A Life Worth Giving

Thomas Peter Von Bahr recognized that his three years at Moorhead State College (MSC) transformed his life. But it wasn’t until he learned his life was ending that he came to fully appreciate the impact of his Moorhead State education.

Thomas enrolled at MSC in 1964 after attending high school and two years of community college near his childhood home in New York. Although he had previously been an average student, Thomas quickly discovered a passion for learning at MSC and developed a life-long love of literature and music. He also formed enduring friendships with several professors, including President Roland Dille and philosophy Professor Charlie Magel.

President Dille encouraged Thomas to take courses in a wide range of academic disciplines (and then waived college policies that restricted registration to students majoring in those disciplines). Because of President Dille, Thomas learned to value liberal education for its role in cultivating curiosity, critical thinking, and social responsibility—qualities that prepared Thomas to live purposefully and meaningfully.

But it was from Charlie Magel that Thomas learned the importance of living generously. As their friendship deepened, Charlie shared his plan to leave money to Moorhead State in his will and challenged Thomas to do the same someday. Thomas assured Charlie he would. And so, decades later, when Thomas learned he was dying of cancer, he reached out to let the university know he wanted to make good on his promise.

By any measure, Thomas lived an extraordinary life. His story spanned more than seven decades, with only three short years spent at Moorhead State. Following graduation in 1967, he continued his quest for knowledge by enrolling in advanced courses at several universities. He traveled the globe, studying world cultures and collecting books in each place he visited.  After putting down roots in the Puget Sound region of Washington, Thomas founded the Evergreen Land Trust, now the oldest community land trust in the Pacific Northwest, to promote affordable housing and sustainability. Later, he was a successful business owner and community activist in the small island community he called home until his death in August 2021.

Before he died, Thomas let MSUM know of his decision to leave virtually his entire estate—including his beloved book collection—to the university. The initial estate gift of $4.3 million is one of the largest single gifts ever made to MSUM. It was inspired more than 50 years ago by the words and generosity of a Moorhead State faculty member. And it reflects Thomas’s understanding that his three short years at Moorhead State made all the difference in his life.

In keeping with Thomas’s wishes, his gift will fund scholarships for students majoring in the arts and humanities. It will also fund a center named in honor of Thomas’s parents: The Tom and Adrienne Bahr Center for the Arts and Humanities. Both the scholarships and the Center will fulfill Thomas’s dream of ensuring that future generations of students benefit from the same transformative education he received at Moorhead State.

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