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Bethel Remembers G.W. Carlson

G. William Carlson, professor of history and political science emeritus, taught at Bethel for more than 40 years. He passed away on February 12.

G. William Carlson—or G.W., to most—started at Bethel in 1961 as a student and returned in 1968 to begin teaching in the history and political science departments until his retirement in 2012. He died on February 12 after suffering a severe stroke on February 1. “God used G.W. Carlson to shape Bethel University’s soul,” says Bethel University President Jay Barnes. “He was shaped by his Bethel education and, in turn, he shaped Bethel. We have lost a great person.”

Carlson graduated from Bethel in 1965 and went on to receive an  M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. At Bethel, he had joint teaching appointments in the history and political science departments and taught a variety of courses-- from the history, religion, and politics of Russia, to political philosophy and ideology. Even after his retirement, he could be seen on campus frequently, whether to visit former colleagues, teach a course, or engage in stimulating conversation with whomever he met.

“I will miss our hallway conversations,” says Deb Harless, executive vice president and provost. “The conversation always started with a witty comment from G.W. about my life in the administration, and then we'd move to his questions about my family, something about Pietism or Bethel, and then on to a myriad topics of mutual interest.  I was blessed by those conversations—I always left them encouraged by his kindness and support.”

Carlson was an active member of Central Baptist Church in St. Paul and loyal to the Baptist General Conference (now Converge Worldwide), Bethel’s sponsoring denomination.  “His faith was deep and he could clearly articulate his beliefs,” says Ralph Gustafson, executive minister for church relations. “He didn't hesitate to speak out against what he deemed was false or weak theology.”

Dan Nelson, chief institutional data and research officer and Carlson’s long-time colleague, recalls Carlson describing his denomination as “a group of old Swedes who ‘got it right,’ combining an irenic spirit with personal devotion and societal awareness,” says Nelson. “Bill played this out when he ran for the St. Paul school board.” Carlson served on the St. Paul school board from 1986-1996 and was active in numerous campaigns for city and state offices.

Both Harless and Gustafson also refer to Carlson’s deep convictions toward social justice. “He lived out Christ's mandate to love our neighbors as ourselves,” says Harless. “He was an advocate for persons who are often invisible and marginalized in our world and was an articulate and passionate voice for justice. He lived his convictions in ways that helped us all better understand what it means to live a good and faithful Christian life.”

Known on campus for his love of books—and impressive office library—Carlson hoped to pass this love of learning on to all of his students. “Bill never stopped growing intellectually—which is why he was always reading several books a week,” says Rich Sherry, former Bethel dean, and executive assistant to the president. “What he read anchored him and found a way into his thinking and his teaching. I think Bethel had a lot to do with turning him into an ‘inquirer,’ and he repaid the debt by helping his students grow to mature, disciplined readers and thinkers.”

In 2012, Carlson told Bethel’s  student newspaper that it was teaching and interacting with students that kept him here for more than 40 years. He listed four dreams he had for his students:

  • “They will accept Christ as Savior and Lord and be fully committed to the gospel.”
  • “They are deeply committed to find ways to cultivate a Christian spiritual journey.”
  • “They are lifelong learners and that we’ve given them skills to believe that this is only the start of their learning, not the end of their learning.”
  • “They are deeply committed to service. The gospel demands that we engage in the lives of the marginalized, the lives of those who need to experience the gospel.”

“G.W. can dream those things in part because they describe him,” wrote Chris Gehrz, professor of history and chair of the history department, in a blog post about Carlson’s retirement in 2012. “It’s the rare person who does all four actions, but G.W. does. It’s the still less common person who teaches others to do them, but G.W. does. “

A celebration of life service was held on February 28 in Benson Great Hall at Bethel. A recording of the service is available online.

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