Kenneth Wilkens

Kenneth Wilkens

  • Funeral Date: 12/21/12
  • Funeral Time: 2:00 PM
  • Date of Birth: 1/17/21
  • Date of Death: 12/14/12
  • Funeral Location: St. John's Lutheran Church - Northfield


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.


  1. Todd Poter

    It is hard to say good-bye to one of the West Second St. gang. Ken was a wonderful neighbor, professor and hunting partner. I have many fond memories growing up on West Second St., going on some pheasants hunts with Ken when I was in high school, just off the St. Olaf campus is one that will stay with me.

    Todd Porter

  2. My teacher and mentor. A GOOD man and a good life. I am forever grateful to him. The Latin phrase comes to mind: vir bonus dicendi peritus. A good man speaking well.

  3. Carol and Keith Goltz

    Wilk was our matchmaker, mentor, and dear friend. We loved him and will miss him — the twinkle in his eyes, quick wit, common sense, and visits to Alaska. Our sympathy to his family. He will rest in peace!

  4. Mike Tillmann

    The kind, gentle, and wise leadership and mentorship Dr. Wilkens has long provided for all of us in Minnesota’s speech and debate community is a legacy that transcends death. He lives perpetually, not only in loving memory but especially in the classrooms where he, directly and indirectly, has positively influenced generations of teachers and learners past, present, and future. Dr. Wilkens has richly earned his rest and and his resurrection. I am as certain as I am of anything that, as of December 14, 2012, a new St. Kenneth has continued to shower his blessings on all of us from place where “death shall have no dominion.”

  5. Wonderful man, gentleman, and scholar!! On his best days, great swing but better personality. He was gentle, kind, and wise. My mentor in so many ways. I will miss him so as will many of his friends and students from St. Olaf.

  6. David Grove

    Uncle Ken, you will be missed. As a young boy whenever he and my dad would go somewhere, I would ask him, where are you going? Inevitable, he would say “St. Pettutie to see the sunrise, want to come along?” I think he finally made it.

  7. Phil Froiland

    What a guy! I had him for Speech 101 when he was fresh out of grad school and learned to enjoy him a lot as the years developed in the speech dept. We went to debate tournaments together and I enjoyed seeing him in later years. He was fun to be around and proved to be a “steady” one on the faculty at Olaf. May he rest in peace.

  8. Susan Smith

    I had the great pleasure of having Ken Wilkens as a teacher during a summer session after returning to STO after being away from campus for a semester on a medical leave of absence.

    Not only was this a great acadmeic experience but I thank him for helping me to believe that I could, once again, do fine academic work.

    STO has lost another in that generation of great teachers and fine human beings.

    Thanks, Ken.


  9. Shawne Murphy Johnson

    Ken (and Lois) have been an important part of my life since I chose him as my advisor my freshman year in college 32 years ago. What a blessing! Great wisdom, kindness and humor – “Busier than a one-armed paper hanger with an itch,” “Your generosity is only exceeded by your womanly beauty and charm.” And nobody hugs like Ken Wilkens. I love you, Dr. Wilk. I know you were greeted with open arms at the gates of heaven.

  10. I would like to offer my deepest sympathies to you. Please know you are not alone. Our Heavenly Father feels your pain. Psalms 34:18 assures us that He is near to those ‘broken at heart and crushed in spirit’. He holds out a promise that in the very near future He will wipe out all tears of sorrow and pain from our eyes and death will be no more. (Revelation 21:3-5) He also promises to remember all those in the memorial tombs (graves) and restore them to life. (John 5:28,29) Until those words are fulfilled, may you find much peace and comfort in God and in His promises found in the Holy Scriptures.

  11. May your hearts find peace and comfort in knowing that soon, all suffering and death will be no more –
    Revelation 21: 3, 4. My deepest condolences to the family for your loss.

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