Dr. Peter Harstad is 2013 Distinguished Alumnus Award recipient

Dr. Peter Harstad sits on a desk in his home office.
Dr. Peter Harstad received the Distinguished Alumnus Award at Bethany’s Spring Commencement on May 17, 2013.

Dr. Peter Harstad (’55) is the recipient of the 2013 Bethany Lutheran College Distinguished Alumnus Award. Harstad, the third of ten children, was born on November 13, 1935, to the Reverend Adolph and Martha (Tjernagel) Harstad.

Harstad is an accomplished historian with several books and publications to his credit, has taught at the college level, and directed two State Historical Societies. He has earned several awards including:

  • Sagamore of the Wabash Award by the State of Indiana
  • The Eli Lilly Lifetime Achievement Award
  • Award of Commendation by the Concordia Historical Institute

Harstad attended both Bethany Lutheran High School and Junior College and credits the institution for helping to shape him both spiritually and intellectually. He especially notes professors Rudolph Honsey and Norman Holte and coach Dwain Mintz for their instruction and advice during his years in Mankato. Harstad says Mintz had this sage advice for his players: “If you are going to do something, do it right.” That simple lesson has stuck with him through the years. Harstad says beyond the instruction, he’s most thankful for meeting his wife of fifty-six years, Carolyn (Schneider) at Bethany.

After Bethany, Harstad enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree in education with emphases in English and history. After teaching high school for a year, love for learning brought him and Carolyn back to Madison where he earned both M.A. and Ph.D. degrees. It was a busy time for the young family with Peter working and attending graduate school all while the couple’s first two children were born.

After earning his Ph.D., Harstad taught American History at Idaho State University where he was a faculty member from 1963 to 1972. At Idaho State, he served as President of the Faculty Affairs Committee.

While on leave from Idaho, Harstad held a Ford Foundation-financed post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Kentucky. His work included examining, organizing, and publishing historical documents of former Secretary of State Henry Clay.

While on a later leave, Harstad served for a year as visiting professor of history at the University of Iowa, which eventually led to a post as the Director of the State Historical Society of Iowa. He served in that position from 1972 to 1981.

Harstad then found his way back to Bethany, serving as development officer and history professor. During a three-year tenure at Bethany, he helped to establish the Dr. S.C. Ylvisaker Scholarship Fund, which is still providing scholarships for students today.

In 1984, Harstad was hired as the CEO of the Indiana Historical Society, an endowed not-for-profit corporation. In this position he was able to focus solely on history programs. The last challenge of his career involved the construction and financing of a $40 million Indiana History Center near the State Capitol in Indianapolis. He retired in 2001.

Harstad continues to conduct research and has written two books since “retiring.” Store Per and We Saw the Elephant are both focused on mid-19th century American history. He is currently working on two projects: a biography of Thomas R. Marshall (Woodrow Wilson’s Vice President) and a book about the young Abraham Lincoln and how his reading and self-education influenced his life.

Harstad says of the award, “I am deeply honored and excited to receive it. To be recognized by Bethany Lutheran College, my alma mater, is very special. Bethany has a special place in my heart. It guided me in my youth, helped me set goals and to achieve them, and it is still there for our family and many others.”

The Harstads have five grown children and ten grandchildren and currently reside in Lakeville, Minnesota. They are active members of Heritage Lutheran Church in nearby Apple Valley.

Harstad was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2005. His faith in Jesus Christ has helped guide him through difficulties and given him confidence that in God’s hands all will be well.

Harstad will receive the Distinguished Alumnus Award at Bethany’s Spring Commencement on May 17, 2013.