Small talk was a rarity for Vernon Pierre Faillettaz, professor emeritus of religion at St. Olaf College.
A big complex world and its kaleidoscope of religions and an endlessly fascinating continuum of students and peers proved more fascinating, say those who knew him.
A neighbor weeding his garden might be pulled into a conversation on literature as the professor walked past. A freshman at a campus film screening could be redirected from political science toward philosophy if he was introduced to Faillettaz sitting in the next row.
“Vern was a guy that, as a professor, was just really interested in our mantra of educating the whole person. He was interested in many things — whether it was art, psychology, philosophy or cultural issues — and he had this attunement to 20-year-olds,” said Jamie Schillinger, Religion Department chairman at St. Olaf and a former student. “He was a good listener, but he would push the conversation to deep and complicated topics.”
His daughter, Lise Faillettaz, said a friend once called her father “a polite interrogator.” He was, she said, unafraid to launch into “meaty conversations” with anyone he met. “He wasn’t afraid to just go into something,” she said.
Faillettaz died of natural causes on Jan. 19. He was 91.
Born June 28, 1928, in Fresno, Calif., the only child of Pierre Faillettaz and Lelah Larson, he grew up in San Francisco and often told the story of walking across the Golden Gate Bridge when it opened. He graduated from Mission Dolores High School, then the University of California Berkeley in 1950. He came to Minnesota and earned a master’s in divinity from Luther Seminary in St. Paul. On May 22, 1954, he married Beulah (Billi) Mae Stromseth, a graduate of Fairview nursing school. They were one of many Luther Seminary pastor and Fairview nurse couples. Before ordination, he traveled to his father’s home in Switzerland and to Germany to meet his first cousins. After four years serving at Bethel Lutheran Church in Chicago, Faillettaz earned a Ph.D. in divinity from the University of Chicago. The couple’s three children all were born in Chicago.
In 1962, he joined the Religion Department at St. Olaf, where he became known for embracing new perspectives and stressing that church-affiliated colleges must be open to questions. He would teach at St. Olaf until retiring in 1995. While there, he was a tutor at the school’s Paracollege and is credited with helping shape its academic structure.
Faillettaz was especially influential in helping Lutheran-centered St. Olaf have ongoing conversations about the world’s other religions, Schillinger said.
“Vern was really responsible in the ’60s and ’70s for enabling the department to really branch out,” he said, adding that a yearlong sabbatical at Harvard University led to Faillettaz teaching St. Olaf’s first course on Islam. Later, he was influential in St. Olaf hiring a professor in Hindu theology.
“He did that, in part, because he was so open and so interested in other people’s traditions,” Schillinger said.
He was an early supporter of gay rights. Over the years, he mentored hundreds of students. After retiring, he taught and directed the Northfield Elder Collegium for several years. He and his wife, Billi, led a semester abroad in Jerusalem and several elder learning trips.
Years later, Faillettaz could still be spotted at the college’s athletic center or cafe, engaged in conversation with a student he’d cornered, Schillinger said.
He is survived by his wife, son Pierre Faillettaz of Minneapolis, daughter Lise Faillettaz of Northfield, son Marc Faillettaz of Minneapolis and grandson James Faillettaz of Minneapolis. Services have been held.