A Very Busy Fahl


In his 14 years at Northwestern, B. Elwood Fahl (back row, far right) taught five subjects and served in nearly every role—from custodian to assistant president.

B. Elwood Fahl wanted to head south. A North Dakota native who was serving as superintendent of the small public school in Clyde, N.D., Fahl applied for a chemistry teaching position at Northwestern Academy and Junior College in 1929, mentioning his desire to live in a milder climate.

Fahl also said he wanted to focus on teaching, rather than administrative work. In his letter of application, he wrote that he was 25 years old, 6-feet-tall and 150 pounds, in excellent health with no deformities, and a Presbyterian. He was making $2,000 but would accept a contract for $1,800.

In a follow-up letter to President Jacob Heemstra, Fahl wrote, “Now if there is anything else in line of extra work ... you would desire me to do, I shall be glad to be of assistance. This position means a great deal to me ... and I am willing to make concessions if necessary.”

Fahl’s references vouched that he was a hard worker, as well as a successful teacher with irreproachable character and “excellent taste in dress.”

President Heemstra was well-known for doing what he could to save the institution money during the years of the Great Depression. He went without a secretary and did some of the janitorial work, and he had a reputation for being in his office from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Not surprisingly, he took Fahl up on his offer of doing extra work. Fahl, who had earned a master’s degree from the University of North Dakota, was hired to teach chemistry in the junior college and physics in the academy. But over the course of his 14 years at Northwestern, he also taught German, math and photography; advised the Beacon student newspaper; led the Junior College Glee Club and the German Club; directed plays; ran the bookstore; and was in charge of financial aid.

Fahl was noted for a beautiful tenor voice, often providing special music in chapel services. From 1936 to 1943, he served as the academy’s principal.

“Prof is very versatile, being a jack of all trades,” an article in the May 1, 1939, Beacon stated. “He holds almost every position in Northwestern from head of the janitors to assistant president.”

Fahl, who lived on campus, had primary responsibility for keeping Zwemer Hall’s furnace fired up. In a 1987 letter to the editor of the Classic, he described his janitorial responsibilities, recalling hours sanding and refinishing the floor of the Science Hall gym (which doubled as the site for chapel services, concerts and theatrical productions). ”I can tell you I learned a lot about floors and plumbing and mowing grass,” he wrote.

Fahl later taught at junior colleges in Arkansas and Maryland. He died in Albuquerque, N.M., in 1996 at the age of 91.

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