Biographical Sketch of Harvey Potthoff
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Harvey H. Potthoff
Photo of Harvey H. Potthoff

Harvey H. Potthoff was born on April 23, 1911, in Le Sueur, Minnesota. He attended Morningside College, majored in English, and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1932. Between 1933 and 1935, Potthoff attended Iliff, earning the Th.M. degree in 1935.

The next year, an Elizabeth Iliff Warren Fellowship enabled him to study at Harvard University, where he attended classes with the renowned philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. After this, he returned to the Iliff School of Theology, where he earned his Th.D. in 1941.

Before becoming a member of the permanent faculty at Iliff, Rev. Potthoff was a local church pastor for the Christ Methodist Episcopal Church for 16 years, 1936-1952.

Here, in addition to sermonizing weekly, he gave special attention to the religious education of adults. He also served on national church agencies that dealt with educational and curricular matters. In 1952, Dr. Potthoff became a full-time professor of Christian Theology at Iliff School of Theology and held that position until retiring in 1981.

Dr. Potthoff brought a particular interest in the relationship of critical theological reflection to practical theology to Iliff. His courses, according to students who attended his classes, were full of lively, meaningful discussion. As can be seen from the copious course materials now housed in the Iliff Archives, he constantly revised his lessons and approach in order to take into account the latest in theological, social, and scientific knowledge. Always, however, such knowledge was subordinated to the greater cause of finding meaning in life.

Over the years, Dr. Potthoff has received many distinguished awards for his service to the church and academy. In 1975, he received the Distinguished Service Award from his Alma Mater, Morningside College, in Sioux City, Iowa. The award, entitled the "Order of Morningside," is not often given. Dr. Potthoff was presented the award in part for his service as chairman of Morningside's Long Range Planning Committee for three years. The committee's work was a major factor in the College receiving a $1 million grant.

In January 1986, The Iliff School of Theology honored Dr. Potthoff as a Distinguished Alumnus, the School's highest honor, for his work as a pastor, a preacher, and a professor. At that time, he was only the third person in the School's history to be so honored.

One of Dr. Potthoff's proudest achievements at Iliff was being instrumental in establishing the Iliff-at-Aspen program as an on-going part of the summer courses, open to both lay persons and ministers alike. This program, begun in 1973 and continuing today, seeks to establish a dialogue between religious and secular concerns to determine how the church fits into the broader fabric of culture and how culture, in turn, relates to religion.

In addition to being involved in the local church and at the seminary, Harvey has been involved at both the Annual and General Conferences of the United Methodist Church. In Methodist circles nothing signifies greater honor and trust from associates than to be elected as a delegate to the General Conference of the church. Between the years of 1952 and 1980, Harvey Potthoff was a delegate to eight sessions of the General Conference of the Methodist/United Methodist Church; in 1968, he was a delegate to the fourth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Uppsala, Sweden; and twice he was a delegate to the World Methodist Conference.

In 1981, after being a full-time professor at Iliff for 29 years (and part-time at Iliff for 15 years before that), Dr. Potthoff retired. On the occasion of his retirement, a colleague spoke of the enduring Potthoff legacy: "His theology has informed generations of students as leaven of wisdom in the bread of life. His vision of faith speaks in thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars, and with this mild persistence urge our search to vaster issues . . . So to live is heaven - to make undying music in the world."

During the 1981 Iliff Week of Lectures, Dr. Harvey Potthoff was honored at a number of events celebrating his half-century association with the School. A beautiful stained glass window was commissioned by the Alumni Association and created by one of his former students, the late Rev. David Woodward. The announcement of the effort to endow the Harvey H. Potthoff Chair of Christian Theology was also made during the week. Moreover, Dr. Potthoff was named Chief Academic Officer Ad Interim until the search committee found a new president after the resignation of Iliff's then-President, Dr. Jameson Jones.

