This Father’s Day, some people will thank their father for mentoring them, others will grieve the death of their father, and still others will remember fondly the life of one particular father-like mentor who shaped a thousand young lives as a teacher at Lakeside Lutheran High School and Arizona Lutheran Academy. Mr. Vic Fenske of Phoenix, Arizona, died on June 7, 2016. His legacy, however, is just now beginning.
One Brick at a Time
Mr. Fenske taught everything. Spanish, German, or Latin—he could teach them all, and he did. Journalism, photography, and graphic design—these subjects kept Room 10 at Arizona Lutheran Academy abuzz with activity well into the evening. Along the way, Mr. Fenske taught life, the whole thing, everything anyone will ever need to know to survive and to thrive in life.
If he had a few spare minutes at the end of Spanish class, or if the journalism staff needed a break for supper, “Mr. Vic” had a story ready to tell, and in the story he taught life.
One day he taught my class how to build a house. He knew how to build one from experience. He told us about the house he built in Wisconsin. He built it one brick at a time. Even after his family moved in, he kept building. He finished this, he refined that, he completed one thing, he improved another, and he never gave up. He never stopped dreaming, he never stopped planning, and he never stopped working. The day he finished building the house was the day he sold it and moved.
From that story we learned how to complete any task, no matter the enormity. Get started now, and build it one brick at a time. Thank you, Mr. Fenske. I’m still building today, because of what you taught me twenty-five years ago. How many other alumni owe their careers to this lesson?
To be clear, Mr. Fenske did not reduce the formula for life’s success down to mere determination, as if will power and persistence would ensure the completion of grand projects. No, such advice would be too worldly for a man like Mr. Vic. He looked not within himself but beyond himself. He focused not on what he could do each day, but on what God was doing with him and through him and for him each day. Yes, he built his house one brick at a time, but he used the hand God had created for him and the brick God had given to him. Mr. Fenske’s eyes looked to the Architect the whole time.
Unless the Lord Builds
Together with his fellow teachers at Arizona Lutheran Academy, Mr. Fenske embodied the Bible passage according to which the campus itself had been dedicated. I still remember vividly that outdoor service: folding chairs serving as pews, the blue sky overhead, the Arizona sunshine beating down, and the young palm trees not yet tall enough to provide shade. I remember, too, the text (Psalm 127:1):
Unless the Lord builds the house,
They labor in vain who build it.
The pastor marveled at the 18-acre campus, with its the newly constructed buildings, and then said that none of it really mattered. He was right. None of it would make any positive difference, unless the Lord was the builder. God, through His Word, sanctified that campus. God, through His Word, blessed about a hundred fifty students each year in daily chapel services, religion classes, and classes of all subjects taught from a Christ-centered perspective. And God blessed the students’ lives through teachers like Vic Fenske, who signed each of his letters like he lived each day of his life, “In His service.”
The Lord whom Mr. Fenske served was not an oppressive taskmaster, as some may suspect God to be. Rather, Mr. Fenske recognized on every page of Scripture the love, the mercy, the grace, the forgiveness of God. He taught us of the love of Christ Jesus for us sinners in chapel devotions. He modeled it in his classroom. He wrote about it in ALA’s Accent magazine. During retirement, his pen never stopped. One brick at time, he continued to write brief devotional articles for the monthly newsletter of Cross of Glory Lutheran Church.
For Latin and for All of Life
It was in Latin class that Mr. Fenske taught me the word “vocatio,” but it was beyond the classroom that he showed me the term’s real significance: each of us has a “calling” in life, as we serve as channels for God’s blessings to the people in our midst. Some of us do this in highly publicized ways: winning a scholarship, starting our own business, and the like. Some of us pursue our God-given vocation in seemingly small ways—seemingly small, but only seemingly. We won’t make front-page news by tucking our children into bed, but we thereby renew the world one life at a time. Whatever our vocation, the lessons from Room 10 apply equally as well.
Imagine a high school with fewer than one hundred fifty students producing a monthly literary/fine arts magazine, a bimonthly sports newspaper, and a yearbook, all entirely in house. Mrs. Adickes, the principal’s wife, ran the press, and Mr. Fenske himself occasionally converted photographs to half-tones when we were short on graphic design students. But everything else, the students did themselves: interviewing, reporting, editing, layout and design, shooting pictures, developing negatives, printing photos, copy editing, and ordering pizza to sustain ourselves well into the night, while Mr. Fenske’s dogs begged from under the desk. Like the choir director and the football coach, this extraordinary journalism teacher knew how to motivate and coordinate a team to achieve greatness. The Columbia Scholastic Press Association—at Columbia University in New York—more than once granted national recognition to the productivity of that tiny little school called Arizona Lutheran Academy.
