• 79 years old
  • Born on November 4, 1934 in Chicago, Illinois, United States.
  • Passed away on December 31, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana, United States.



 Keith Michael Opdahl, 79, of Greencastle IN, died on December 31, 2013. Keith, son of Florence Holmquist and Olaf Solomon Opdahl and loving husband of Martha Opdahl, died from complications following surgery at the IU Simon Cancer Center in Indianapolis.

 Keith was born on November 4, 1934, into a Chicago-based Scandinavian family. He attended public schools in Oak Park, Chicago—he graduated from Oak Park-River Forest High School, class of ’52. His hobby was photography for which he saved up to buy equipment for his dark room in the basement of his home. In 1956, he graduated from Denison University, where he was a member of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, co-editor of the student paper, and excelled on the debate team. He earned his MA and PhD degrees in American Literature from 1956-1961 at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. He wrote the first critical appraisal of Saul Bellow’s work published as The Novels of Saul Bellow (1967). (Bellow was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1976.) Keith taught American literature and creative writing courses at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (1961-1967). To balance his life of the mind as an academic, he built a 12’ sailboat in his second floor apartment.

 In 1965, Keith married Martha Donovan, a graduate student at UW, and took his new bride to honeymoon in a tent on an acre of woods on the shores of Fisher Lake near Mercer, Wisconsin. They returned every summer with their children, eventually building a cabin and making improvements on it yearly. There Keith wrote every day in his study, a converted outhouse with a view of the lake, fished for walleye, sailed his boat, and took his young family on boating and hiking adventures.

 After seven years at UW, Keith opted to teach at a small liberal arts college—DePauw University. He was an engaging, popular teacher who challenged his students and held them to rigorous standards, earning the nickname “Captain Hook” for the C grades he awarded for average work. Several of his students kept in touch after graduation and claim that he had made a difference in their lives. He received DePauw faculty development grants for literary research as well as teaching awards. In 1971-72, Keith was awarded a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship to the University of Coimbra in Portugal. In 1990, he was awarded DePauw’s first Jane Cooling Brady Chair of American Literature for significant contributions through scholarship and teaching. He retired from full-time teaching in 1992. Throughout his academic career, he continued to publish critical articles on contemporary American fiction in academic journals and books of collected essays. He developed a theory of the imagination based on a new understanding of emotion. Emotion as Meaning: The Literary Case for How We Imagine was published in 2002.

 Keith was witty and charming, a natural story teller, and loved for his jovial nature, vitality, and ability to connect meaningfully with anyone who crossed his path. He was an unusual combination of brainy intellect and empathetic feeling: a brain with a heart. He played golf with good companions in the Wednesday Scramble at Old Hickory Golf course, or teed off at sunrise alone or with a friend. He loved to read contemporary fiction and had wide-ranging interests. He practiced composting and organic gardening in a backyard plot. He cheered for his wookies on the Greencastle swim teams and led a Cub Scout pack that achieved soapbox derby wins.

 In his retirement years, Keith took up fine woodworking and built cherry furniture for family members. He was an excellent cook, most notably of cassoulet and savory tarts. He participated in energetic political debates, leaning decidedly left of center, and arguing for social and economic justice and the common good. Above all, he was a dedicated husband, father, and grandfather who is remembered lovingly for his warm-heartedness, winning sense of humor, sunny disposition (“he would light up the room the minute he walked in”), his giving nature (“the best and most supportive of friends”), integrity, and sharp intellect (“we all were so enriched by knowing him”).

 Keith is survived by his wife Martha, his son Michael Opdahl and daughter-in-law Kristan Opdahl of Altadena, CA; his daughter Cristina Opdahl and son-in-law Christopher Danz of Fayetteville, WV; and his brother Jon Opdahl of Fort Collins, CO. He is also survived by four grandchildren and two nephews. Losing him has left a hole in many hearts.

 The family welcomes friends and relatives to a Remembrance Gathering on Saturday, May 10, 2014, from 2 - 5 p.m. with a program at 3:00, in the Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University, 2961 W. County Rd. 225 S., Greencastle IN 46135. (Directions can be found at http://www.depauw.edu/academics/centers/prindle.) In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Keith M. Opdahl Memorial Fund for Contemporary American Fiction at Roy O. West Library, DePauw University. Mail to the DPU Giving Office, 300 E. Seminary St., Greencastle IN 46135 (memo: Keith Opdahl Memorial Fund).

 Memorial Fund

 In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to the Keith M. Opdahl Memorial Fund for Contemporary American Fiction at Roy O. West Library, DePauw University.

 Mail contribution to:

DePauw University Giving Office

300 E. Seminary Street

Greencastle, IN, 46135 

memo: Keith Opdahl Memorial Fund

* * * * * * * *

Remembrance Gathering

 The family of

Keith Michael Opdahl

  1934 – 2013

 welcomes friends to a

 Remembrance Gathering

 Saturday, May 10, 2014

 2 − 5 p.m.

