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A Gift for the Ages
State-of-the-art residence hall a tribute to legendary history professor Fenton Duvall

by Julie Riddle, '92

The text on Fenton Duvall's biography and career was adapted from a presentation prepared and given by Whitworth Vice President for Student Life Kathy Storm during the Duvall Hall dedication ceremony on Oct. 14, 2006.


Fenton Duvall autographs a water ski for Duvall Hall residents Ryan Tuck, '09, and Scott Donnell and Kyle Pflug, both '08.
Two alumni turned renowned Whitworth Professor Emeritus of History Fenton Duvall into a "big bundle of gratitude" when they made an anonymous donation for the construction of a new residence hall and requested that it be named in honor of their beloved teacher and mentor. Duvall searched for the words to express his astonishment and appreciation during a Homecoming Weekend dedication ceremony.

"How do you say thank you to a couple of former students who were willing to forgive and forget the times I was a pain in the neck for them, giving them headaches preparing papers I would approve and preparing for my examinations?" Duvall asked the crowd of family members and Whitworth alumni, students, faculty and administrators who gathered to celebrate the building's completion and to honor its namesake.

"They were not only willing to forgive and forget, but they reached down deep into their pockets and came up with a donation of astronomical dimensions, and then didn't insist that the building we're now in be named for them, as most donors would do, but insisted it be named for me," Duvall said. "How in the world can I possibly say thank you loud enough and convincingly enough for that? It's a real problem."

Duvall Hall stands in recognition of a legendary professor whose fingerprints are on Whitworth's renowned Core curriculum, its Jan Term study programs, and its paradoxical commitments to Christ-centeredness and intellectual openness. The new residence hall also provides much-needed housing for Whitworth's growing student population: Over the past decade, the college's full-time, undergraduate enrollment has increased by 33 percent.

Duvall Hall opened in September and is home to 160 students, from freshmen to seniors. The 44,000-square-foot, $7.8 million brick building features innovative four-bedroom "pods" that house eight students per unit and include private living rooms and bathrooms. Duvall Hall was designed to draw students into community, not only in their pods, but in the comfortable lounges that occupy each of the building's four floors.

Duvall, center, and his family members at the Homecoming Weekend dedication ceremony.
The residence hall's focus on community reflects the heart of Fenton Duvall, who quietly and persistently encouraged a strong community at Whitworth during his nearly 35 years as a professor of history. Whitworth President Bill Robinson recognized this recurring Duvall theme in his opening remarks at the Homecoming dedication ceremony.

"The alumni I've met who talk about Fenton Duvall talk about how he built community among students within the larger Whitworth community," Robinson said. "Somehow Fenton had an eye to look right at you and you knew you were loved, but he also looked at the wider community and the world."

As a young man in the late 1940s, Duvall focused on family and graduate school, but in 1949 his world broadened to include Whitworth. While working on his doctorate in history at the University of Pennsylvania, Duvall heard about an opening on the Whitworth faculty. It sounded promising: After all, it would offer him a salary of roughly $3,000 per year – enough to support his wife, Hannah, and their sons, Bob, Bill and Bud. Duvall applied for the position. Whitworth President Frank Warren was so impressed with the applicant's credentials that he offered Duvall a job long-distance, without an interview. Duvall accepted the offer, and his family packed up the car and headed to Spokane, thousands of miles from the East Coast they knew as home.

Over the ensuing years Duvall's commitment to intellectual rigor became legendary across campus. He wanted students to realize, from the perspective of history, that the way they lived was not the only way to live; it was not, in his words, "the be all and end all of life as it is meant to be." Students were stretched by his spirit of academic inquiry and his encouragement to think carefully and well.

Duvall, center front, and a group of Jan Term study-abroad students.
"I believe you can truly have a Christian college where the commitment to Christ is firm and strong and deep and positive," Duvall said in an interview several years ago. "But at the same time you're not afraid to be open to ambiguities and paradoxes and the fact that we don't have all the answers."

Like Whitworth's freshman students, many faculty members new to the college soon learned of Duvall's wise and caring presence. He was quick to give them books, encourage them in their teaching, and help them understand Whitworth's unique character.

"Before I'd stepped foot on the Whitworth campus, I'd heard of Dr. Duvall," says Kathy Storm, vice president for student life. "It was clear that students and alumni loved and admired him, respected him and felt very close to him. He was also known for his sense of humor. When I first arrived in Spokane, I got used to Fenton playfully introducing me to his friends as ‘a young and not very promising new faculty member.'"

In addition to being known for his kindness and his sense of humor, Duvall is famed at Whitworth for having established the Core Program with then-Professor of English (now Professor Emeritus) Clarence Simpson. The two men developed the program's themes of how religious, philosophic and scientific traditions have shaped modern thought, and how students should apply that knowledge.

Duvall was also an early and enthusiastic proponent of off-campus study. As one of the first faculty members to offer a Jan Term study program, Duvall took students to Italy, Russia, Israel, Egypt, Greece and beyond. Alumni from these trips still hold reunions and stay in touch with "Fenny," as they came to call the man who taught them to love the art, culture and ideas of places and eras outside of their own.

Duvall's Italy study program helped put alumna Barbara File, '75, on a career path that led her to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York. After graduating from Whitworth, File lived in Japan for two years, did graduate work in East Asian studies at Columbia University, and in 1984 became an archivist at The Met, a position she holds today.

"Fenton introduced me to Italy and art through his immense love of history and beauty," File says. "Studying in Italy was one of the highlights of my life. I didn't really know what I would do with my history degree, but the trip set a course for me that has always included travel, history and art."

In addition to the impact of his teaching, Duvall's influence extended to administration: He was Whitworth's dean of students for four years and was an advisor to ASWC. He was also the first Whitworth faculty member ever selected to be the college's commencement speaker.

Of his myriad contributions, though, Duvall is most renowned for the paradox he found at Whitworth and nurtured here for so many years: a deep, profound and personal commitment to Christ, and courageous honesty in facing the ambiguities and complexities that arise when one explores the world of ideas.

Even though Duvall is no longer present on campus each day encouraging, challenging, and inspiring his students and colleagues, his imprint is fixed firmly on Whitworth and on those whose lives he has touched. Duvall remains committed to the college he loves and served for virtually all of his professional life, and he continues to care deeply about the development and character of its students. He concluded his remarks at the dedication ceremony with a benediction for the young men and women who now live in his namesake hall.

"I pray daily for Duvall Hall and its students, that they will receive the fullest and finest Christian education Whitworth can possibly give," he said. "And I pray that Duvall's residents become known for the embodiment of Christian humility."

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