Music bookended Merton Strommen’s life. When he was 6, he bartered baby sitting for piano lessons. When he was in his 90s, he played piano concerts in his apartment for his fellow Walker Place residents in Minneapolis.
In between, his life was filled with a Lutheran ministry for young people, a 70-year marriage to his beloved Irene, and raising five sons, Peter, Tim, Jim, John and David, who was killed by a lighting strike in 1986 at a Young Life camp in Colorado. Strommen was a musician — besides the piano, he played the bassoon, even taking lessons from the Seattle Symphony Orchestra bassoonist when the family lived out West. Later, he set his sights on being a choir director.
But one night in grad school at the University of Minnesota, he woke up feeling the very strong presence of God in the room and a clear calling to the ministry, his son Peter said.
Strommen, who died Sept. 2 at 100, was ordained a Lutheran minister in 1943. He was the author of more than 20 books and received his doctorate from the U after conducting a national study on the beliefs, needs and values of Lutheran youth. That dissertation led to the founding of the Search Institute in Minneapolis.
“Some will say that his work transformed youth ministry worldwide,” said Shelby Andress, who worked with Strommen at Search for 20 years, in her eulogy. “At one count, the institute’s current youth development tools are active in at least 30 countries and 29 languages.”
Said Gene Roehlkepartain, Search vice president of research and development, “He cared deeply about youth and family ministry as the heart of his sense of calling, and it was what he spoke about the most when I visited with him in recent years.”
And on the Search website from Gen. Colin Powell: “The Search Institute is a national treasure. It provides the new ideas and the research America needs to grow healthy and successful youth.”
The heartbreak of losing David at 25, who was in seminary at the time, inspired the Strommens to help found the Youth and Family Institute, as well as collaborate with Augsburg College — where he attended seminary and met Irene — to start a youth ministry major. They also co-authored “Five Cries of Grief: One Family’s Journey to Healing after the Tragic Death of a Son” to help others who lose a child.
At their father’s funeral on Sept. 13 at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, all four sons — three of them Lutheran ministers — talked about how important family was.
“For Dad,” said John, one of the pastors, “no calling was more meaningful to him than being a dad, a husband, a father-in-law, a grandpa. So my best memories growing up — hands down — were about family with dad right in the middle: playing basketball in the driveway with us, hiking in the mountains with us, playing the piano every night, telling us his dad version of Bible stories, talking politics or theology, or being there for me when I hit a rough patch.”
At Walker Place, Strommen lovingly cared for Irene in her final years. Fellow residents enjoyed gathering in their apartment to hear him play classical pieces on his grand piano.
One resident, Barbara Ziegenhagen, remembered how Strommen would first give an introduction about the composer. “Then he would sit down and his fingers would fly. He played beautifully. It was a wonderful experience,” she said, noting an overflow crowd would stretch into the hallway.
In 2015, Peter took his 96-year-old dad — who was always up for an adventure — on a two-week cruise down the Danube in Europe. “I vividly remember picking Dad up the morning of our departure. Sitting next to me as I drove to the airport, he mentioned he had a hard time sleeping that night,” Peter said, then quoting his dad: “I’m so excited for this trip. I feel just like a kid.”
Strommen also served on the Richfield school board, and with Irene hosted and led a high school Bible study for more than 35 years.
He was born March 31, 1919, in Calumet, Mich. As he grew up, the family lived in Seattle and the southern Minnesota towns of Madelia and Lamberton, where his father was pastor to Lutheran congregations.
Preceded in death by son David, wife Irene, and a great-granddaughter. In addition to his sons, he is survived by 11 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.