Obituary: Michael Roan, peace and justice activist

  • Article by: TONY KENNEDY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 30, 2014 - 3:03 AM
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Michael Roan

 

When the next Nobel Peace Prize Forum convenes in Minneapolis, memories of homegrown peacemaker Michael Roan will take a prominent place beside the laureates themselves.

Roan traveled the world for more than two decades, bringing Nobel Peace Prize winners to Minnesota for annual public discussions that built a global following. The Minneapolis native, who also spent decades working on the cause of religious freedom, died Jan. 8. He was 75.

“He had an extraordinary commitment to peace,’’ said Barbara Forster, chair of the Tandem Project, Roan’s nonprofit mainstay. “He kept people’s fires burning.’’

Roan was an only child who studied early in life to be a Lutheran minister. He quit after deciding the church wasn’t the best way for him to help the disadvantaged, according to his cousin Judith Van Dyne of the Twin Cities. While Roan always called himself an agnostic, she said he was interested in spirituality and returned to St. Paul’s Luther Seminary in his 50s to study theology.

Van Dyne said Roan’s life of social activism started with participation in the Model Cities program, part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. He also worked with the American Refugee Committee in Thailand.

Roan was closely connected to his Norwegian heritage, and it was on a trip to Oslo 26 years ago that he hatched the concept for the Nobel Peace Prize Forum. Roan’s cousin in Norway was Jakob Sverdrup, then executive secretary for the Norwegian Nobel Institute. They discussed a collaboration between the institute and aU.S. peacemaking event.

According to a tribute published on the Peace Prize Forum’s website, Roan engaged Bishop David Preus of the American Lutheran Church, and the forum was adopted by the presidents of six U.S. colleges founded by Norwegian immigrants. Former Vice President Walter Mondale and former Gov. Al Quie also provided founding leadership, the tribute said.

Terry Higgins of Mountain View, Calif., a friend since they were children, said Roan believed that as long as religious conflict looms between cultures, the world will be burdened by violent conflict.

Higgins said Roan was a born planner who lived a Spartan existence, probably spending less than $10,000 a year on himself, to work for peace on Earth. He traveled repeatedly to Norway and to the United Nations in New York and Geneva but delighted in doing most of his work by computer, in his pajamas, out of the same Uptown Minneapolis apartment that he inhabited for 30 years, Higgins said.

“He sacrificed everything he had to keep his vision going,’’ Higgins said. “He worked his head off.’’

“I believe he absolutely made a difference in this complex world,’’ said Lois A. Herman, a close friend and supporter of Roan who lives in Italy.

One memorable event organized by Roan was a 1986 Springhill Conference in Minnesota on religious tolerance, held in cooperation with the World Federation of United Nations Associations. Forster said the Soviet government made an international statement by sending an emissary to the conference despite ongoing Cold War tensions.

A hockey player while at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, Roan later took to sailing on the Great Lakes and loved golf. His late father, Chet Roan, was an assistant athletic director at the University of Minnesota.

This year’s forum, starting March 1, will welcome the Dalai Lama and other laureates in a four-day event that is expected to draw more than 7,000 people and 100,000 online viewers. Van Dyne said a memorial service separate from the Peace Prize Forum is tentatively scheduled for March 15, somewhere in the Twin Cities.

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