The same year he retired from Iliff School of Theology, Dr. Potthoff was asked by Nebraska Wesleyan University's President, John White, to be the Distinguished Visiting Professor of Religion in the Mattingly Endowed Chair for one year. Harvey and Wesleyan faculty and students had such a good relationship that Potthoff stayed for eleven years!

Unsure what undergraduates might be interested in regarding coursework, Potthoff decided to offer a course on "Aging, Dying and Death in Religious Perspective." More than 100 students registered for the class and it continued to fill up each time he taught it. Dr. Potthoff was somewhat baffled by the response to this topic, but he believed that the high demand reflected a genuine need for grief education among young persons. Another popular course taught by Dr. Potthoff was entitled: "Loneliness: Understanding and Dealing With It." He said of the topic, "The most acute loneliness is not necessarily in the later years, as many have assumed, but in adolescence, and very frequently in the first year of college." (Annual Report 1987 from Nebraska Wesleyan University, p. 17-19)

Although Potthoff courses on loneliness, he seldom found himself alone. He attended many Wesleyan sport events, drama productions, and musicals. He was one professor that students frequently invited out to dinner. Students and community members came to know Dr. Potthoff as a man of profound insight, wise counsel and gentle humor. In addition to the lasting impression he made upon students and others in the community, he had a special relationship with the faculty, and he encouraged them to practice an interdisciplinary approach in their teaching. Dr. Potthoff once gave a class on science and religion where 14 professors joined in a semester-long dialogue on a variety of life issues with members of the religion and philosophy departments.

In his position as the Mattingly Visiting Professor of Religion, he had a three-fold purpose: to enrich the course offerings in religious studies; to build bridges between the School and community (as well as the School and church by public speaking), and to organize the Mattingly Symposium, which brought in important public figures.

In celebration of the bicentennial of American Methodism, Dr. Potthoff offered a series of lectures, sponsored by Nebraska Wesleyan University and the Nebraska Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, entitled "The Theology and Lives of the Wesleys." This series was offered at nine locations throughout the state of Nebraska. Some of the topics included: "Share the Nebraska Tribal Experience (1988)," "A Celebration of Planet Earth: Recognizing the 20th Anniversary of Earth Day(1990)", "The World-Wide Reach for Freedom & Justice (1991)", and "Focusing on the Relationship of Science and Religion (1992)."

Outside of his involvement on campus, Harvey Potthoff was active in the community. Potthoff is staunchly opposed to the death penalty, and for eight years he made monthly visits to see two men on death row, with whom he discussed philosophy and theology, worked on faith formation, and for whom he became almost a surrogate father. Indeed, Harvey did become a surrogate father for Tom Wood, a young man whose parents were killed in a tragic accident.

At the time of his retirement from Nebraska Wesleyan, the head of the religion department said of Dr. Potthoff: "If the concept of a Renaissance person means anything, it is really embodied in Harvey." Another colleague noted of Harvey: "He has a theology of life that shapes how he lives his life, and you're drawn to him to find out about that theology of life. And you are inspired by his example. He's a significant person and people gravitate to significant persons. A relationship with Harvey is challenging--friendly and challenging. He calls you to be something."

A former student described Harvey this way: "He's the epitome of understanding and caring. He really cares about people. It shows in his lectures and classes and in his books." The time at Nebraska Wesleyan University provided Potthoff with "a rich privilege--to work with young people and to be honest with them. This is a bonus chapter in my life."

On November 18, 1998, Iliff School of Theology dedicated the Harvey H. Potthoff Seminar Room in his honor. On Harvey's 90th birthday in 2001, Iliff hosted a birthday party in his honor, which featured a large display of his works, and many warm tributes from colleagues and friends.

Harvey H. Potthoff has been pastor, professor, friend, and colleague. He has written numerous articles, presented position papers, developed Christian Education curricula, and he completed eight books, including God and the Celebration of Life(1969), A Whole Person in a Whole World (1972), and Loneliness: Understanding and Dealing With It (1976).

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© 2002. Marshall Eidson