The Rev. Robert Esbjornson, 89, died Friday, Oct. 26 in St. Peter, Minn. “Esbj,” as he was affectionately known by several generations of Gustavus Adolphus College students, was a longtime professor of religion (1950-1983) at the college and a beloved campus figure.
Born in Duluth, Minn., to Per and Victoria (Swanson) Esbjornson, he began his lifelong love affair with Gustavus and its students while a student there, graduating in 1941. After four years of theological training at Augustana Seminary in Rock Island, Esbjornson was ordained into the ministry of the Augustana Synod on a call to develop a new congregation in Newington, Connecticut. During the five years of parish ministry, he took graduate courses at nearby Yale Divinity School. He received the Master’s of Sacred Theology in 1954.
In 1950, Gustavus called Esbjornson to serve his alma mater as a member of the then Christianity Department. Over the years he rose to the rank of full professor and served as chair of the department. He served on countless college committees, was active in the community of St. Peter and at First Lutheran Church. He also served Judson Lutheran Church as interim pastor for a period of twelve years.
He received the prestigious Edgar M. Carlson Award for Innovative Teaching from the college in 1979. Esbjornson believed strongly in the educational value of the community conversation. He deplored faculty lounges and separate faculty dining places and was an advocate for professors joining student tables in the Canteen.
A unique personality with a passion for learning and for helping students explore the big questions of life, Esbjornson had a wide range of interests. His teaching focused on religion and its implications for social ethics. Esbjornson’s dissertation was later published as “A Christian in Politics,” a political biography of former Minnesota Governor Luther Youngdahl. During the turbulent 60s, Esbjornson took students to Chicago for a month long immersion in urban culture. That experience caused Esbjornson to ask questions about community development for the St. Peter region. This led to the formation of the Riverbend Association, a citizens’ action and planning group which he served as president from 1967-74. He developed courses on “Ethics and Medicine” and “Ethics and Economics.” After a sabbatical at St. John’s University in 1973, Esbjornson began a deeper exploration of prayer and worship practices. His stories, experiences and questions about prayer were captured on videotape and are still used in church adult education classes.
Retiring in 1983, he continued teaching a few courses each year. Esbjornson led retreats and was adept at bringing diverse people together for conversation about their work and the ethical and spiritual issues they face. He was a prolific writer who believed in the value of “journaling.” Even with advancing age and illness, he maintained his participation in “Night Writers,” a group of community persons committed to writing.
Most recently, Esbjornson collaborated with former interim president of Gustavus Dennis Johnson to produce a book, titled Esbj! The Heart and Mind of a Professor. Esbjornson signed copies of the book at this year’s homecoming festivities at Gustavus on Oct. 13.
He married Ruth Bostrom, a college classmate, in 1945. Ruth was his intellectual and spiritual partner and an excellent writer and speaker. As a memorial to his wife, Esbjornson edited a collection of her writings into a book, Morning and Evening. In the book, Final Times, Esbjornson documented Ruth’s final illness. The book reveals the depth of their relationship and the complexity of navigating an often depersonalized medical system, while lifting up the wonderful care of the people in the medical profession and the support of the church and college community.
He was a mentor to many students who kept in touch with him over the years. He also befriended new faculty at Gustavus, concerned to integrate them into the community and make them feel welcome.
He was preceded in death by his parents, his wife, Ruth in 1990, and his daughter, Louise in 2005. He is survived by his son Carl and wife, Rilla, of Bozeman, Mont. and granddaughters Rachel and Rebekka, and by his brother John and his wife Carol of Willmar, Minn. and their children, David, Mary, Karen, and Susan.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday Nov. 1 at First Lutheran Church in St. Peter. Lunch and a time for remembrances will follow. Visitation will be one hour before the funeral in the church. A second service, a celebration of Esbjornson’s life, will be held in Christ Chapel sometime next spring with the date to be determined. Memorials preferred to the Christ Chapel Endowment Fund at Gustavus Adolphus College or to First Lutheran Church, St. Peter.
(Retired vice president and interim president Dennis Johnson contributed to this story.)
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