ST. PETER — Vietnam-era college presidents had an especially difficult balance to strike during such a volatile time period when student emotions ran high.
There was a need to connect with students, to listen closely and still serve as a strong leader. Frank R. Barth was Gustavus Adolphus College's president during much of that period (1969-1975), and those on campus who knew him say he did an excellent job of striking that balance.
Barth died Thursday at the age of 95 in Dubuque, Iowa.
“I thought that he was perfect for the time,” said Al Behrends, director of fine arts, who graduated in 1977. “He was one of us.”
As a student his freshman and sophomore years, Behrends remembered Barth would often visit the cafeteria and sit down to have coffee with students. He was considered “a president of the people,” Behrends said.
“At the time, that was the way he really needed to work with students — to get to know them better,” he said. “They knew who he was, and they trusted him.”
That may have influenced the manner in which Gustavus students demonstrated against the war. A huge march took place from Gustavus to Mankato, and Behrends said law enforcement commented on how peaceful the event was.
Dean Wahlund, director of communication services and special events, knew Barth as both a student (graduating in 1972) and then as a colleague when he worked in the admission office right out of college. Wahlund agreed that Barth was known for being accessible and “very people friendly,” as was his wife, Marge.
“They were a perfect president and first lady,” Wahlund said.
Students often were welcomed into the Barths' home, and he walked the campus saying hello to everyone.
Working with him as a colleague, Wahlund said Barth was a good leader during a time of great growth for the campus. In the '60s, the campus saw the construction of the chapel and the Nobel Hall of Science, among other things. And Wahlund said Barth helped to keep the growth going.