Jan Frederickson described her recent visit to Perpich High School as stepping into “a time warp.”
She visited with many in a 300-plus crowd of her peers, all alumni or former educators of The Lutheran Bible Institute, or Golden Valley Lutheran College, the institution originally housed in the Golden Valley building.
The July celebration marked the 100th year since the school’s founding.
“It was buzzing,” said Frederickson. “Some hadn’t been on campus since they graduated 30 years ago. Everyone left with an energy. There was a spirit there bigger than anyone realized.”
Frederickson believed that spirit could only be from God.
The day was filled with reminiscing with old friends, exploring the converted halls of their alma mater and the breaking of bread for evening communion. The dormant alumni choir regrouped for a two-song performance, a commitment that required them to learn the music on their own and rehearse once together before the event.
Other alumni musical groups played for their old classmates. Frederickson said the enthusiasm to take part in the celebration in some form speaks volumes of the people who attended the college.
“Any time we asked anyone to do something we always got a ‘yes,’” she said. “People stepped up.”
The Perpich building is not 100 years old. The Lutheran Bible Institute was not immediately tied to Golden Valley and formed (as most Bible studies do) in 1919 in the basement of First Lutheran Church in St. Paul. A pastor named Samuel Miller is credited with beginning the study, which was one of the first of its kind. Bible study itself had not been uncommon at the time, but a Lutheran Bible study was uncommon.
In the early 20th century, Lutheran Bible study was something of an oxymoron. The branch of Christianity was named after 16th century theologian Martin Luther, who was famously uncomfortable with catholic hierarchy. His and the church’s relationship was fraught with tension: he laid bare various corruptions within the church, and the church demanded via the Roman Emperor that his publications be banned, that no subjects feed or shelter him, and that he be arrested.
Understandably, Luther preferred churchgoers read the Bible for themselves instead of having it interpreted by someone who held power over them.
Miller, a local pastor, worried that, over time, that idea had eroded to no one reading the Bible at all.
Ten years later, the study got its own building on Portland Avenue in Minneapolis. From 1944 to 1951, satellite Lutheran Bible Institutes were established in Seattle, Washington; Teaneck, New Jersey; and Los Angeles, California.
The flagship school in Minneapolis moved in 1961 to Golden Valley and became an accredited two-year college in 1967.
Frederickson said some students attended the college specifically to begin a vocation in the Lutheran faith; others to receive their associates’ degree. She noted that the school was relatively low-cost and students unable to get into more expensive, academically prestigious universities were welcome there.
“It was a place of acceptance,” she said. Later, LBI programming expanded to day school and at-home programming, where students could complete and mail in their work for grading. This allowed incarcerated populations to achieve some level of education.
Frederickson had her reasons for attending, including that her father was Bernt Opsal, who served as president from 1954 until the school closed in 1985. He was the fourth dean to serve in the 66 years that the school was actively teaching, and oversaw the Golden Valley school for the entirety of its existence.
By the time Frederickson was 5 years old, the Minneapolis Lutheran Bible Institute was already part of her life. Her first year at the school was 1967, which was also the first year collegiate sports were offered.
“We had the worst football team in the world,” she said, through laughs. “But we were out there cheering them on. And they knew they were scalawags; they wouldn’t have made it on the team in any other college.”
Later, the Golden Valley college became rather competitive, taking routine championships in men’s and women’s cross country, volleyball and basketball. In 1977, the college hired a young, inexperienced Flip Saunders to coach the basketball team. Saunders had recently graduated from the University of Minnesota and would carve an impressive 56-0 home win streak in his first few years at the college. He went on to coach for the Gophers, the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Detroit Pistons and the Washington Wizards.
Frederickson said her father prided himself on maintaining “really good wood floors” on the college’s basketball court for Saunders and the team.
New school, same mission
Unfortunately, Opsal wasn’t able to see his daughter plan and execute the 100-year celebration, as he died in 2004 after 10 years with Parkinson’s disease.
Opsal oversaw the closing of the school in 1985 after a long period of declining enrollment. Fredrickson said it was a hard time for the family, which had supported Opsal in its opening and now had to do so in its closing.
Reminders continued to follow the college president long after the school’s closing. Former students would crop up in the most unexpected places, including at Opsal’s medical appointments.
At the reunion, Frederickson spoke with many people who swore their years at the school were some of the best in their lives. She said the school gave her and her peers lifelong friends and helped cement the faith of young adults.
“For us, it was hard to see that the mission wasn’t going to be there for that anymore,” she said. “After graduation, people really saw themselves going into the world and serving God.”
To Frederickson, the building’s latest purpose as an arts high school isn’t a far stretch from its original one. Crosses have been removed from the buildings, two dormitories were torn down due to age and asbestos, and her father’s prized hardwood floors removed due to a water leak that occurred sometime during the years the building was vacant. However, there is something she believes hasn’t left: Spirit.
“Caring for young adults and really wanting them to be nurtured and become who they are, that is carried out in the Perpich Center today,” she said. “Even though it’s not a Bible school, people at Perpich say they feel that spirit, that sense of caring. That’s really meaningful.”