Frank Barth was just the man Gustavus Adolphus College needed as its president when tensions were rising on campus and at schools across the country during the Vietnam War.
Things never got out of hand at the small Lutheran college in St. Peter, Minn., his friends and family said, largely because Barth befriended students, engaged them in dialogue and did not prohibit protests. During his six-year tenure from 1969 to 1975, Barth was often seen having coffee with students in the cafeteria and was known as “a president of the people.”
“The thing he was most proud about was he made himself accessible and really tried to spend time with the students,” said his daughter-in-law, Neil Barth. “He was egalitarian in his approach as president. They [students] trusted him at a time when it was difficult to find students who would trust the administration.”
Barth died Aug. 22 at Heritage Manor in Dubuque, Iowa, at age 95. He was remembered during the school’s opening convocation on Tuesday.
Barth was Gustavus’ 10th president, and the first non-clergy member to be appointed to the post. He was not looking to become a college president, his daughter-in-law said, but a search committee recruited him because of his academic history and vast administrative experience, combined with his strong religious faith.
“That came from a different direction, but he enjoyed challenges,” Neil Barth said. “That was consistent with his personality. He never wanted to be stale in one area.”
During his presidency, Frank Barth was knighted by the King of Sweden for Gustavus’ involvement in the Nobel Prize committee. When he stepped down in 1975, he and his wife of 73 years, Marge, were honored with the Greater Gustavus Award, the highest award given by the college’s alumni association.
“The Gustavus family mourns the death of a distinguished and outstanding leader,” said Jack Ohle, the school’s current president. “President and Mrs. Barth served during a tumultuous time. … They were a calming influence on our campus.”
Born in Chicago in 1918, Barth studied at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. After graduation, he taught at the school for 11 years, which included a three-year break in which he served as an air navigator in the U.S. Navy during World War II and earned an M.B.A. degree from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
He left Luther in 1953 to serve as a financial consultant to the U.S. Postal Service in Washington, D.C. Two years later he took a job as financial vice president for Pettibone Corp., a manufacturer of heavy construction equipment and competitor to Caterpillar.
After leaving Gustavus, Barth returned to Luther College in 1977. He taught economics and served as vice president for finance and treasurer of the college until he retired in 1990.
Barth was active in churches in the communities in which he lived, singing in choirs and serving as council president or treasurer, his daughter in-law said. He also liked flying and reading. In 2006, he wrote, “A Place Called Gustavus: The Protest Years,” a book filled with memories and anecdotes from his time as president.
Besides his wife, Barth is survived by three sons Eugene, of Orinda, Calif., James, of Red Wing, Minn., and Frank, of Vermont; a daughter, Kathryn Van Dine, of Dubuque, Iowa; two sisters Marge Wold and Esther Wallner; two brothers, Edward Barth and James Barth, 10 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. Services have been held.
Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768