Even after retiring the favorite leather jacket he wore as a young man, Thorwald "Tory" Esbensen retained the passionate, sometimes rebellious spirit of his youth.
Esbensen, an educator and innovator whose career took him to the Pacific, Duluth and the Twin Cities, was known from an early age as a person of high conscience who encouraged people to follow their dreams.
"The flowing water will always win against a stubborn rock, as long as it flows long enough," he would say.
Esbensen died in his sleep on June 4 in Yuma, Ariz., of respiratory failure. He was 88.
Thorwald Esbensen was born Sept. 15, 1923, in Eagle River, Wis., the youngest of three sons of George and Edith Esbensen.
He majored in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and chose a path in education, determined to make a difference in the world around him.
He worked as a teacher, principal, administrator, professor and even as a school bus driver.
He was hired by the U.S. military in 1951 as an English teacher in the Pacific Islands. A couple of years later, he returned to Wisconsin, where he married Barbara Juster, who would have a distinguished career of her own as a teacher and author. The family returned to the South Pacific in 1956.
In 1963, Esbensen came to Duluth, where he was assistant superintendent of schools. There, he first gained footing for the educational concept for which he is best known: individualized instruction.
He wrote two books on the subject: "Working With Individualized Instruction: The Duluth Experience" in 1968, and "Family Designed Learning" in 1976.
Esbensen went on to become a professor of education at Florida State University from 1968 to 1970, then came back to Duluth as dean of instruction at the College of St. Scholastica.
He was hired in 1973 as assistant superintendent of schools in Edina, before he and his wife founded Micro-Ed, a pioneering K-6 educational software company, in 1979.
His son Daniel said Esbensen believed that all children should be encouraged to pursue their passions. Daniel Esbensen remembers his dad sitting his friends down when they came over and asking them, "What is your passion?"
Another son, George, played with firetrucks since he was a second-grader and is now Eden Prairie's fire chief.
In addition to his sons Daniel of Blue Diamond, Nev., and George of Eden Prairie, Esbensen is survived by another son, Kai Eugene Esbensen of Bloomington; and daughters Julie Esbensen Sedore of Colorado Springs and Jane Esbensen Karlsson of Sweden, and eight grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his wife and a son, Peter.
A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Aug. 3 in Somers Lounge at the College of St. Scholastica, Duluth.
Kristian Hernandez 612-673-4217