How Hillcrest Got Its Name

Hillcrest Academy in the 1940s.

A school on the crest of a hill is a place where students are riding on the ridgeline summit---taller than the treetops, above the fray of worldly commotion and the everyday humdrum of commonplace life.

An “academy,” if Christianity is applied and taught there practically, might be one step higher, heavenward, on a narrow path that leads to life than the wide highway found in the hallways of the “public school” and its blackboard jungle tangles.

Hillcrest Academy sounds like a private school where the students might even wear uniforms, with a coat of arms emblem on the front handkerchief pocket of a blazer jacket.

When a speaker adds the word “Lutheran” to “Hillcrest” and “Academy” then the meaning of the school is clarified.  This must be some sort of a Christian school, if Martin Luther is translated correctly, he and the school stand for the pure message of Christ as the sole basis for living one’s life (sola scriptura).

The proof of being a Christian school is not in name only, but must be revealed through the lives of those who pass through the hallowed halls of Hillcrest.  That is the true test of a school, not the grades, the exams or the scholarships, that really measures its worth.  It is an ongoing call to the graduates of the academy to live their lives in Christ.

The school got its name as Hillcrest Lutheran Academy in 1948.  

In that year, in the aftermath of World War II---which had ended just three years previously, the school’s leaders wanted to renew the mission of the high school in the dawn of a new era of hope after the tragedies of that deadly war.

To bring some fun into the mix, the church fathers proposed a contest to choose new names for the high school department and the Bible School and seminary departments of the Lutheran Brethren Schools.  If ever there was a boring name, it was contained with the terms “Lutheran” and “Brethren” and “Schools,” for each word was foundational, but very basic, hence boring.

E.M. Strom, president of the Lutheran Bible School, was chairman of the “Name Committee,” established in 1947.  Strom, who had musical last name that sounded like the strum on a guitar, asked church people for assistance in his name quest.  “We Need Your Help,” he pleaded in Faith and Fellowship magazine, to find two names for the two schools that had different missions in the denomination---the Seminary/Bible School wished to be separate from the high school department, partly because its students were older than the academy’s teenagers, but mainly to elevate the seminary into a proper status within the higher education community.

President Strom asked for new names that would identify the mission of each school and those names “ought to be euphonious,” in other words, melodious and rolling off the tongue as clear raindrops trailed down from the dormers of the four-story castle on the summit of the hill on Alcott Drive.

All contestants were to write suggestions for names on a “separate sheet of paper without your name” on it, so that the name of the writer would not influence the judges.  Each contestant was instructed to write his or her name on a cover letter, so that the winner could be identified.

As with any contest, prizes went to the winners of the name game.  Because it was a Bible School, it seemed to make sense that the winners would each get a Bible.  Two “ten-dollar” Bibles, one donated by Pastor Oscar Monson, from Fergus Falls, and another by O. H. Overland of Grand Forks, North Dakota, were held as enticement for those who wished to bring mellifluous names before the committee.

However, not all went a smoothly as hoped.  A few ideas came from “different people,” and the naming committee “considered all these names carefully” and picked the most euphonious, the most sonorous, the most harmonious one for the church’s annual meeting to approve.  Sadly, the name chosen, “Lakeview Lutheran Schools” faced total rejection by the conventioneers, who must have found it to be sadly and emphatically non-euphonious.

Instead of Lakeview, the delegates decided to call the schools by the plainest of plain names, the most boring of boring names.  The notes from the annual meeting tell the story clearly:  

“Motion passed:  That the names of our school system shall be The Lutheran Brethren Schools with the seminary designated as The Lutheran Brethren Seminary, and the high school as The Lutheran Brethren Academy.”

How these names were better than the old name of “Lutheran Bible School” was unclear.

The headmaster of the high school, President M.E. Sletta, felt that the plain names were “unsatisfactory,” and he wrote that plenty of people felt a “general dissatisfaction” with those names.  Therefore, the church body gave the matter another year of thought.

In 1948, the contest resumed and the church sought a name that really resonated with the schools’ mission.

A graduate of the high school department, class of 1947, came to the rescue.  A young man came up with the right name, one that was really wanted by the church people.

Robert Overgaard, who had been born in Dalton, Minnesota, twenty miles south of Fergus Falls, and who had grown up in Fergus Falls, had an inspiration.  His father, Gust Overgaard, was a carpenter who had been hired to remodel the Old Castle school building after its purchase in 1935, and the height and majesty of the building held its sway over young Robert as his father’s workmen improved it on the outside and on the inside.

When shinglers put new shingles on the roof, four-and-a-half stories above the grassy summit of the hill, the forty-five-foot roof peak gave some workers pause.  When one of the shinglers lost his footing atop the sharply-pitched roof and slid untethered to the edge, all who saw him grasp the rain-gutter with all his might so that he did not plunge to his death, rushed to his aid and pulled him to life and safety on the rooftop.

With his life saved, the workman shakily got off the roof, down the flights of stairs and rested tremblingly under an oak tree on the school grounds below.

Gust Overgaard gave the shaken man thirty minutes to ponder his mortality and then told him to either go home or go back on the roof.  If he did not climb again to the roof, said Overgaard, he would likely never reach the heights again.  

The fellow went back up.

This incident perhaps influenced young Bob Overgaard in his thinking about the school and his idea to submit the name of “Hillcrest Lutheran Academy” to the powers that governed the school.

He wrote a paragraph to explain the name.  The long name could be shortened to “Hillcrest,” to simply tell where the school was built, on the crest of a hill in Fergus Falls, so that a student could say “I go to Hillcrest,” a word that was descriptive in itself of the “little hill at Hillcrest” among the many hills of the city. The building itself was high and to be in the upper stories brought the “feeling of being on a hill,” high above the treetops.

Maybe some people felt at the time, recalled Overgaard later, that the word Hillcrest didn’t “say anything,” but it worked because it “sounded good in your ear,” and it had a “crisp sound to it.”

Overgaard commented that it was not really that sophisticated of a name, but Hillcrest Academy “sounded like a private school” and to outsiders it sounded “academic.”

What did Bob Overgaard win for a prize?  According to his recollections he won a small sum of money, twenty-five dollars, and a Bible.

The name of Hillcrest Lutheran Academy has endured and, while the old building looks much the same, the legacy of the school, through its three thousand-plus graduates continues to be written through the lives of those alumni who looked up to the roofline and looked down from the crest of the hill to the streets of Fergus Falls far below.

Steve HoffbeckComment