The Cal Lutheran community shares thoughts about the Rev. Dr. Howard Wennes.
The Cal Lutheran community lost one of its most treasured members when the Rev. Dr. Howard Wennes died on July 12, 2022.
Howie, as he was affectionately known, had a long, close relationship with Cal Lutheran, and he and his wife Mary have been among the university’s most fervent supporters.
He received his bachelor’s degree in economics from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, his Master of Divinity from Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, and his Doctor of Ministry from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley in 1982. He received an honorary Doctor of Divinity from Cal Lutheran in 1987.
Howie was the first bishop of the Grand Canyon Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). In this role and others, he was a major advocate for Cal Lutheran with the congregations, pastors and college-bound students of the Southwestern states. His ministerial career took him and Mary to parishes throughout the Western United States, and the couple served in ELCA leadership positions throughout the world.
After he retired, Howie was invited to serve as Cal Lutheran’s assistant to the president for University Ministries and director of Church Relations. He was responsible for sustaining and extending the university’s myriad relationships with the ELCA, especially the 800 congregations of Region II.
Howie served on the Board of Regents and twice was asked to be interim president of Cal Lutheran — in 2006 and 2007 — working tirelessly to support the university during times of challenging transitions. He was awarded Cal Lutheran’s Christus Award in 2009 — an honor that highlighted his work at strengthening the ties between the church and the university.
The Wennes name is woven into several university programs and places. The David Wennes Memorial Scholarship, an endowed scholarship awarded to upper-division English majors who have shown a gift for creative writing or other artistic expression, honors the couple’s son, who died in 1999. Their name also graces the Wennes Interfaith Meditation Chapel.
Although Howie loved spending time in chapels, churches and worship spaces, he also loved being outdoors. He was an avid golfer who played in golf tournaments that supported Cal Lutheran and Lutheran Outdoor Ministry.
Mary Wennes fondly remembers Howie’s quick wit and sense of humor. “When President Luther Luedtke went on sabbatical, he asked Howie if he could be the acting president,” Mary said. “Howie said, ‘I think I can act like one for three or four months.’”
That sense of humor is only one of the many memories the Cal Lutheran community would like to share with the Wennes family.
I remember meeting Pastor Wennes for the first time when I was 16 years old. He brought a 45-person busload of high school students from Phoenix, Arizona, to a Lutheran Youth Gathering in Anaheim, California. After attending the gathering, he brought those students to California Lutheran College to visit and learn about this young Lutheran college in the West. When I came to CLC as a first-year student two years later, I met many of those same students, who were attending CLU as I did. From those days until the end of his life, whether as a young youth pastor or an interim university president, Howie was an ambassador and an advocate for Cal Lutheran calling us to ‘make room for the Spirit.’
The Rev. Melissa Maxwell-Doherty ’77, MDiv ’81, vice president of Mission and Identity
Howie Wennes had a profound impact on my life as an adviser, mentor and friend. He embodied spiritual leadership through acts of generosity and compassion. Among his many values was to do one better than the Golden Rule and live by the Platinum Rule, whereby one treats people the way they want to be treated. In subtle and profound ways, he was a leader for equity and justice. I endeavor to think ‘what would Howie do?’ when presented a challenging decision — his spirit lives in my heart.
Matt Ward, vice president for Enrollment Management and Student Success
I am honored to have worked at Cal Lutheran when Howie Wennes was here. With each encounter I had with him, he managed to leave me feeling better than before we spoke. He would give his complete attention to our conversation, never rushing to end the exchange. Whether talking to him about an upcoming project when he was interim president and I was just starting at Cal Lutheran, laughing with him at a Christmas party or Corporate Leaders Breakfast, or chatting with him about fair trade coffee when we shared office space, he was just plain likable. Howie had an approachable, respectful and humorous personality. He was a delightful man who is missed.
Sharon Nelson ’09, operations coordinator for Marketing and Communications
Howie was a jovial guy, always ready with a quip. He enjoyed laughter, golf, singing and worship. We regularly sat together for CLU University Chapel services. He would clap away the rhythm of the hymns on the surface of the pews. I cherish the memories!
Jerry H. Miller, president emeritus
I couldn’t help but remember how Howie was the first president (during my professional tenure at CLU) to attend the TRIO Upward Bound Program’s graduation. Since then, and interrupted only by the pandemic, the university president and/or a vice president have always been present during the TRIO Pre-University Graduations. This was a trend and expectation set by Howie, and we will always love him for that.
Sergio Galvez ’03, MPPA ’09, senior director of TRIO Pre-University Programs
Howie was one of the people in my life that I would call when things got hard and rough and I couldn’t see a way out. He (and Mary) always gifted me with time over many years. I felt listened to; he always shared wisdom and his experiences with me, and I felt relief after those conversations. I used Howie as a discernment partner in job shifts and changes in my life. Howie always had some wisdom to share with me as well as helping me feel valued. He was affirming of who I am and my voice in this world and the church.
