Many World War II veterans kept silent about their experience. Lynn Elling used the horrors he witnessed in war to try to end future ones.
A Naval officer on a Landing Ship Tank in the South Pacific, he saw the carnage at the Battle of Tarawa, where more than 6,000 people lost their lives in 1943. In 1954, Elling and his wife Donna traveled to Hiroshima, Japan, to view the memorial. After that, said his daughter Sandy Curry, “He made a commitment to do whatever he could to promote a just and peaceful world.”
In 1972, he founded World Citizen (www.peacesites.org), a nonprofit organization in St. Paul, to empower communities to educate for a just and peaceful world. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s direction that peace in the future begins with children, Elling co-founded the Peace Prize festivals at Augsburg College in 1996. The annual event involves more than 1,000 students from Minnesota. “When Dad and Mom traveled, they would go to the local schools and talk to the schoolchildren about peace,” Curry said.
His persuasiveness about peace, a topic that he freely brought up at any time on any occasion with anyone who would listen, came from his skills as an insurance salesman. As a young insurance salesman at Lincoln National Life he heard a talk given by Maxwell Maltz, the author of “Psycho Cybernetics” that changed his life. The talk was on the power of imagination and how a person needs to visualize goals. “He was no wallflower,” said Dick Bernard of Woodbury, a friend and fellow peace and justice soul mate. “He was relentless for the cause.”
“He applied his skills across a range of products and ideas,” said Mark Ritchie, former Minnesota secretary of state, who met Elling at First Universalist Church and Peace Prize festivals. “Tenacity was his lifelong effort in educating about peace and ethics.”
His peacemaking was not without controversy. He and his wife Donna protested during the Vietnam War. “My friends thought I was a traitor and a communist, but I paid no attention. I was a loyal Navy officer,” Elling said in a 2014 recorded interview about his life.
Even in his 90s, Elling was talking peace to strangers in restaurants, attending workshops, and addressing students at the Concordia College Language Villages. “When you get older, you have a clear understanding of your limited time,” said Ritchie. “You want to make sure the pieces are in place to carry on.”
Lowell Erdahl, retired bishop of St. Paul area synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, got involved with Elling at World Citizen. “The amazing thing about Lynn is that he was as committed to working on peace for the brothers and sisters of the human family as anyone. He was never discouraged on that,” he said.
When kids from elementary to high school were encouraged to attend the Peace Prize festivals, he challenged the students to learn about the peace prize recipients. He also tried to guide students at their level of understanding. He would tell students that their younger brothers and sisters were looking to them just as adults may look up to Nobel laureates, Ritchie said.
Elling was a graduate of Washburn High School and the University of Minnesota. He was 94 when he died Feb. 14, survived by his five children, Cindy Sheffield of Minneapolis, Curry, Mike of Lakeville, Rick of Apple Valley and Tod Elling of Wyoming, Minn., as well as 10 grandchildren and 9 great-grandchildren.
A memorial will be held on May 1, World Law Day, at 3 p.m. at Universalist Church in Minneapolis, a day Elling saw as significant to celebrate peace and social justice.