staff required. Phil did not say “Hier stehe Ich. Ich kann nicht anders. Gott helf mir” (“Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me.) in President Mortvedt’s office in 1966, but it would have been entirely fitting. The spirit behind those words did not die with Martin Luther.

Neil Waters ’67, Kawashima Professor of Japanese Studies at Middlebury College (Vt.) and chair of the Department of History in Vermont

Phil Nordquist ’56 poses in his office filled with books and memories shortly before his retirement. He was a member of the history faculty for 42 years. (Click on image to enlarge)

A role model for a future professor

While my focus while at PLU was American history, I took a medieval European history course from Dr. Nordquist. I remember being especially impressed that every class period he would bring with him at least one, and usually more, books on the subject of the lecture. He didn’t use them to teach from – that material was already committed to memory. Rather, he wanted to share with us places we could go to learn more about the topics he found so fascinating.

I also served with Dr. Nordquist on a PLU 2010 committee while I was working in the University Communications office after graduation. He encouraged me as I applied to graduate schools and proudly shared my news when I learned I had earned a fellowship to UCLA. About a year ago, I received an envelope in the mail from PLU with a copy of “PLU 2010” – and a note from Dr. Nordquist. He had remembered my service on the committee and sent the copy along personally. His thoughtful gesture was a testament to the kind of professor he is, as well as his dedication to the university. His support has meant a lot to me, and he’s one of the role models I keep in mind as I prepare to become a professor myself.

Laura J. (Ritchie) Gifford ’00, doctoral candidate in history at UCLA

Prophetic advice

I have countless memories of being in Phil Nordquist’s classes, and he has long been one of my models for my teaching. One illustration (from many) stems from one of his syllabi (or perhaps more than one) in which he suggested that “interminable professorial monologues” combined with “long, bleak periods of student silence” did not constitute education. When confronted with stony-faced passivity in my own classrooms, I frequently tell students the story of my own education and repeat this dictum to them. Most of my students over the past eight years have heard the name of Phil Nordquist.

As an undergraduate I had majored in math and history. I clearly recall one of my last conversations with Phil, before heading off to graduate school, in which he suggested I might be interested in pursuing a history of science topic for my dissertation. I remember politely nodding while internally I filed the suggestion away as highly unlikely. However, his prophetic words came back to me very clearly when, four years later, I settled on the history of popular science in 18th-century France for my dissertation research.

Mike Lynn ’89, associate professor of history, Agnes Scott College, Decatur, Ga.

A memorable lesson on cheating

In my first history course with Phil Nordquist, I learned that the man doesn’t suffer fools easily. Close to the midpoint of the semester, the student sitting next to me opined – incorrectly and to his eternal shame – that Dr. Nordquist’s quiet demeanor betrayed a dull mind. Oh boy. What a dummy. Thinking that he could work less on an assigned essay and get away with it (“After all,” he whispered, “Nordquist will never pick up on it”), he committed the cardinal sin of plagiarizing. To add insult to injury, he was even a bit boastful about what he thought was the clever trick he had pulled on the retired basketball player.

Two weeks after handing in the essays, Dr. Nordquist brought them to class. He made a few perfunctory comments about the funnier claims some of us had made in our papers concerning Henry VIII’s libido, Martin Luther’s flatulence and Leo X’s love of stuffed figs and young ladies – Phil’s was the driest wit in the department if not the university. And then he began to comment in a rather off-hand manner, never looking up from the offending paper, about the criminal intent that harbored every attempt at plagiarism. It was, truth be told, a moment of exquisite delight for those of us who had worked our tails off just to get a B. I think the term is “morose delectation” – taking unhealthy and morbid delight in another’s person’s pain. I couldn’t detect the acrid smell of urine, but when this student turned as white as a sheet and his legs began to shake, I thought: The poor slob is going to liquefy right in front us.

The interesting thing is, Phil never mentioned his name. He never shamed the student. He spoke simply and quite briefly about the injustice of stealing from others what they had labored so hard to research, write, and publish – a word, not to the wise, but from a wise professor – one that I have never forgotten.

Samuel Torvend ’73, associate professor of religion, PLU

Stealing from the master

I have been teaching history for about 30 years. During that time I have developed various techniques for testing students, various remarks that I am likely to put on their papers, various responses to their questions. I also have some favorite stories to tell in my Western Civ course, and occasionally, I make a certain type of dry, ironic comment, hoping to get a laugh. For a quarter of a century, I had the luxury of thinking that these stylistic quirks that I brought to my teaching were my own creation. Then I arrived back at PLU in 1999. Almost everything about being back at PLU has been better than I had imagined. However, now that I am a colleague to Phil Nordquist, I hear student comments, and in various ways have been re-exposed to his persona as a teacher. My renewed exposure has forced me to a rather deflating conclusion. All of those things I thought I had invented I stole directly from him. I have to recognize that I am a pale and much shorter version of Phil.

