Ted Nordenhaug was University’s ‘philosopher-king’ | Mercer Legends

Three men stand in front of a shelf of books.
From left, Dr. Ted Nordenhaug, Dr. Peter Brown and Tom Trimble in 1991. Mercer archives photos

During his 40 years on Mercer University’s faculty, Dr. Theodore “Ted” Nordenhaug broadened the intellectual horizons of generations of students while offering his mentorship and loyalty to his peers. Here’s how he became a Mercer Legend.

Dr. Ted Nordenhaug

Mercer connection: Professor and chair in the philosophy department

Years at Mercer: 1963-2004

What he did: Dr. Theodore Nordenhaug earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Richmond and Ph.D. in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University. He joined the faculty of Mercer’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 1963, serving as a professor of philosophy for 40 years and department chair for 35 of them. 

He established the University’s successful Great Books program with other Mercer Legends, such as Dr. Joseph “Papa Joe” Hendricks, Tom Trimble, Dr. Peter Brown and Dr. Michael Cass. He also co-founded the University’s Alternate Freshman Program, which later became the First-Year Seminar Program. 

Dr. Nordenhaug died in 2004 at age 64 while still a professor at Mercer. Newton Chapel was overflowing for his memorial service, during which former students and colleagues shared their memories, and Dr. Cass sang several Mercer-themed songs that Dr. Nordenhaug had written. 

Why he’s a legend: Dr. Nordenhaug was known for his brilliance and intellectual depth, as well as his ironic wit and humor. His quest and thirst for knowledge were ever apparent, and he was eager to share his scholarship with students and colleagues. With a unique view of the world, he challenged the curiosity of generations of students and helped them to expand their minds and find their passions. He offered his mentorship, friendship, loyalty and counsel without reserve to his peers. 

Dr. Nordenhaug was an outspoken supporter of liberal arts education and wrote and spoke often about its values and importance. He had a way with words, whether spoken aloud or written down in amusing departmental memos or thought-provoking academic papers. 

In Willingham Auditorium in 1999, he delivered a talk titled “The Complete Idiot’s Millennial Guide to Liberal Education (and Some Other Things)” for the National Endowment for the Humanities Lecture Series. One email to faculty promoting the event said, “Come early for a good seat near ‘the prophet.'” Former student Vanessa Rumble called Dr. Nordenharg “Mercer’s own philosopher-king” during his memorial service in 2004. 

Dr. Nordenhaug was serious about his work but had a fun and light-hearted side as well. He went camping with First-Year Seminar students, performed Mercer-themed songs with other faculty members at University events, and earned the nickname “Spider” as a member of the faculty softball team. He and his wife, Pat, welcomed students into their home and offered their support, encouragement and honesty.  

Quotable: “No one better represented — and articulated — the ideals of liberal education. Much of what is good in our college came from his influence. We will miss his wisdom, his friendship, and his kindly and questing spirit. All of us who knew him were blessed.” — Richard Fallis, former dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, in an email to faculty after Dr. Nordenhaug’s death in 2004

Mercer Legends is a series that highlights iconic figures who left a lasting impact on the University and its faculty, staff and students, as well as the community.


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