Mr. Fenske understood the power of images and words. His career as a foreign language, journalism, and graphic design teacher helped all of us appreciate the art of communication. Sometimes he shared his own work with us, as was the case with an essay entitled, “You’ll Never Eat Another Egg.” From this we learned the therapeutic power of autobiography and allegory. Ostensibly, the story was about a boy whose dog had raided the chicken coop and tasted an egg. The boy’s father said that once a dog tastes one egg, the chicken coop will never be safe again. The boy was then required to shoot his dog in order to spare the chickens and eggs for the future. Vic had actually experienced something like this in his youth, but the story also was an allegory for a current situation, and to a few of us he confided the identities of “the boy,” “the father,” and “the dog.” Writing, he taught us, helps people come to terms with life. But all this was but a small hint of the much grander truth: the written Word, the Bible, transforms hearts, reconciling wayward people to the Author of Life.
Beyond the high schools where Mr. Fenske taught, his influence continues and long shall continue. Personally, I owe much gratitude to him for bringing me to the Midwest on a “Focus on the Ministry” trip as we toured three Lutheran colleges and two seminaries. We students bought root beers at every truck stop, but Mr. Fenske always drank not one but two V-8s. I ended up enrolling at the same college from which Mr. Fenske had graduated, Bethany Lutheran. There he met his wife, and there I met my wife. Today I serve as Chair of the History Department at Bethany. In Room-10 style, my students published an award-winning collection of essays and historic documents concerning the vision of Lutheran education. The title, Telling the Next Generation, captures what Mr. Fenske accomplished and still accomplishes through the labors of his students. Bethany’s recently retired Vice President for Student Affairs, Steve Jaeger, is a Fenske alumnus, as is our current Advancement Director, Art Westphal, as well as our President, Gene Pfeiffer, and his wife, Carrie Pfeiffer, who teaches in the Education Department.
Back in Arizona, many people used to wonder, “Where would ALA be without Vic Fenske?” The same could be said of Bethany Lutheran College and of the lives of many individuals scattered now across the globe. Some of us he took to Mexico, and some to Spain, where we experienced full-immersion Spanish instruction amid unforgettable adventures. Many of his students have become pastors or else teachers at Christian schools; quite a few have shared the Gospel among Latino populations. In his journalism class, he forced all of us into the habit of writing a journal of 200 words or more per day—and many of us still remember the lighter yoke of writing poetry, for which he required only 100 words, so long as it really was poetry. If all of us today remember the love of God in Christ Jesus, then Mr. Fenske would smile to see that the real lesson has endured, regardless of the word count.
While we were caught in the struggles of the teen years, Mr. Fenske was there for us. He was like a second father to many of us, and the only father for a few of us. I recall classmates who lost their fathers to debilitating diseases and death. I recall others who suffered the trauma of divorce. Although neither death nor divorce struck my childhood home, I did experience a time of distance from my father (long since healed, I thank God). It wasn’t just journalism that we talked about with Mr. Vic. We needed someone playing backup in the Fatherhood Department, and he delivered. Ask any one of his students, “Who was the most influential man in your life during your teen years?” No question about it, Mr. Fenske makes the short list. For a few, he ranks number one and for the rest of us he’s a close second or third. He built us up from adolescence into adulthood, one brick at a time.
A New Home, Built One Brick at a Time
His life work now complete, Mr. Fenske has moved out of his old residence and into a new home. Though at times going unnoticed, the Builder has been carefully constructing it all these years, once brick at a time.
“Let not your hearts be troubled,” said Vic’s best friend, Jesus. “In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.” (John 14:1–3)
In our last phone conversation, a couple of months before his death, Vic told me that his funeral would be a celebration party—not a lamentation of his earthly departure but a rejoicing for his heavenly homecoming. I hear heaven will be an open house party and it lasts forever. If you believe that God has invited you even though you really don’t deserve to come, then you’ve got everything straight. I’ll see you there, and Vic will be standing by the door marked “Room 10.”
Meanwhile, you’re down on this earth with me for the same reason that Mr. Vic didn’t die last November when the doctors thought he would. Perhaps all those vitamin-rich V-8s from years ago boosted his longevity, but there was another reason, too. As his Christ-trusting physician explained to him after his survived beyond his expected time of death, “God has healed you to serve others. Don’t just sit around. Get out there and serve.” And so Vic took his cancer-embattled body around to visit shut-ins for as long as he was able, consoling them with the love of God that transcends all understanding.
You know the one I mean.
Mr. Fenske told you all about it.
Dr. Ryan C. MacPherson is the founding president of Into Your Hands LLC and the author of several books, including Rediscovering the American Republic (2 vols.) and Debating Evolution before Darwinism. He lives with his wife Marie and their homeschooled children in Casper, Wyoming, where he serves as Academic Dean at Luther Classical College. He previously taught American history, history of science, and bioethics at Bethany Lutheran College, 2003–2023 He also serves as President of the Hausvater Project, which mentors Christian parents. For more information, visit www.ryancmacpherson.com.