Learning a New Craft
Be careful what you read.
Concordia’s 11th president, Dr. William J. Craft, has passed along that warning to students through the years. Every book is a ladder – or a trapdoor, he suggests. Probably both. That’s the beauty of books. You never know where they’re going to take you.
In 1969, Craft was a freshman at Westminster College, a small liberal arts institution in New Wilmington, Penn. During a January term, he signed up for a course co-taught by professors in Shakespeare and chemistry.
The class met for breakfast and conversed about how Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” influenced both science and literature. At noon the students broke apart for independent research and came back together in the evenings at their professors’ homes to share what they had learned.
The more he immersed himself in his studies, the more Craft realized that his professors had the best jobs he could ever imagine.
“For me, it was that moment when Lucy (from “The Chronicles of Narnia”) goes to the wardrobe and discovers there is this other world that was there all along and she never knew it,” Craft says.
In the end, Craft became a college professor because he thought going to college was the best thing that ever happened to him.
He still believes that.
Craft, 60, grew up in New Wilmington – a small Pennsylvania town whose population doubles when college is in session – in a family that valued education and teaching. His grandmother secured her education degree around the time of World War I and taught kindergarten until she married. He keeps a photo of her and one of her classes in a dresser in his bedroom.
His mother, who received her first degree in home economics, returned to college for an education degree when Craft was a teenager. His father, a navigator on a B-24 Liberator during World War II, was the first person in his family to attend college.
“The war changed his life, but so did going to college,” Craft says. “I am acutely conscious of what college did for members of my family.”
Faith also played a large role in his life. His family attended one of the Presbyterian churches in town. The church also happened to be the church home of the woman he would eventually marry. Craft’s junior prom was his first date with Anne.
The two attended the same college, where Anne’s father was a history professor and Craft’s father and grandfather had helped build several campus buildings. Both studied English and took at least one class together – a Renaissance literature seminar.
“They were serious students but didn’t take themselves too seriously,” says Dr. Fritz Horn, who taught the class and has long since become a close friend of both. “That combination of dedication to their learning, as well as their enjoyment of life, made them fun to be around.”
Craft was drawn to Shakespeare and Renaissance literature. When a demanding but brilliant English professor pulled him aside one day and suggested he consider becoming a college teacher, the deal was sealed.
He and Anne moved to Chapel Hill, N.C., where Craft worked on his doctorate. Anne worked as an educational administrator and editor. She has also taught at the high school and college levels.
The Value of an Education
We live in a culture where it’s acceptable to attend a concert because the music is beautiful. It’s acceptable to watch a soccer game for the sheer joy of cheering for our team. But when it comes to learning and college, we want to know what we’re going to get out of it.
For Craft, the value of education is more nuanced than a resulting job or ticket to a prestigious graduate program. Shortly after he studied Darwin at Westminster College, he read John Henry Newman’s “The Idea of a University.” For the first time, Craft heard that one didn’t need to justify learning with an immediate “payoff.” Yes, jobs are important and necessary – but the value of education lies in its ability to transform students and their world.
He carried that philosophy with him from Westminster to North Carolina to Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland, where he taught English, to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where he served as dean.
He brings it to Concordia.
“There is in my experience no better place than a liberal arts college to imagine yourself anew,” Craft told students at the start of the academic year, his first Convocation. “College is filled with those for whom a room suddenly opens, and a different life appears – the accounting major who goes to seminary, the gifted musician who falls in love with physics, the religion major who feels compelled to study law.”
Remember: Be careful what you read and learn. It just might pull you in a different direction.
Making Liberal Arts Central
After finishing his doctorate, Craft accepted a job at Mount St. Mary’s, the second oldest Catholic college in the country, located north of Washington, D.C., in Maryland.
Dr. Robert Ducharme was chairman of the English department at the time and hired him from hundreds of applicants for the job.
In addition to an impressive scholarly record, Craft stood out because he asked students to perform Shakespeare as part of their classroom assignments. Someone who made Shakespeare a lively and dramatic experience seemed like he’d be a good teacher, Ducharme says.
But something else caught Ducharme’s attention. “He seemed like a happy person,” Ducharme says. “He was immediately likeable, and I thought students would like him.”
