A grandson’s tribute to the faithful legacy of Dr. Erich von Fange (1922-2015)

Dr. Erich Von Fange was CUAA’s first academic dean, serving what was then Concordia Lutheran Junior College since before its inception. One of his grandsons, Jonathan “Jonny” Balsman, recently joined the faculty at Concordia University Wisconsin as an assistant professor of education and mathematics. He wrote this reflection of what having the distinguished professor as a grandfather means to him.

Growing up in a household of three boys, and the youngest to boot, I was quick to prove myself, eager to impress, and as a child (and sometimes an adult) not so humble to let others know. But my grandfather was a big influence in helping me change that attitude.

If we had known 10 percent of his stories, experiences, and fulfilling life, our questions would be never-ending. But that was the Christian servant and leader Erich was. He was humble, thoughtful, and quiet, but on fire for service in the church and the world. Those who knew him would echo that he often rarely spoke of his pursuits and successes unless asked.

When Grandpa (Erich) von Fange would visit with Grandma (Esther), there were a few honored traditions that would take place, such as:

  • The grandkids would challenge Grandpa in chess, ultimately to our doom, with only my eldest brother of his namesake, Erich, beating him once in our whole lives. The prize of $50 paled in comparison to the glory we would receive otherwise.
  • They were often presented with a fossil or token from archeological digs or other travels of the world.
  • They would listen and express joy and love in our Lutheran education, with Grandpa using his catchphrase “that is … wonderful.”

From his early years growing up in the Great Depression in Deshler, Nebraska, high school and college years at Concordia Seward during WWII, my grandfather accomplished and experienced many things. He was a collegiate football hall of famer; a dedicated and passionate teacher; an outstanding student at Concordia Seward, Concordia Edmonton, and Concordia Ann Arbor; and, in retirement, a creationist author and leading mind on Genesis and early Earth theology.

These experiences and lessons all show God’s path and call to the development of Concordia Ann Arbor’s 60 wonderful years of ministry as the school’s first Academic Dean. I hope to present a summary of these times in Erich’s own words as well as my own perspective as a fellow Concordia faculty member on the Wisconsin campus but as his proud grandson.

A lifetime of memories

  • Deep Roots: I am thankful for my great-grandfather who held strong values in 1928, sending Erich to St. Peter’s Lutheran School. “My father wanted a good Christian education for his children, and that’s why he chose Deshler.”
  • Humble Beginnings: Erich’s father was a janitor at the local public school before the public school and Lutheran school switched buildings. He earned $65/month for his efforts and Erich often spent early mornings and late nights before and after school dusting desks and sweeping classrooms, earning 50 cents/month.
  • A Family Decision: As one of many children in the family, a note from Erich’s diary on Friday, July 10, 1936 says, “It was decided that I should become a teacher” and attend Concordia High School in Seward, NE. The entire family met (siblings as well!) and decided and worked on how they would pay for tuition during the Great Depression. In the end, God provided the $100/month ($2,214.31 today!) for tuition, room, and board through a state district board. Erich noted as well, “After 44 years of teaching later, it was certainly the right choice.”
  • Musically Minded: Showing an interest in music, Erich started at Concordia Teachers College in Seward, Nebraska in 1940. With all men over 18 entering the draft, Erich received clergy status and resumed his studies.
  • Athletically Gifted: Playing collegiate sports, Erich excelled in basketball and football, earning the honor of a selection to the Nebraska Football Hall of fame.
  • A Head Start: As a sign of the times, many pre-service teachers often took teaching jobs before earning a degree, leaving to teach after completion of their junior or even sophomore year. “It was the most incredible feeling to receive my first Divine Call for the teaching ministry. This was to the mother church of the West Coast, St. Paulus Lutheran, San Francisco.”
  • A Different Time: In my first year of teaching, I taught high school math and coached football and track. I thought I had a decent teaching load until I read that Erich’s first-year load included, “teacher of 46 children in Grades 2-4, a bus driver on some of the most hair-raising streets in the world, assistant organist, and youth program.”
  • Education Complete: After a wonderful year of teaching, Erich decided to return to Concordia and finish his degree. “I was the only one from my class of over 50 freshmen to return after a year of teaching to finish my degree.” In the spring of 1944, while finishing his bachelor’s degree, Erich received an invitation to serve as a part-time instructor at Concordia. I’m not sure how many undergraduates can claim they taught while finishing up their senior year!
  • A Broad-based Approach: What I notice in today’s world is that we focus, specialize, and pursue one path relentlessly. This is something I grew to admire about Erich is that his quest for knowledge and learning was of all fields of interest and to contribute to the world. In Erich’s words on his collegiate load, “my teaching was still chiefly in music (piano, organ, choral, music theory, and literature), physical education, mathematics, bookstore assistant, coaching high school sports, public relations director, and dormitory counselor,” as well as writing a thesis for a Bachelor’s degree! Later in his career, he also added education, psychology, art, and humanities. Suffice to say I’d like to find a better answer when I tell people I taught math. 😊
  • Doctor von Fange: After accepting call to Zion, San Francisco, as Principal, organist, choir director, and 5-8 grade teacher, Erich spent 5 years there before being called as the Dean of Students at Concordia College, Edmonton and earning a Ph.D. at the University of Alberta, collaborating with the likes of Carl Jung and other noted psychologists.
  • A Lifelong Lutheran: Another note to mention during Erich’s time in teaching and in ministry, he never sat still or isolated himself from the Lutheran schools and colleges in the country. Serving in Walther League work, with Lutheran Service Volunteer schools, Advanced LSV, YWC – Youth Workers Conference, and Youth Caravanners from 1947-1962 during the summers on staff in Nebraska, Ohio, Indiana, South Dakota, Maryland, California, Washington, New Mexico, and several others. It was through these connections and mission work that Erich developed a clear understanding of the state of Lutheran schools and the mission therein. 

