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Centenarian Expert and Older Adults Advocate

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Centenarian Calendar: Marvin Knudson, September 2008

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Marvin Knudson, 100
The Accidental Educator

Marvin Knudson with Lynn Peters Adler
National Centenarian Awareness Project
founder Lynn Peters Adler with new centenarian
Marvin Knudson

       When Marvin Knudson was born on September 1, 1908, a hit song of the day was “School Days, School Days,” but only 4 out of every 10 Americans could read or write.  By the time he retired from his career as a community college innovator and president some 70 years later, Marvin had been instrumental in the development of the two year college system that has enabled millions of people to obtain an education and a trade that would elevate their lives and that bridged the gap between those who were able to attend a four year institution and others for whom any advanced education beyond high school was out of reach.

       Marvin’s adult life has been dedicated to this cause, and he has had a very successful career.  As testament to his contributions to two of the most significant posts of his career, the president of Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, traveled to Arizona to attend Marvin’s birthday party and announced that the number of students that were educated there since Marvin retired is 300,000; and Pueblo Community College in Colorado also sent a representative to honor Marvin as their longest standing president – 29 years.  Marvin was instrumental in the formulation, growth and success of both schools.  When Sinclair’s president remarked to Marvin during his tribute that he had never attended a 100th birthday party before, Marvin quipped: “Neither have I!”
        But clearly, Marvin was enjoying his life review.  A graduate of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, Marvin had trained to be a chemist and was promised a job at the large Anaconda Copper company, but by his graduation in 1931 the company had gone bankrupt.  Unable to find work, Marvin went to the University of Minnesota for a Master's degree, and upon graduation, quite by chance, was offered a job as a principal at a small high school. 
       “I had no idea what a principal’s job was,” Marvin confides, “but I thought I would try it.”  He then moved on to a larger school and met an English teacher, Margaret, who became his wife and with whom he had three sons.  Eventually, he heard of an opening for a dean at Worthington, Minnesota, junior college, as two year schools were then called, and looking for a more lucrative salary, he applied and was awarded the position.  It was there that Marvin began putting his mark on education. As WWII was declared, he wanted to develop programs that were relevant to the times and that would provide training for students to obtain jobs.  Marvin developed an aeronautics program at the college and had an airport built to train pilots for the Army Air Corps.  He took up flying, too, and it thus began a lifelong passion that he maintained into his 80s. 
       Before continuing on with Marvin’s career, it’s important, at this juncture, to look back on his early years in order to judge just how far this young man had come.  Like many of his peers, he had an unfortunate, and by today’s standards, disadvantaged youth.  But also like many of his peers, Marvin refused to let his life be dictated by his beginnings. 
       Marvin lost his mother to tuberculosis when he was three;  his younger brother was just nine months old.  Even at this young age, Marvin felt a sense of responsibility for his brother, a duty he would carry until they both graduated from high school.  From his birthplace in Wisconsin, Marvin’s father moved the family to Montana near the North Dakota border (The Badlands) in an effort to improve his wife’s health.  The Great Northern Railroad was just opening passage through the northern prairies and was offering land to homesteaders. 
       Marvin’s father built a small shack outside the new town of Ismay for himself and his wife.  Marvin and his infant brother slept, ate their meals and literally lived outdoors in a tent erected on top of a wagon to protect them from contracting their mother’s disease.  Marvin has vivid memories of that time. 
       “After she died, the house was fumigated and we moved inside," he recalls. "But my father was unable to make a living on the farm and took a job at a mercantile store in town.  His sister came out to care for us, briefly, but we were too much for her and she married a cowboy instead.  My father then paid other local families to let us live with them; we moved around a lot.  I started school at the age of six, but then dropped out so I didn’t leave my little brother alone and began the next year when he could come too.  I soon realized the advantage of the one room schoolhouse – I could hear all the lessons of the other grades and so I studied them all at the same time. We also had an annual trip to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where my father would have us checked for TB.  That gave me a sense that there was more to the world than the isolated area where we lived.  Eventually, my father remarried, but that didn’t work out for us either.  And so he took us back to Minnesota to live with my grandparents and that’s where we went to high school.  Life got better after that.

To be continued ....



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1998-2012 National Centenarian Awareness Project & Lynn Peters Adler, J.D.
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