Donald Ericksen, former University of Northwestern-St. Paul president, dies at 85
No matter how many degrees he earned or how lofty a title he held, Donald Ericksen never stopped being a coach.
The lifelong educator, whose career progressed from high school teacher and basketball coach to president emeritus of University of Northwestern-St. Paul, was always motivating others to be intentional with their time and make the most of their lives.
Ericksen, who held numerous leadership positions at the university, including president from 1983 to 1997, helped grow the number of students and greatly expanded its Christian radio network, including its flagship station KTIS. He died Aug. 6 at age 85 due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
“One of his favorite questions was, ‘Are you doing what you want to be doing? Are you spending your time the way you want to be spending it?’ ” said his son Todd Ericksen. “He wasn’t content to talk about sports or weather, he always dug in to find out what was on your mind.”
Born Nov. 4, 1932, Ericksen grew up in the Camden neighborhood of Minneapolis, one of seven siblings. His parents, Oscar and Gerda Ericksen, were Norwegian immigrants — a heritage he held onto throughout his life, leading numerous trips to Scandinavia after retiring from academia. He graduated from Minnehaha Academy in south Minneapolis before attending St. Cloud State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English and social science and a master’s degree in educational psychology, guidance and counseling.
He married Bonita “Bunny” Fenton in 1956 and the two moved to Montana. The couple developed lifelong friendships and love for the Mountain West before moving back to New Brighton, where they raised their three boys, Todd, Kirk and Mark. Ericksen completed his Ph.D. work in administration and higher education at the University of Tennessee.
After 21 years in public education, including stints at Brooklyn Center and Spring Lake Park, Ericksen became dean of students in 1977 at what was then called Northwestern College. He was named executive vice president in 1980 before ascending to acting president in 1983 and president two years later.
During Ericksen’s tenure, Northwestern nearly doubled its academic programs from 21 to 41 majors, completed several multimillion-dollar renovations and new building projects, and annexed an additional 14 acres on its Roseville campus. He oversaw the launch of the college’s Skylight Network, a satellite service providing radio content to hundreds of small Christian stations around the U.S. before the dawn of the internet gave way to downloadable material.
“He was a key player in the resurrection and development of Northwestern over the last 40 years,” said Alan Cureton, Northwestern’s president. “I stand on his shoulder.”
Ericksen “led from the middle,” Cureton said. “He was that leader you don’t read about or know about because he was graciously equipping others to do their job to succeed.” He retired from the presidency in 1997 and served as chancellor until 2002.
Todd Ericksen said his dad’s “natural curiosity and genuine care” led him to constantly form new connections. “He loved learning about people. It was one of his strengths as president,” he said. “He would work a room, but he did it in such a natural way because he always cared.”
Ericksen made one final contribution as a teacher and lifelong learner.
“He was an educator, and he liked imparting knowledge and wisdom,” Todd Ericksen said, “and, in a way, he’s still doing it now because he donated his body to the U of M for Alzheimer’s research.”
Ericksen is survived by his wife and sons; his sister, Audrey Eastburg; eight grandchildren, and five great grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held Sunday at 4 p.m. at First Evangelical Free Church in Maplewood, with visitation an hour earlier.