Omar Otterness

Omar Otterness

  • Funeral Date: 5/02/17
  • Funeral Time: 1 PM
  • Date of Birth: 12/21/18
  • Date of Death: 4/11/17
  • Funeral Location: St. John's Lutheran Church

Omar Otterness, age 98, of Northfield, Professor Emeritus of Religion at St. Olaf College, passed away on April 11, 2017, at the Northfield Retirement Center. He was born December 21, 1918, in Brookings, South Dakota, to Lars and Alma Otterness. His grandfather Ole was one of the first homesteaders of Brookings County.

Raised in Brookings, Omar attended Augustana College and received a B.A. and M.A. from the University of Illinois. He was active in the Lutheran Student Movement, and met his future wife Margery at a retreat in Estes Park, Colorado. They were married June 9, 1944, after his graduation from Luther Seminary and ordination.  He accepted a mission call to China, first studying Chinese at the University of California, Berkeley. In San Francisco, Omar was the first pastor of Grace Lutheran, a storefront church. Omar and Margery traveled to China on a troop ship early in 1947 and stayed until driven out by the communists in December 1948.  On return Omar served congregations in Redfield, SD, Chicago, and Mukwonago, WI.  He continued his study of theology and received a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.

Omar was a member of the Religion Department at St. Olaf College from 1960-86.  His many classes included Asian religions.  He believed strongly in cross-cultural studies and was co-instructor of the Rome Interim in 1973 and faculty coordinator of Global Semester in 1973-74 and the Middle East Semester in 1977-78.  He helped design and teach the Great Conversation program and also tutored in the Paracollege. During his years at St. Olaf he served several parishes on weekends. He was interim pastor at Valley Grove Church for several years in the 1960s.

A sabbatical with the Ebenezer Society in Minneapolis led Omar to the study of gerontology. After retirement, he helped found the Cooperative Older Adult Ministry (CoAM) in south Minneapolis, which continues today as TRUST/CoAM. Through member churches, CoAM focuses on life-long learning as well as providing services such as grocery shopping. Omar worked with other communities to develop similar programs.  He was an active member of the Cannon Valley Elder Collegium in Northfield.  He and Margery also traveled extensively worldwide.

Omar loved teaching.  He believed in learning about other cultures and in life-long learning and ministry, and he acted on his beliefs.  People and relationships were important to him, and he seemed to remember the name of everyone he had ever met.

Omar was preceded in death by wife, Margery, daughter Karen, sister Ruth, and his brothers, Lyle, Harlan, Ronald, and James. He is survived by sister Alice Hoaglund, Modesto, CA; children Rolf, McMurray, PA, Joann Espinosa, Omaha, Mark (Kathryn), Roseville, David, Northfield, and Carol Spencer (Jerry), St. George, UT; his grandchildren, Nathan Espinosa (Amber), Lino Lakes, Jennifer Whyte (John), Omaha, Phillip and Thomas Otterness, Minneapolis, and Naomi Pitlick (Brad), Brooklyn Park; and six great-grandchildren: Carver, Zachary, and Andrew Espinosa, Alexis and Alison Whyte, and Aaron Pitlick.  He is also survived by in-laws Adeline Otterness, Verona, WI, and Barbara and Richard Reyer, Willmar, MN, and many nieces and nephews and their children.

A memorial service will be held 1:00 PM Tuesday, May 2, at St. John’s Lutheran Church, 500 W. 3rd St, Northfield.  A reception will follow. Memorials preferred to Omar and Margery Otterness Endowed Scholarship at St. Olaf College, TRUST/CoAM, or St. John’s Church.

Arrangements are with the Benson & Langehough Funeral Home.


  1. Ed DuBose

    Omar is the reason I became a Pastor. I was blessed to travel with him to Israel. His knowledge of religion and culture was so impressive. But most of all it was his patience and love that he showed to a group of frequently immature college students that won me over. When I spent a week in the hospital he came to see me every day. For decades after when we would see each other we would hug, laugh and sometimes cry as we remembered our adventures. I am saddened by his passing and yet he will be a model of how I want to live my life. Peace.

  2. Connie & John Jaarsma Marty

    We give thanks for the life of Omar! He and Margie had a wonderful impact on three generations of the Jaarsma-Marty family. First, Omar and Martin Marty were at the University of Chicago Divinity School together learning, growing and questioning faith issues. Then as a Professor at St. Olaf, Omar was especially close and influential to me, Connie, during my Mid East semester abroad. In Omar’s lectures and his gentle yet passionate style of teaching, listening and being present to us as students, he opened a whole new way of seeing faith and civic engagement and I have never been the same. Then a few decades later he was mentor, teacher and friend to our children, Elsa and Micah, as they were students at St. Olaf. Omar in his late 80’s even went biking with Micah! We will miss his huge deep laugh, solid hugs and curious questions about our life joys and struggles. We have been blessed by his presence on this earth. Thanks be to God.

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