A Match Made at Festival of Christmas

For Dan ’73 and Marleen Wiersum ’72, their love story started like something out of a Hallmark Christmas movie—a playful slap, a historic snowstorm, a chance opportunity for a first date, sledding in the park, a trip to the emergency room, and Festival of Christmas. But it’s only part of the story. They’ve remained deeply connected to Bethel ever since as students, alumni, staff, parents, and, now, donors.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, senior web content specialist

November 29, 2023 | 10:20 a.m.

The Wiersums

One night in the Bethel coffeeshop, Marleen Johnson ’72 and a friend took a break from studying to goof around with other students. One was Daniel Wiersum ’73. Marleen approached him and said, “It's about time. It's about space. It's about time to slap your face.” Then she gave him a soft, quick slap.

If the Wiersums’ love story is the Bethel version of a Hallmark-style Christmas movie, this was the “meet cute”—the moment when two people who will form a romantic connection first meet.

Then a chance opportunity came on December 6, 1969. Snow fell as Bethel prepared to kick off the holiday season with the 13th annual Festival of Christmas. The Field House on Bethel’s Snelling Avenue campus in St. Paul was decorated for the occasion—Bethel would relocate to Arden Hills a few years later. Marleen’s night was planned: She would sing in the Women’s Choir at Festival and then spend an evening with her family. But 14+ inches of snow forced her family to cancel and stay in Iowa. Marleen offered her extra tickets to a table of Bethel choir members in the dining center, and Dan again took notice.

A few hours later, Marleen was buzzed in her Bodien Hall room. An RA told her Daniel Wiersum wanted to see her. “And I didn’t know who that was!” Marleen recalls with a laugh. A quick check in the school roster confirmed she knew him from Bethel's choirs, but she hadn’t known his last name. Dan asked Marleen out after Festival. On freshly fallen snow, the two went “traying”—a practice where students used to sled using old cafeteria trays—at Como Park. The date went well. And Dan asked her out the next night. 

Again, they went traying, but the snow had melted, refroze, and turned icy. Dan and Marleen took a fall, badly hurting Marleen’s shoulder. Dan took her to the emergency room. The doctor gave Marleen strong pain medication and told Dan he had to watch out for Marleen and take care of her. “And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since,” Dan says.

By 1971, Dan and Marleen were engaged. By 1972, they were married. By 1974, they were parents. And by 1992, they were Bethel parents.

When the Wiersums fell in love at Bethel in the winter of 1969, little did they know it was just the start of their Bethel journey. In the following decades, Dan and Marleen experienced Bethel from almost every angle—as students, alumni, an employee, and Bethel parents. In retirement, they’re continuing in another Bethel role—as donors. “We’ve seen Bethel from so many aspects. It’s been such a huge part of our lives. It’s almost more like, ‘Why wouldn’t we give?’” Marleen says.

Dan '73 and Marleen Wiersum '72

Dan '73 and Marleen Wiersum '72

As students, Dan and Marleen both had great experiences that prepared them for long careers. Marleen found a great and close community in the education department as she studied elementary education. She went on to a long teaching career that spanned most K-12 grades. “It was a very fun career that I was able to have because of Bethel,” she says. 

Dan, a Wisconsin native, studied biblical and theological studies, which he says continues helping him in all aspects of his life. “I feel like I got a really solid foundation,” Dan says. Soon after they transitioned to alumni, Dan became a Bethel employee. He worked for many years in business and fundraising—mostly at Bethel. In the Office of Advancement, Dan worked with many fundraising efforts and was director of the annual fund in the 1980s. After leaving Bethel for a time, Dan returned to Bethel in 1996. As he started that new chapter, Dan spent time in prayer over future goals. Dan set a goal of raising $100 million. Between then and his retirement in 2020, he helped raise $120 million for Bethel.                                                                                                    

Dan loved working at Bethel, his coworkers, and the Bethel donors he served. Often, Dan and Marleen traveled to meet with donors, and both were struck by their kind and giving spirits—and their dedication to supporting Christ-guided education built on the authority of the Word of God. They describe the donors as humble, gracious, and giving people who welcomed Dan and Marleen like family. “They were such wonderful people that we were able to get together with and talk with, so it was kind of a job that was a blessing for us,” Marleen says. “As they blessed Bethel, it blessed us.”

Dan learned much from the donors he worked with, including how they viewed investments, their families, and giving. Dan often worked with bequests—or giving through estate plans. While some gave everything to charities and ministries, others gave to their family and tithed a percentage of their estate. Others donated assets to Bethel—vacation homes, businesses, portfolios of stocks and bonds, and more. But one method grabbed Dan’s attention as he and Marleen planned their own estate to benefit their family, select ministries, and Bethel. One donor divided his money equally among each of his children and then charity, which was treated as an additional child. Dan and Marleen have taken a similar approach—when they pass one day, three-fourths of their estate will go to their children. The remaining fourth will go to Bethel and other charities.

Dan recalls several moments where he saw God’s hand at work through gifts. Once, Dan received a call from a woman asking him to provide language for her will. She never attended Bethel, but her parents attended Converge churches. He expected a small sum, but she left Bethel more than $3 million. While most was designated for scholarships and the general fund, $800,000 was given to the Wellness Center capital project—the exact amount Bethel needed to reach the goal for the project. “I’ve seen it over and over again where people made decisions to give to Bethel years before, decades before. When it comes to fruition, that’s the exact amount of money that Bethel needed at the time,” he says.

In 1992, the Wiersums took on a new Bethel role as parents. Their children—Ben ’96, Joel ’99, and Becky ’01—all attended Bethel and all had strong experiences. They built lifelong connections and maintain Bethel friendships to this day, often going on trips with friends. Becky met her husband, Derek, at Bethel. Marleen continues to appreciate how Bethel doesn’t attract or produce cookie-cutter students. Students are allowed to bring differing viewpoints and explore their faiths in their own ways. Bethel challenges people to think, pursue their faith, and examine what they believe and why.

The Wiersum children

The Wiersum’s three children—Ben ’96, Joel ’99, and Becky ’01—all followed in their parents’ footsteps and attended Bethel University. All three had strong experiences and still maintain friendships formed at Bethel.

Dan’s Bethel career lasted past his children’s graduations and spanned four university presidents, many ups and downs, and fluctuations in enrollment. In good and hard times, Dan always saw God provide for Bethel. And while the Wiersums admit that Bethel—like all universities, churches, and institutions—isn’t perfect, they’ve seen Bethel remain steadfast in its dedication to serving the Lord and students. “There is a heart for God at Bethel,” Marleen says. “I absolutely love Bethel and I love the Lord, and I think Bethel would say the same thing: They love their students, they love their faculty, and they love the Lord. The people that are there, they want to serve their students.” 

Through all their roles, the Wiersums have seen God achieve great things through Bethel. And they support Bethel so God’s can continue working through the community. “I see God’s hand throughout Bethel’s life, through the 150 years of its existence, and I have no reason to believe that’s going to discontinue,” Dan says. 

“There is a heart for God at Bethel. I absolutely love Bethel and I love the Lord, and I think Bethel would say the same thing: They love their students, they love their faculty, and they love the Lord. The people that are there, they want to serve their students.” 

— Marleen Wiersum '72

Leave a legacy.

There are so many ways you can leave a legacy that will impact Bethel students for years to come. If you’re interested in learning more about bequests or other creative giving options, contact Bethel University’s advancement team at 651.635.8053 or click the button below.

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