A cornerstone career

Thus began the new adventure of being called in 1962 to serve as Academic Dean at Concordia Lutheran Junior College, now Concordia University Ann Arbor. Here’s how he describes that auspicious beginning:

“The next fifteen months were a fantastic blur of activity in helping get a new college off to a great start. College offices were in the Earhart manor, and the only usable space left on the main floor when I arrived was the maid’s room off the kitchen, so that is where I helped launch Concordia academic life. Much time went into developing good relationships with our parishes in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio, the community, the University of Michigan, and other Michigan institutions.

“We were constantly speaking in our recruitment area, attending meetings, and leading groups around our budding campus. And in the early months, we would be saying, here is where we will put the science building, and here will be our library. For quite a few months our library was on the second floor of the Manor House. Then finally came the happy day when we formed a human chain from upstairs in the Manor House to the new library building to move all the books. The Lord richly blessed all of our activities in those days. We had a vast crowd of enthusiastic people at our cornerstone laying on 9/30/1962.

“In our first years of operation at Concordia, full accreditation with a life and death matter, and much time and energy went into this project year round. In March (1968), we achieved full NCA accreditation. This had consumed much of our energy ever since we stepped on the campus in 1962.”

Student memories

Here are just a few of the glowing comments made by former students on a Facebook post from the Concordia Ann Arbor Alumni page:

  • I had Dr. von Fange for geology. I learned so much about rocks, fossils, and the earth that semester! He wove Biblical truth throughout his lectures. I think the class was at 8:00 AM, but I never missed it, nor did I groan about getting up early for it! Dr. von Fange made the class so interesting!
  • One day, Dr. von Fange took our class on a field trip to see evidence of glaciers and to go fossil hunting at a limestone quarry. I absolutely loved that trip! Years later, when I headed off to teach, I learned there was a limestone quarry a few miles from my school, so, of course, I made arrangements for my sixth graders to go fossil hunting there. They were as enthralled as I had been. They all came home with their pockets full of fossils. All because of Dr. von Fange’s influence!
  • I loved Dr. von Fange for so many reasons. He was a wonderful man and academic, his kindness and supportive demeanor were never-ending. His sense of humor was outstanding. He helped me in so many ways when I came to Concordia Ann Arbor as part-time faculty. Perhaps his greatest advice to me was to “make yourself indispensable,” and he was so right!
  • I have very fond memories of several classes with Dr. Von Fange. A class I hated, Statistics, was bearable simply because he was the prof—especially after a class discussion on Math Anxiety. I didn’t know it was a thing, but I definitely had it! … Anytime I saw Dr. Von Fange on campus, I was met with a warm smile and greeting. He was a very good teacher, but I was more impressed with the confidence he had in his students to succeed.

A prolific author

During his retirement years, Erich continued to write and explore his interests in the book of Genesis and the dinosaurs. He went on many dig trips and wrote many leading texts on the topic. His published books include (click on the title for more information):

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