Seeing the world through the eyes of others

August 05, 2020 — A Grinnell education with a pivotal junior year in Switzerland propelled Fritz West ’67 into a fascinating life and career.

Fritz West '67
    Fritz West ’67

West’s recent generous gifts to the College could pave the way for other students to follow suit.  During his 50th reunion year in 2017, West funded a prayer room in the Center for Religion, Spirituality, and Social Justice (CRSSJ). He has recently made a $125,000 pledge to religious studies/CRSSJ from his donor advised fund to support a program combining travel and the study of religion.

When travel is permitted after the pandemic, students can identify a place in the world dealing with religious issues, study the area at Grinnell, travel to that place, and then return to reflect upon their experience.

“This is how I travel,” West says. “I glean enough information to know something about the culture before departure while leaving possibilities wide open for further study when I get home.” 

West felt a calling to the ministry as a Unitarian early on in life. However, he took only the one required course in religion at Grinnell, wanting to take advantage of the College’s broad liberal arts curriculum.

During that course on religious studies with Professor Howard Burkle, West asked for permission to march with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in Selma, Alabama. “There was no hesitation from any of my professors,” he remembers “and that impressed me a lot.”

West didn’t choose a major until studying abroad in Switzerland, where he decided to major in history with a focus on Europe. His travel experiences were just beginning. As a Peace Corps volunteer following graduation, West was posted to Sierra Leone, a former British colony in West Africa, recently independent.

West taught in an erstwhile parachute-drying hut. His subjects were African history – informed by Raymond Betts’ course at Grinnell – English as a Second Language, and African and British literature. To get better acquainted with locals, he lived his second year in the neighboring village. “It was a wonderful experience that opened my eyes to things I would pursue the rest of my life,” he says.

Though he had hoped to follow the Peace Corps with theological studies at the University of Tübingen in Germany, his draft board thought it best to study in the U.S. He went – begrudgingly – to seminary at the Meadville Lombard Theological School, a Unitarian-Universalist school with close ties to the University of Chicago.

Known for his delightful wit and sharp sense of humor, West claims to have been “institutionalized” by the Vietnam War, having been deferred at Grinnell for education, in the Peace Corps for national service, and in the seminary for ministry.

“I wasn’t avoiding the draft; I was simply pursuing my interests.” he says.

West took a three year “sabbatical” to learn cabinet making and explore life in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. In those full years he married his wife Cynthia, became a Christian, joined the United Church of Christ, graduated from Chicago Theological Seminary, and was ordained. His first call was to a ministry in Michigan, splitting time between the congregation and his shop. But an interest in the history and theology of Christian worship soon lured him into a Ph.D. program in liturgical studies at the University of Notre Dame.

With teaching positions sparse upon graduation, he returned to parish ministry, serving congregations for 25 years in Michigan and Wisconsin, all the while engrossed in the worship of the church through workshops, organization work, and writing.

West has been involved in the German partnership of the United Church of Christ since 1983, when he traveled as a delegate to its sister church in both West and East Germany. It was during a subsequent trip to East Germany in 2002 that he came to know a gospel choir, one of 3,000 choirs enlivening spiritual life in Germany. This encounter led to a 10-year exchange, whereby West brought the choir from Germany to Wisconsin, and then traveled with the Wisconsin choir he had founded to Germany.

Travel, with its opportunities to see the world through the eyes of others, has been integral to West’s life. In addition to trips to Japan, Turkey, and Israel-Palestine, he visited Germany at least once a year for more than a decade, and for two decades he and Cynthia have spent a month or more each winter at Gladstone’s Library in Wales.

In recent years a need to care for his wife has curtailed West’s travel. He now spends his time on his hobby farm of 15 acres near the Saint Croix River north of the Twin Cities, where he writes in the converted granary (he is the author of over 70 publications), works wood in his shop in the former barn, and plants trees in his fields and orchard.

While Grinnell wasn’t originally at the forefront of his philanthropy plans, conversations with Buddy Boulton, director of planned giving, and Deanna Shorb, Grinnell’s dean of religious life, made apparent opportunities for strengthening the presence and knowledge of religion at Grinnell. His gifts grew out of his love for Grinnell and appreciation of his time here as a student

“I wish to offer the blessings of my life to future generations,” he says. “I am delighted to provide funding opportunities that further my values.”

—by Judy Mahle Lutter ’61, Alumni Council Member Emeritus

For your information:

Grinnell College’s Religious Study Department and the Center for Religion, Spirituality, and Social Justice will jointly coordinate the travel and study program made possible by West’s gift.

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