Robert P. Ericksen’ 67, chair, Department of History, PLU

Teacher, scholar and mentor

I began my freshman year at PLU with only hazy thoughts about what I wanted to do with my life. I had my first college level history class with Professor Nordquist and afterward knew that I wanted to study history. His commitment to the students and the institution of PLU has shown me the potential a professor has to impact the lives of individuals and more broadly foster a community of learning and engagement with the world. Years after having graduated from PLU, Professor Nordquist remains for me a role model of the important balance between teacher, scholar, mentor and dedicated advocate of the university community.

Nordquist, second from left, was a star basketball player during his undergraduate days. (Click on image to enlarge)

Molly Loberg ’98, doctoral candidate in history, Princeton University

Bringing history to life

I credit Phil Nordquist for bringing European history to life for me, and my own scholarly work on early modern Europe has been highly influenced by his interests in Lutheranism and the broader themes of church history. Although we chuckle sometimes about his rather reluctant embrace of computers, Phil noted back in the mid-1980s that I might profitably combine a career in computer science and history over the long term, which has essentially been the case for me. (I graduated from PLU in 1985 and worked for Microsoft Corporation from 1985 to 1993; after writing over two dozen books about programming and personal computers, I completed a Ph.D. in European history and begin teaching full-time in the PLU history department in the fall.)

Michael Halvorson ’85, soon-to-be assistant professor of history, PLU.

Teaching tolerance of viewpoints

In my experience, Professor Nordquist is unsurpassed in his ability to render thick scholarship and complicated events into a lucid, rich and enjoyable lecture. Simply stated, his generosity of spirit to students is unmatched. Yet, for me, the hallmark of his teaching is his commitment to a theme found in all his early modern courses: the centrality of the toleration of viewpoints to learning and to human wellbeing. Without being didactic or unscholarly, he consistently contrasted those times and places in Europe when people of differing beliefs could join in community with those long, sad periods when people tormented one another over differences that today appear to be relatively unimportant. In the places where toleration was attained, scholarship flowered. At the same time, Professor Nordquist also stressed that the belief in moral progress was a self-aggrandizing, naive and historically unfounded viewpoint. We today are as prone to intolerance as were those living at the time of Book of Common Prayer, the Edict of Nante or the Essays of Montagne. Thus, his teaching was perennially modern as its vantage point was the historical struggle of a pluralistic humanity.

Christian Lucky ’89, partner, Davies Ward Phillips and Vineberg and senior policy analyst for the Open Society Institute-Soros Foundation

Personal attention

I found Phil to be an enthusiastic, animated lecturer who had a love for European history and helped to instill in his students a desire to delve more deeply into the topics under analysis. He encouraged students to develop their particular interests through encouraging research and writing and by allowing students to present their research findings within the classroom setting.

I also appreciated the personal interest that he took in his students. As a graduating senior, I was exploring options regarding graduate school and pursuing a career as a professional historian. On many occasions, Phil set aside time in his busy schedule to discuss the graduate school application process, graduate school degree programs and career opportunities with me. I greatly benefited from Phil’s caring, compassionate nature, which led him to prepare his students not only academically, but also professionally.

Mary Beth Ailes ’89, associate professor of history, University of Nebraska-Kearney

Esteem and gratitude

My time as a student at PLU coincided with the arrival of a young assistant professor of history, Phil Nordquist. When I returned to PLU after spending my junior year in Germany, I thought that I already knew a good deal about the subject, so I registered for a course on the Reformation that he was teaching. Very quickly I learned that I didn’t know nearly as much as I initially thought, and Professor Nordquist was able to make that clear; but he also challenged, nudged and inspired me to dig much deeper into the topic, and he also taught me a great deal about history in general, about scholarship and about teaching.

Even though shortly before graduating from PLU I decided to pursue graduate work in my other major, German literature and culture, what I learned from Phil Nordquist has stayed with me, influenced my development as a scholar and teacher, and even led me to pursue research in areas that combine German-language literature and history. In fact, two of my earliest publications were on 20th century literary works that explored facets of German history during the Peasants’ Wars and Reformation era.

I hope very much that the essay I have contributed to this volume in honor of Professor Nordquist and his distinguished career at PLU provides at least modest evidence that I haven’t forgotten everything about history that I learned from him. It is my honor to have been asked to contribute to this Festschrift, and I sincerely hope that Professor Nordquist will accept my essay as a sign of my esteem and expression of my gratitude for all that he taught me about history, scholarship, teaching and humanity.

Gerald A. Fetz ’66, dean, College of Arts and Sciences and professor of German studies, University of Montana

Intellectual tutelage

Even as an undergraduate history major at PLU, I was strictly an Americanist. My three forays into European history were stellar, but unable to sway me. It wasn’t until some 20 years later that I managed to land in Phil Nordquist’s classroom, when he graciously welcomed me into his Reformation history class. My essay in the book is partly the fruit of those lectures and of our conversations afterward, in which Phil patiently helped me explore some of the issues I address here. I relished those chats, and I remain grateful to have experienced his generous intellectual tutelage, even if belatedly.



© Scene 2005  •  Pacific Lutheran University  •  Summer 2005

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