Concordia faculty and staff celebrated the life of Dr. Jonathan Steinwand, who passed away unexpectedly in July, with a memorial run in September. Steinwand, who was a professor of English, the Fulbright program advisor, and co-director of the environmental and sustainability studies program, was also a runner. He was only 58 when he suffered a hemorrhagic stroke June 20.
A 1987 graduate of Concordia, Steinwand joined the college faculty in 1993 and, in addition to being a beloved professor of English, he was a prolific scholar with many publications, papers, and awards to his credit and was a member of many committees at the college over the years.
Dr. Sonja Wentling, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and professor of history, spent time at a lake in July, reflecting and processing the news of Steinwand’s passing.
“It felt overwhelmingly sad and unfair that someone so young and vibrant, with such a brilliant mind and calming demeanor was gone. I reflected on the good times and Jonathan’s love of nature and the outdoors. We connected as runners, and it happened more than once that Jonathan would pass me at a half marathon, with ease, and often near the finish line, and always with a smile,” Wentling said.
“One time we joined forces for a half marathon relay in 2012, and we were asked to come up with a team name,” she added. “We couldn’t agree on a short name, so it turned into a long phrase that didn’t fit on the board: ‘Two Professors preparing for …’ — I forgot what we were preparing for, but I am sure it was something brilliant.”
As she was scrolling through pictures of that 2012 race, she received notification of the accidental death of another fellow runner, Fargo Marathon director Mark Knutson.
“At that very moment, something compelled me to think positive, to fight the impulse of focusing on what was lost, and instead focus on all that had been received and how to preserve and celebrate the legacy of both of these pioneering spirits and gentle souls,” she said.
“Runners love to run to process things, to clear their minds, to tap into one’s inner strength and resolve, to find out what they are made of,” Wentling said. “All the pieces came together very quickly after that. What better way to honor the indomitable spirit of our friend and colleague, Jonathan Steinwand, than run a race in his honor, to celebrate his life, and to preserve his legacy. And by running one of the Dick Beardsley races in Detroit Lakes (D.L.), a run for Jonathan would also pay tribute to Mark Knutson. The idea came easily, but it took a village to put it into action.”
Wentling reached out to colleagues who were fellow runners and/or had organizational skills that could make this idea a reality: Dr. Dan Biebighauser, professor of math; Dr. John Flaspohler, associate professor and chair of biology; Jennifer Ristau, acquisitions and cataloging coordinator at the Concordia library; and Leah McCracken Anderson, access services manager at the library, made up the core group to think about logistics, and it quickly grew from there to include Campus Ministry: Deacon Jon Leiseth and pastors Kim and Dave Adams, and a growing community of faculty and staff who wanted to be part of it.
By July 18, the group had sent out messages to all departments and program chairs with the desire to bring runners and walkers together to participate in a race Sept. 9 “to help us grieve, heal together, and build community in memoriam of our dear friend and colleague.”
Campus Ministry, Steinwand’s family, and the planning group, all collaborated to turn an idea for a T-shirt into a reality — olive green was his favorite color, a tree represented his connection to Mother Earth and his solid character, and the poem by Mary Oliver was a reminder of his passion for his program, his teaching, and life in general: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
More than 20 people, ranging in ages from 4 to 74, went to D.L. to run or walk, and others were cheering from afar, including Steinwand’s parents in Sioux Falls, S.D.
“It was particularly special to have Jonathan’s family there supporting this cause,” Wentling said.
Dr. Lisa Twomey, associate professor of Spanish, heard about the run at Steinwand’s funeral and right away wanted to participate.
“His death was a huge shock. The Concordia community lost a wonderful colleague and friend, someone who worked hard not just to teach students about academic topics like writing, literature, and sustainability, but also about a way to live in the world,” Twomey said.
“When I went to his funeral, I took so much comfort from the Concordia community that was there to mourn his loss and celebrate his life. I wanted to keep feeling the positive impact Jonathan had on his community,” she added. “Coming together in D.L. was a way to continue celebrating his life in community with others. It was a beautiful day to run and remember Jonathan; I am certain he would have loved it!”
Dr. Vincent Reusch, chair and associate professor of English, said that with Steinwand’s family and colleagues there on that beautifully sunny day, the race felt like a celebration of his life.
“He was involved in so many areas of campus, and it just felt right that through running, another of his passions, all these people came together in remembrance of who he was and what he did,” Reusch added. “Just a glance around the group showed the diversity of Jonathan’s interests and relationships. It was just a wonderful day to gather with people who knew Jonathan, all doing something that he loved.”
“It was important to me to show Jonathan’s family just how much Jonathan was treasured by Concordia’s community,” Flaspohler said. “Although the grief was and is still tangible, Carolyn (Steinwand’s wife) was overwhelmed with joy and appreciation that the love of her life was also loved deeply by so many in the Concordia community and that fellow Cobbers would seek out such an appropriate and meaningful way to honor him. I got to know some family members of both Carolyn and Jonathan, made connections between their families and my own that I had not been aware of previously, and in that shared community hope that this burden felt a little lighter for all.”
Leiseth and the Student Environmental Alliance held an eco-meditation on Sept. 12 to honor Steinwand, and the English department co-hosted a Tuesday Coffee Break with Campus Ministry in the Knutson Campus Center atrium. Following the eco-meditation, Leiseth shared readings from “The Secret Life of Trees” near the Bur (or Burr) Oak that was planted in Steinwand’s honor in the area outside of Bishop Whipple Hall. A formal dedication is planned for Sept. 26.
Many who participated in the Run for Jonathan shared the sentiment that they would like to turn it into an annual event to symbolize that he is still doing his part in building community.