4.07.2017
By Roanoke College News

Roanoke College remembers President Emeritus Dr. Norman Fintel, 1925-2017

His touch is everywhere at Roanoke College, past and present.

It is in the library that bears his name.

It is with the hundreds of students who have been a part of the College's Honors Program, which he started.

It is at Olin Hall, Roanoke's Fine Arts home, which was built and expanded during his presidency.

It is with the many alumni who revere him and recall his significant influence on their lives.

Dr. Norman Fintel, Roanoke College's beloved eighth president and one who spearheaded significant growth at the College, died today after a battle with cancer. He was 92.  

"I don't know how many meetings didn't start on time during his presidency because he was talking with a student on the back quad," said the Rev. Bill Boldin '83, who invited Fintel to his wedding ceremony the day before his college graduation. Boldin married Brenda Boldin '82.

Though Fintel could not attend, he pulled Boldin aside at Commencement to ask him about the day. He even sent a wedding gift of Roanoke College tumblers to the newlyweds.

"It was just that kind of personal touch and interest that he showed in us," said Boldin, adding that Fintel's unhurried demeanor was a model for him.

Boldin now is lead chaplain at the Village at Orchard Ridge, a Lutheran independent living facility in Winchester, Virginia.

It was Fintel who encouraged Jennifer Bruns Sowers '89 to stay at Roanoke when she considered transferring to another institution. He also inspired her to work in higher education.

A recommendation letter from Fintel boosted her application to the University of Maryland, where Sowers earned a master's degree in Communications after Roanoke. She went on to work at several Virginia institutions in admissions, alumni relations and student affairs roles.  

"He was just so friendly, and he took an interest in students," said Sowers, who shares her stories about Fintel with her own college students today.

Fintel, who was born on a farm in southern Nebraska, and his wife, Jo, came to Roanoke in 1975, after he spent 10 years as director of college and university work for the American Lutheran Church.  

Before that, he worked for his alma mater, Wartburg College, in admissions and public relations.

The role of a college president was a good fit for Fintel, who many regarded as a master planner.

Mac Johnson, former vice president and dean of students at Roanoke, remembers a retreat for the College's vice presidents that Fintel organized at Smith Mountain Lake. He wanted the leaders to discuss and debate his 1992 Plan for Excellence, which was Roanoke's first strategic plan.

At one point, Fintel excused himself to take a nap while the vice presidents continued talking and planning, Johnson said.

"He was not a micromanager," Johnson said. "He understood that he couldn't do it all."

Indeed, much of what Fintel accomplished at Roanoke was a result of him putting the right people in leadership roles to make decisions.

“I don't know how many meetings didn't start on time during his presidency because he was talking with a student on the back quad.”

The Rev. Bill Boldin '83

These accomplishments are evident today.

During Fintel's tenure, F.W. Olin Hall, home of the College's Fine Arts department, art gallery and theater, was built and expanded. Also, Roanoke purchased the Elizabeth Campus property and the former Roanoke County Courthouse, now West Hall, which houses the Business Administration and Economics department, as well as the Public Affairs and Religion and Philosophy departments.

More buildings went up on campus while Fintel was president, including the C. Homer Bast Center and the Donald M. Sutton Student Center.

"You build a building a brick at a time," Johnson said, reciting one of Fintel's most used phrases.

Along with campus infrastructure growth, Roanoke's enrollment increased from 1,200 to 1,500 during Fintel's time. It historically was a time of shrinking enrollment for many colleges.

At the same time, Roanoke's endowment rose an impressive 400 percent from $4.6 million in 1975 to $23 million in 1988.

Former Roanoke political science professor, Dr. Bill Hill, called Fintel's presidency the College's Golden Age. He described Fintel as humble and a servant leader.

The college president developed close relationships with many faculty members and made himself available to talk with them, Hill said.

"His idea was to support the rest of us to help us be leaders," Hill said. "He would constantly tell us that you are better than you think you are."

Fintel left his mark in other areas as well. He strengthened Roanoke's ties with the Lutheran church, including building a stronger Religion and Philosophy department by recruiting Lutheran scholar, Dr. Robert Benne, to come Roanoke as the Jordan-Trexler Chair in Religion. Benne created the Center for Religion and Society at Roanoke, which sponsors events throughout the year that address Christian and moral perspectives on contemporary challenges.

Fintel also invited the Virginia Synod, which represents Lutheran congregations throughout the state, to move its offices to the College's Bittle Hall, so that it could have a physical campus presence.

In the midst of big changes for Roanoke, Fintel maintained a close relationship with the College's community — its students, faculty and staff. In fact, the Fintels lived inside the Fowler House on campus for some years during his presidency because they liked being close to the students.

Boldin, who majored in theater arts, recalls the Fintels attending all of the College's theater performances. Other alumni remember the couple's faithful faces cheering on Roanoke athletes during games and competitions.

Dr. Bobbye Au, a retired English professor at Roanoke, said in a 1988 issue of the Roanoke College magazine that Norm Fintel had an unusual ability to "keep a foot in the ivory tower and a foot in the real world."

For their work at the College, the Fintels each received honorary degrees from Roanoke in 1989.  

Fintel's imprint on Roanoke continued, even in his retirement. In 1991, the new Fintel Library opened, named by an anonymous donor for the Fintels.

The former college president went on to serve as an interim administrator at California Lutheran University for some time. He also became more involved in the Roanoke Valley, including serving as president of the River Foundation, a non-profit sponsoring the proposed Explore Park in Roanoke County.

In the past few years, the Fintels moved to Brandon Oaks, a retirement community in Roanoke.  

Still, Fintel's impact at Roanoke lives on. "I see him as a transformational president," Johnson said.

Fintel is survived by his wife, Jo, and their children, Peggy Fintel Horn (Doug), Barbara Fintel Collins (William) and William Fintel (Connie) as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Horn is a 1978 graduate of Roanoke.

Memories of Dr. Norm Fintel