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Alumna leaves $6 million to St. Olaf

By Kari VanDerVeen
February 24, 2011

"Every major event in my life seems to have occurred as a result of positive relationships that began at St. Olaf," Klara Stockdal Johnson said in a 1996 interview. She bequeathed an estate worth approximately $6 million to St. Olaf.

For the last 25 years, Klara Stockdal Johnson's generous support of St. Olaf College has come to life every time John Ferguson puts his fingers to the keys of an organ.

Johnson, a 1938 St. Olaf alumna, and her husband, Elliot, provided the gift that established the Elliot M. and Klara Stockdal Johnson Endowed Chair in Organ and Church Music at St. Olaf, a post that Ferguson — one of America's most respected church musicians — has held since its creation in 1986.

Now Johnson's generosity will be felt even more profoundly on campus with the announcement that she bequeathed an estate worth approximately $6 million to St. Olaf upon her death January 26 at age 94. Nearly all of her gift will go to the St. Olaf endowment.

The daughter of St. Olaf alumni, Johnson had always aspired to attend college on the Hill. She arrived as a first-year student during the depths of the Great Depression and was the first of four daughters to attend St. Olaf. The relationships she developed at St. Olaf sustained her throughout her life, from the fellow Oles who helped her network in the business world to the nine St. Olaf friends who supported each other for decades through letters, reunions, and phone calls.

"Every major event in my life seems to have occurred as a result of positive relationships that began at St. Olaf," Johnson said in a 1996 interview.

After graduation Johnson began a teaching career, but she quickly changed course when the United States entered World War II. She accepted an offer to work in the Chemicals Division of the War Production Board in Washington, D.C., and remained devoted to her alma mater, serving as the secretary for the college's Washington, D.C., alumni club throughout the war years.

After the war ended, Johnson returned to Minneapolis for a job opportunity and eventually landed a position with Augsburg Publishing House that became her vocation for the next 22 years. It was in Minneapolis that she met Elliot Johnson, a man she once described as "an entrepreneur before the term became popular." They married in 1948, and after a number of years her deep devotion to St. Olaf rubbed off on him and he became an enthusiastic supporter of the college as well.

Klara Johnson noted in the 1996 interview that it was her husband’s increasing interest in philanthropy that led to their generous support of St. Olaf. "God has been good to me, which reminds me of my responsibility to others," she said. "Elliot always encouraged me to be a philanthropist, and I'm enjoying the opportunity to assist others in achieving their highest aspirations."

Klara Johnson held many alumni leadership roles with the college, and she made a special effort each year to attend the St. Olaf Christmas Festival. She enjoyed traveling throughout the world, including China and Africa, and following the St. Olaf Choir to South Korea, Norway, and the Vatican.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or