Andrew Oerke traveled the globe as a pioneer in the Peace Corps, a founder of microloan nonprofits, a restorer of endangered ocean waters, and as a poet.
The son and grandson of Lutheran ministers who established churches across Minnesota and Wisconsin, Oerke eschewed the family business but maintained a pastoral sense of empathy, particularly through his writing.
Oerke, whose poetry appeared in publications such as the New Yorker, died recently of a heart ailment exacerbated by a long struggle with the effects of malaria contracted years earlier in Africa. He was 80.
U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner William Meredith once wrote of him: “Andrew Oerke’s work is a window on the world, a world seen through the compassionate eyes of a fellow pilgrim.”
In 2005, Oerke was given the United Nations Award for Literature by the U.N. Society for Writers and Artists for his books “African Stiltdancer” and “San Miguel de Allende.”
Born in La Crosse, Wis., Oerke graduated from high school in Emmons, Minn., began his college studies at St. Olaf in Northfield in 1948, and won a Fulbright scholarship to Freie Universitat of Berlin, and scholarships to University of Salamanca, Spain, the University of Mexico and Baylor University in Texas. Oerke taught English literature at Bemidji State University after working on his Ph.D. at Iowa State University.
At a campaign stop in Milwaukee during John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential bid, Oerke is credited with suggesting to then-U.S. Sen. William Proxmire that a global volunteer organization should be developed that would allow young people to share American values overseas. Six weeks later, Kennedy announced the idea of the Peace Corps during a speech at the University of Michigan. Oerke would eventually become director for operations in Malawi and later Jamaica.
In 1973, long before the concept became popular, he became involved in a struggling microloan endeavor called Partners For Productivity, which gave small loans to village women in Africa. By 1987 he and his colleagues had expanded the effort to more than 60 nations in four continents.
Most recently, Oerke worked in Haiti before and after the 2010 earthquake, helping to open a medical clinic.
Oerke wrote 14 books of poetry and more than 450 poems that appeared in publications such as the New Yorker and Poetry. While he worked in humanitarian efforts, it was his writing that defined him, said his wife of 22 years, Anitra Thorhaug.
“Poets think large visionary thoughts, out of the box, and that informed his ways of viewing things, including the human condition and what could be done,” said Thorhaug, who worked with her husband to research sea grass restoration, most recently along the Texas coast. A previous marriage ended in divorce.
Besides his wife, survivors include a sister, Beverly Oerke Harmon, of Rockville, Md., daughters Kirsten Oerke, of London and Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., Greta Oerke of Washington, D.C., and a son, Jared L. Oerke, of Washington, D.C.
Services will be at 10:30 a.m. Sunday at Peace Lutheran Church in Pigeon Falls, Wis.
One of his most well-known poems, “In the Village,” is expected to be read during services.
“Death comes but once but when it comes to life
no one would be unwilling to repeat
in the village in the village in the village.”