By Michelle Westlund '83, senior content specialist
August 02, 2019 | 4 p.m.
Long before they met, Rod and Gwen Larson were on parallel paths heading straight to Bethel. As a youth growing up attending First Baptist Church in Cambridge, Minnesota, Rod '70, S'74 says that "Bethel was the only place I wanted to go." And Gwen (Peterson) '72 says pretty much the same thing. She grew up near Bethel's former Snelling Avenue campus, and Bethel faculty and staff were among her mentors and teachers. "From youth, I wanted to go to Bethel," she says.
The two followed their childhood dreams to Bethel College (now Bethel University), met each other there, and married in 1972. Rod then pursued an M.Div. at Bethel Seminary, so the couple extended their Bethel experience, living in Seminary Village-Bethel's former on-campus housing for residential seminary students-for two years.
Rod's pastoral calling led the Larsons to First Baptist Church in New Castle, Pennsylvania, where Rod served in several roles, including youth pastor. His claim to fame there, he jokes, is that he was youth pastor to a young Bob Merritt-who is now senior pastor of Eagle Brook Church, a megachurch with eight Twin Cities campus locations.
Like those childhood friends and mentors who had influenced the Larsons, Rod and Gwen became Bethel advocates themselves during their time in Pennsylvania. They drove vanloads of high school students halfway across the country to visit Bethel, and a number of those students ended up enrolling. In fact, says Gwen, "we know that the children of some of our high school students are now here at Bethel," attesting to the couple's pervasive influence.
But the Larsons gave more than their time and influence. While living in New Castle, they got a phone call from a Bethel student, asking them to join the Coffee Club-a group of donors who support Bethel students financially and receive a coffee mug in return. "This was our first prompting to give as Bethel alumni," says Gwen. "The $25 donation was sacrificial for us then."
Several years later another Bethel student called, and the Larsons saw the request as a challenge to increase their giving. In the meantime, they'd moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where Rod served as senior pastor at Grace Baptist Church for nine years. While in Michigan, he developed an interest in the fledgling computer programming field, and in 1988, the couple returned to the Twin Cities, where Rod began a second career as a programmer, eventually working as a technical instructor for Thomson Reuters Corporation, a multinational mass media and information firm.
Their return to Minnesota restored their physical connection to Bethel, and the Larsons attended on-campus events and again increased their financial support, especially trying to be faithful in giving to capital campaigns. They became more involved than ever, serving on the President's Prayer Council, Friends of the History Center, and Alumni Board. Both Rod and Gwen were responsible for organizing and raising their respective class scholarships. And when Rod took early retirement, he looked no further than Bethel to continue applying his tech skills. As a programmer for the Office of Web Services, "I had absolute fun for seven years-the frosting on my career!" he says.
Meanwhile, Gwen taught first grade in urban St. Paul, serving for 30 years in sometimes challenging classrooms. She maintained her sense of calling-and her sense of humor-as she guided and mentored hundreds of children, "with Aleve® in one pocket and M&M's® in the other," she says. She also worked as an adjunct instructor in education at Hamline University in St. Paul.
In 2015, just five days apart, the Larsons both retired. As they planned for their future-and for that of their children, Amy '97, GS '00 and Peter-they continued their generous, intentional support of Bethel. "Generosity is not optional for people of faith," says Rod. "Scripture demands generosity."
The couple has funded the Rod and Gwen Larson Scholarship, an endowed scholarship supporting Bethel students of need, and they've provided a bequest for Bethel in their revocable living trust. Ever the pastor and teacher, they explain the concept simply and clearly: "Our estate goes to Bethel, and Bethel in turn pays our kids interest for 10 years," says Rod. "At the end of that time, our estate belongs to Bethel. This effectively doubles the size of our estate."
With such clear-cut benefits to a revocable living trust, the question seems obvious: Why don't more people have one? "People put off planning; they don't want to make those decisions," says Rod. "But it's important to plan intentionally, to be a good steward of what you've been given. We're much more at peace, knowing our kids and grandkids will benefit too."
Their generosity provides for generations of Bethel students as well. And that's been the Larsons' intent all along. "Since moving back to St. Paul, we've seen changes in the culture around us, and we've seen Bethel adapt to those changes with integrity," says Gwen. "So many institutions drift from their mission, but Bethel has maintained its emphasis on integrating faith and academics. The focus on community and spiritual life, in addition to academic life, helps people grow as whole Christian beings."
From youthful dreams to legacy plans, the Larsons' Bethel commitment has remained a priority from beginning to end. "We have many connections to other places," says Rod, "but we've chosen to support Bethel, because we believe God is at work here." Adds Gwen, "We just want to be faithful to what the Lord has given us. We trust Bethel and we want to share what we have been given."
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