R. Fenton Duvall

Posted by - - 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Visionaries

Along with Clarence Simpson, R. Fenton Duvall was an innovator of Whitworth’s distinctive mind-and-heart education. In addition to creating and directing Whitworth’s Core curriculum, beginning in the late 1960s, Duvall was instrumental in study-abroad programming. He was also the dean of students for four years. His is one of the most lasting legacies on campus not only in the structure of Whitworth’s education, but in the residence hall that bears his name and in the annual Simpson-Duvall Lecture Series that brings a variety of voices to campus each semester.

When Duvall was six years old, his father died after falling off a ladder and fracturing his skull. His mother struggled to provide for her five children; Duvall’s opportunities to attend college were limited until his sister, a gospel-music singer who had married a radio evangelist, got Duvall a job in a quartet for a radio show. He made enough to attend Temple University, in Philadelphia, where he earned a bachelor’s degree.

Duvall began teaching undergraduate courses and working on a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, and had married and started a family, when he received a letter from Whitworth President Frank Warren, who skipped the formality of an interview. “Dr. Warren was so impressed with my credentials and my recommendations that he offered me a job,” Duvall said. He and his wife, Hannah, and their three sons moved to Spokane, where he started his post in the history department in 1949. (The Duvalls’ eldest son, Robert, ’62, became president of Pacific University, in Oregon; he also was selected by President George W. Bush to serve on the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Literacy).

Since Duvall’s salary was not enough to support his family, he worked as an interim pastor at a local Methodist church until he became dean of men at Whitworth in 1955. Duvall left Whitworth in 1959, when he accepted a position as dean of faculty at King’s College, in New York. He also served as vice president at Waynesburg College, in Pennsylvania, before returning to Whitworth in 1961 to teach history and direct student personnel once again.

“I wanted to teach history to help kids have that stretching experience that the way you and I live today is not the be-all-and-end-all of life,” Duvall said in a 2004 interview. His engaging lecture style brought students from every discipline to his classes – particularly those on the modern world and the Renaissance. He continued teaching at Whitworth until he was “forced” to retire in 1981, due to a law that required all faculty members over 65 to retire. That year, the college established the Simpson-Duvall Lectureship. In 2006, Duvall attended the dedication ceremony of Duvall Hall, two years before his death, at age 96.

At the building dedication, Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students Kathy Storm remembered Duvall’s contributions to the institution: “It was Whitworth’s commitment to intellectual rigor and honesty that brought Fenton here,” she said. “When he was interviewed several years ago, this is what he said about the spirit he’d found and valued at Whitworth: ‘I believe you can truly have a Christian liberal arts college when the commitment to Christ is firm and strong and deep and positive. 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.’” She added, “He was deeply humble, and he challenged us in the academy to remain always cognizant of the limits of human understanding.”