And indeed they did. At Mount St. Mary’s, Craft drew majors from the core sections he taught. Adolescents who came to college thinking they’d become business majors or psychologists were swept away by the poetry of literature.
Surprisingly, it was Craft’s love for learning, teaching and liberal arts that eventually thrust him outside the classroom and into administrative offices.
At Mount St. Mary’s, Craft was part of a group of young faculty who felt the liberal arts needed to be at the center of every student’s experience, regardless of her major or career plans. The group proposed a fundamental curriculum change, which the faculty passed, and then applied for a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to fund the revamping. Craft wrote the narrative; his friend Dr. Thomas Flynn, now a college president, wrote the budget.
“We didn’t know at the time that we were young hotheads, but we were,” Craft says.
Their proposal was accepted.
“It was like Christmas morning,” he says. “We were so astonished that this happened on campus, and then we got the external money, and then we started getting national attention.”
During the next five years, Craft and Flynn mentored other schools that wanted to change their curriculum. He became chair of his department and then received a fellowship from the American Council on Education that paid for a year of administrative study and training at Dickinson College in central Pennsylvania.
When Craft returned to Mount St. Mary’s, he stepped into the role of dean of undergraduate studies.
“When he moved into administration, I thought the classroom suffered a great loss,” Ducharme says. “But he has these gifts [of humor and understanding] that have an effect on people. They like him. When you like an administrator, you want to do something for him.”
Four years into this work, Craft received a call from Dr. Richard Torgerson '64, president of Luther College.
While working at Mount St. Mary’s, the Crafts lived in Gettysburg, Penn., one of the nation’s Lutheran strongholds. There was something about that Lutheranism that attracted the Crafts. As they explored their own faith, they realized they wanted to be a part of a church where there was an equal emphasis on word and sacrament – and great music. Lutheranism fit the description.
So, when an opportunity came to work at a college of the same church they had embraced, it seemed too good to turn down.
Craft spent 11 years at Luther as its dean and vice president for Academic Affairs. He never completely left the classroom, electing to teach a Shakespeare course nearly every spring.
“He has this boundless energy,” says Dr. Lori Stanley, professor of anthropology and associate dean and director of faculty development at Luther. “He has a tremendous enthusiasm in working with faculty, staff and students to make the college a better place.”
She credits his ability to understand where people are coming from for his success in making things happen. While at Luther, he helped the college move toward some of the goals they’d had for quite some time.
He cleared the way to reducing faculty load from seven to six courses a year, arguing that fewer courses would give faculty members more time to work one-on-one with students and on their scholarship. He made interdisciplinary teaching and research a hallmark at the college and led the first major overhaul of curriculum in 25 years.
“We’re seeing the benefits of his work,” Stanley says. “It has improved our situation all around.”
When the opening came at Concordia, Torgerson encouraged Craft to think about applying at his alma mater. And while it’s Luther’s loss, Torgerson is thrilled to welcome him as a presidential peer.
“He has a passion for liberal arts. He has a vision for what learning should be on a residential campus. He certainly is committed to what it means for a place to be a college of the church. He is, in his own right, a great teacher. He engages people from all backgrounds and walks of life with ease,” Torgerson says.
“Concordia will be blessed by having the Crafts in this role. He will be a very successful president. We prepared him well.”
As for the Crafts, they are honored to be part of the Concordia community. Since they moved to Moorhead in July, they have thrown themselves into meeting students, alumni and friends of the college across the country. When on campus, chapel has been a time for them to set aside daily responsibilities and focus on God’s work in the community.
Anne volunteers at the college’s Academic Enhancement and Writing Center where she hires and trains new tutors. She worked in a similar office at Luther and enjoys helping students improve their writing and reading skills. “It’s a way for me to get to know students personally and to feel connected,” she says.
When he’s on campus, Craft is a blur of energy, a person who is as at ease with the parents of students and prospective students as he is with faculty members and donors. For him, Concordia is the capstone of a career built on a love for reading, teaching and learning – another opportunity to share the gifts of the kind of college he loves.
“We are honored to stand with those students, faculty, staff, regents and friends who love and support Concordia College at this time,” he said in an address on campus after being named president in March, “at this time when the liberal arts, the arts of freedom and the arts of community are so deeply needed in our nation and in our world.”
Story: Erin Hemme Froslie
Photos: Chris Shinn/Sheldon Green