3 p.m. Program

 The Prindle Institute for Ethics, DePauw University

 Directions to Prindle: 2961 West County Road 225 SGreencastle, IN 46135




                                                       * * * * * * * * * * * *

  A Remembrance Gathering


Claude Cymerman, pianist

Eric Edberg, cellist

friends and DPU colleagues



Catherine Fruhan

friend, DPU colleague and fellow movie buff



Jim Ballowe

friend and fellow graduate student at the

U. of Illinois-Champaign-Urbana, '57 - '61


Martha Glesne Cussler

college friend when Keith and Martha were dating at the

U. of Wisconsin-Madison in the early '60s


Bill Donovan

cousin-in-law and Keith's former student at

UW-Madison in the early '60s


Ginger Weiss Danz

friend since a 5-year-old in our Greencastle neighborhood

* * * *


Joe Heithaus, poet

friend and DPU English Department colleague

"Long and Sluggish Lines"                           Wallace Stevens

"Soundings"                                                    Joseph Heithaus

* * * *

Dan Bronson

friend and DPU English Department colleague, '71 - '79

Istvan Csicsery-Ronay

friend and DPU English Department colleague


Bob Bottoms

friend and DPU colleague


Cristina Opdahl


CODA                                                   Read by Michael Opdahl, son

         And yet I was given a self at the beginning for which I can take no credit or blame. I was born a Norwegian. I was born overly sensitive and independent just as I was born serious-minded and intelligent. To look at my life is to look at a self over which I have little control. Which is not to say that I am not proud of the talents I have or regretful of the ones I missed. The simple truth is that we did not choose the self we have any more than we chose the parents who brought us to existence. We have the illusion of free will, but in truth play out the nature of the self that we were given.

                                                     --Keith Opdahl, from his memoir, 2013

                                                    * * * * * * * *

Note:  a video of the Remembrance Gathering and Program can be viewed in the "Gallery" > video section.

Transcripts of some of the Program remembrances can be read in the "His Life" section.

Appreciations by relatives, friends, colleagues, and former students who could not attend the Remembrance Gathering also appear under "His Life." 


Posted by Laura Stebelton Mason on 4th November 2014
Remembering Keith and thinking of his family on this special day. ForeverMissed.com sent me a message indicating that today is Keith's birthday. I am thankful to have received it, as I now know that he shares a birthday with my daughter, who turns 12 today. I will happily remember Keith and his kindness to me each year on Nov. 4. All the best to Martha and family!
Posted by Toby Fulwiler on 28th May 2014
Inspired me as an undergrad at Wisconsin, became later a model for my own college teaching--warm, wise, and humane--a big smile, always provocative, and I'll miss him.
Posted by Martha Opdahl on 14th May 2014
Shared by Laura Stebelton Mason on 01/06/2014 I was saddened today to read of Professor Opdahl's passing, having thought fondly of him just this past weekend while discussing a Hemingway novel with my father. Professor Opdahl taught a Hemingway and Bellow course my freshman year at DePauw (1983-84). While it was a challenging course for a first-semester college freshman, I will always remember his incredible smile, sparkling/dancing eyes, enthusiastic delivery of subject matter, and encouraging words for me as I pursued success in his classroom. Professor Opdahl's gift for teaching was evident each time the East College bell tolled and he "took the stage" of his classroom in Asbury Hall. I extend condolences, as well as prayers for peace and comfort, to his family, and all who loved him most. Thank you, Professor Opdahl, for the kindness and the knowledge you shared with me so many years ago. May you rest in peace.
Posted by Christine Anderson on 11th May 2014
I was a student of Dr.Opdahl in 1970. I still have my 1/2 blue book, on which he wrote that I was insightful. When I taught, I used his teaching as my model. With my son in college I was relfecting on my experience and thought, I would love to go see him. We were lucky to have him in our lives. Lovely tribute.
Posted by Margie Koller on 15th February 2014
Keith will be missed by all who knew him. We enjoyed his wit and wonderful sense of humor each of the few times he and family would come and visit us in Lima.
Posted by Lynn Klamkin on 14th January 2014
Keith and Martha showed me great warmth and generosity When I was the greenest faculty member in Greencastle. Keith was a bright and witty colleague. My condolences to Martha and their children.
Posted by Robert Kingsley on 8th January 2014
A beautifully written tribute to a wonderful family man, Pat's and my dear friend and my colleague. He will truly be missed. We send our thoughts and prayers to you all and hope you will find strength in the joy of life he brought to us all...
Posted by Harry Brown on 6th January 2014
Warmly remembered by the DePauw English Department

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