Obituary for Dr. Kenneth Dean Tollefson

Kenneth Dean Tollefson was born on October 26, 1935 in Cedar Falls, Iowa and passed away on November 20, 2018 in Shoreline, Washington.  He was the fourth of five sons of Willard and Ruth Tollefson.  Ken met Ruth Martin of Kansas, during college and they married on August 20, 1955.  Ken earned a Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary (Wilmore, Kentucky) in 1961.  He pastored a Free Methodist church in Norman, Oklahoma, before being called to study anthropology, completing a master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma in June of 1965. A couple months later, Ken, Ruth, and daughter, Susan Jo, moved to Seattle where Ken was hired to fill two roles at Seattle Pacific College – professor of anthropology and the Resident Life Coordinator (RLC) for the men of Hill Hall.  In November 1965, Ken’s second daughter, Kenda Ruth was born.
Soon after arriving on campus, Ken began working on his doctorate at the University of Washington.  Research for his dissertation, titled, The Cultural Foundation of Political Revitalization among the Tlingit, took Ken to Angoon, Alaska, a remote island village in Southeast Alaska.  A few years later,  in appreciation of his growing involvement and leadership within that community, a potlatch was thrown in Ken’s honor where he was adopted as a Tlingit tribal member and given the name, Hiyash.
Ken’s anthropological legacy includes:

  • Recruiting Abner Johnson, master Tlingit carver, to carve a story pole for Seattle Pacific College. 
  • Partnering with fellow SPU faculty members to assist in research and become involved with various Native American tribes around Western Washington, making SPU a leader in the nation for Native American concerns.  
  • Successfully working to turn Snoqualmie Falls into a “traditional cultural site” recognized on the National Register of Historical Places and became the first natural site in the state of Washington. 
  • Testifying in Washington D.C. at a House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs meeting to keep the Bureau of Indian Affairs from withdrawing recognition to the Chinook, Cowlitz, Duwamish, Samish, Snohomish, Snoqualmie, and Steilacoom tribes.  
  • Working closely with scholars from the Smithsonian Institute to date and record the significance of recently uncovered Sla-hal carved pieces from bone that were used for thousands of years to determine societal matters and decisions.
  • In January 2015, the Journal of Northwest Anthropology published the “Tribal Trio of the Northwest Coast” a memoir representing Ken’s lifetime of work with the Tlingit, the Duwamish, and the Snoqualmie tribes over many years, in their quest for tribal autonomy.  

Ken was in a unique position to intertwine his theological training with his anthropological studies and was committed to his scholarship in both disciplines throughout his life.  He spent several years of intensive study in two books of the Bible. The first book he focused on was Nehemiah where Ken developed insights into what it means to assist people in meeting their physical needs as well as restructuring cultural systems to meet spiritual needs.  He was honored as the Winifred Weter lecturer at SPU, where he first presented his analysis of Nehemiah: Agent of Change. Later, Ken joined forces with fellow biblical scholar H.G.M. Williamson, to publish Nehemiah as Cultural Revitalization: An Anthropological Perspective.  His insight into Nehemiah was used by other institutions as a guide for training missionaries.   From his study of the Epistle of James came a profound sense of what it means to be a maturing Christian.  His studies provided insight into what is expected from someone seeking to be a “scholar servant,” and Ken became a leader on campus by guiding his colleagues through what should be expected of educators at SPU.  

In addition to his many vocational accomplishments, Ken enjoyed hiking with friends, fishing, sports, and spending time with his extended family.  He is survived by daughters Susan (Tollefson) Siverson ’81, current budget manager for the SPU School of Education; Kenda (Tollefson) Gatlin ’88, current registrar of SPU; and grandchildren/their spouses, all of whom attended SPU: Eric Siverson ’09, Katie (Jeffris) Siverson ’06, Trent Siverson ’10, Heather (McFarland) Siverson ’13, Scott Siverson, Sarah Siverson, Julie Gatlin ’19, and Nathan Gatlin ’20.  

In lieu of flowers, the Tollefson family encourages donations be made to the Kenneth D. Tollefson Minority Student Scholarship Endowment through Seattle Pacific University.