Desta Goehner ’96, director of Seminary Relations and Leadership Formation, PLTS
Howie Wennes possessed enormous gifts and provided beautiful examples that embody the university’s mission — and its heart. I personally miss his incredibly warm disposition that made a complete stranger like me who didn’t know anyone at the university feel welcome at Cal Lutheran. I met Howie when he was serving on the search committee for VP of Advancement. His kindness, good humor and authentic care for this community made it easy to understand why he was asked to serve the university as interim president not once, but twice. This speaks volumes about his many contributions, and I appreciate the opportunity to honor Howie’s memory and his legacy.
Regina Biddings-Muro, vice president of University Advancement
What a remarkable, dedicated and humble leader! I first met Howie when he served as interim pastor of Ascension Lutheran Church, guiding the congregation through many transitions and helping us increase our commitments to the less fortunate in our own community and around the world. Then I observed his calming presence and commitments when he served as interim president at CLU. He taught us all what it was to truly be a ‘servant leader.’ But mostly, I remember him as my friend, and partner in life to Mary. I will miss sharing coffee, meals and those wonderfully rich and meaningful conversations.
Carol Bartell, retired dean and professor emeritus
I met Howie the first time he became interim president. He attended an admission staff meeting to listen and to give us a pep talk. The period of time that he served as interim (both times) was filled with significant transition at the university, with vacancies not only in the presidency, but also transitions with … other key positions. Through it all Howie instilled trust, confidence and hope that we would make it through together as a community. He listened intently, cared effortlessly and seemed to be powered by a deep faith in the goodness of people as well as his own rooted spirituality. Any unease I may have initially had at a retired bishop serving as president was swept aside by his openness and curiosity. In later years I interacted with Howie and Mary through weekly chapel services at CLU. We often laughed that we wore the exact same CLU-branded checkered purple and gray shirt several different times. One time in particular stands out from about six years ago. I was engaged in a public and painful struggle with my former faith community as I spoke out about the injustice, homophobia and transphobia prevalent in the church. When Howie heard about this, he pulled me aside and encouraged me to keep fighting for what I believed to be right and just. He is missed, but I believe that his love for this community and the ways that he gave his support in public and in private will help him to live on with all of us.
Dane Rowley ’04, MS ’08, director of International Admission
I first met Howie at his acceptance address to the university community following his three-month appointment as acting president. Howie revealed his three-month plan dealing with problems as follows: Month 1: ‘I don’t know anything about that.’ Month 2: ‘I’m working on that.’ Month 3: ‘I’ll need to leave this to the returning president.’ Although I found his comments to be very humorous, I thought he was also being very skillful in identifying … that his role was going to be a placeholder, and the community would need to properly look to the return of the president when seeking changes. … I asked for his sage advice on both professional and personal matters. In response … he … would tell me about his time as a bishop and use of a ‘No Sniveling’ bumper sticker he would keep on his desk. I proudly display that very bumper sticker … in my office now.
Ryan Van Ommeren, associate vice president for Operations and Planning
Howie was a remarkable man and leader. He was just the right person to shepherd the university and the Cabinet through difficult and sensitive times of presidential transition. My nickname for him is ‘Saint Howie,’ which I’m sure he would dismiss as exaggerated sentiment but captures my thoughts and experiences of Howie perfectly. … Howie’s guiding principle of institutional leadership that he had and asked each of us on the Cabinet to share and embody in our responsibilities was to always ‘make room for the spirit.’ God was always included at the table and asked to bless and guide our efforts. He gave us a ‘descending dove’ lapel pin to symbolize this. I still have and wear this pin and think of Howie whenever I do. Another vivid memory of Howie was sitting with him at the funeral of a CLU staff member when a former colleague who had been in extreme difficulty walked into the sanctuary alone. Howie instantly got up from our pew to go be with that person, saying, ‘He needs someone to sit with him.’ I knew then and now that I was learning from a spiritual giant what it means to love your neighbor as yourself. I am honored to have known and worked with Howie Wennes. It was a privilege.
Bill Rosser, former vice president for Student Affairs and Dean of Students
Howie would go out of his way to come to facilities to talk to us and give us the Holy Father in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He’d bless us, and that meant a lot to us because in our Catholic culture, our parents would always bless us before we left the house. Many of the workers then were Latino and only spoke Spanish, and when we went to university events like the annual picnic, he would always come over to make sure everything was OK and that we felt like we belonged. We would walk up to the cross and he would walk with us. He would offer a prayer, then we’d each say a prayer. He was always there to answer my religious questions, and he always had the right answer. He’d say, ‘If something makes people feel closer to God, let it be.’ When I questioned different religions in the world, he made me understand that we’re not here to judge, and love is the only thing that matters. He was a spiritual father to those of us in facilities, groundskeeping and housekeeping. He was amazing. He was a light that still shines in our hearts.
Felix Martinez, housekeeper II, Operations and Planning
Howie was a bright light and beam of sunshine in a world that can be dark. He exuded kindness and joy and, in every interaction he had, he spread God’s love. He didn’t judge — he loved. He had a good word for everyone, and every day worked to make the world a better place. When he volunteered to answer phones during the KCLU membership drive, he would always encourage us. We all adored him, and we will forever miss his smile and laugh. Years ago, when my beloved mom died, Howie reached out to check on me and offer words of comfort. He was a mensch. To know Howie was to love him. As the Lord said in Matthew 25:23, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.
Mary Olson, MPA ’97, KCLU general manager