Kenneth Gerhard Wilkens was born January 17, 1921 in Red Lake Falls, Minnesota, the third child of Walter and Julianna Wilkens. He grew up with 5 sisters on a farm outside Grand Rapids, MN. After attending Itasca State Junior College, he graduated from Moorhead State Teacher’s College in 1942. He joined the Army Air Force and served as an instructor in celestial navigation until mustering out in 1945.
After a term teaching in Moorhead, Ken joined the Speech Department at St. Olaf College in 1947 focusing on public speaking and debate. He completed his MA and PhD degrees at Northwestern University by 1954. He left St. Olaf in 1956 and taught for 2 years at the University of Texas at Austin, but returned to St. Olaf for good in 1958. For nearly 40 years, teaching was his passion and he left an impressive legacy of thousands of grateful students.
Ken met Aurelia Zahn at a club for young faculty members and they married in 1948. After Texas, Ken and Rae settled on West 2nd Street in Northfield among a group of young families, and raised 3 children: Jane (1952), Jim (1954), and Julie (1956). The family enjoyed summers on the Wilkens farm and took other trips together including a sabbatical leave to Oregon in 1966-7. To our great sorrow, Rae fell ill in the late 1970s and died in 1978.
Ken enjoyed many pursuits. Fishing was a lifelong passion that started on Pokegama Lake in Grand Rapids. He taught all the children in the extended family to appreciate the sport. He also enjoyed hunting, highlighted by a moose hunt with Jim in Alaska in his 70s. An interest in golf began early. This led to a bridge club that played after golf games every Tuesday and met regularly for over 60 years! He joined the Lions Club in 1962 and participated in many of their service activities. More recently he enjoyed breakfast with a group of college retirees on Tuesday mornings solving the problems of the world.
Ken married Lois Geistfeld in 1981 and her 4 children joined the family. Retiring from St. Olaf in 1986, Ken and Lois enjoyed spending time with family especially at their cabin in Hayworth, WI. Later they sold the cabin and purchased a small home in the Dallas area.
Ken fell ill in the spring of 2012 and passed on Friday, December 14, 2012. He is survived by his wife Lois; 3 sisters, Mildred Bernard, Eunice Cochran, and Patricia Pulling; 3 children, Jane Rae Wilkens, Jim (Jane Elizabeth) Wilkens, and Julie (Karl) Wilkens-Gaardsmoe; 4 stepchildren, Shari, Mark, and Steve Geistfeld and Ann Clasby; 7 grandchildren, Amanda (Peter) Sejna, Jake (Lindsey) Wilkens, Sophie Gaardsmoe, Max Geistfeld, Hudson and Mara Geistfeld, and Dylan and Emma Clasby, and 2 great grandchildren, Owen and Quinn Sejna. He will be missed by all his extended family and the many students, colleagues, and friends whose lives he touched over his 92 years.
Services will held at 2 PM on Friday, December 21, 2012, at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Northfield with Pastor John Quam officiating. Interment with military honors will be at Oaklawn Cemetery. Visitation will be 4-7PM Thursday, at the Benson & Langehough Funeral Home. Visitation will continue at the church on Friday one hour prior to the funeral.
For those who wish, the family suggests memorials to the Kenneth Wilkens Endowment Fund at St. Olaf College, St. John’s Lutheran Church, or the Northfield Retirement Community.
Arrangements are with the Benson & Langehough Funeral Home. www.northfieldfuneral.com