Luther Alumni Magazine

Karen Martin-Schramm looks back on her years with the President’s Office

There is laughter, and there are tears. But mostly there is gratitude as Karen Martin-Schramm reflects on two decades of service as executive assistant to three Luther presidents: Jeffrey Baker, Richard Torgerson, and Paula Carlson.

Karen Martin-Schramm with Wangari Maathai,Kenyan environmental and political activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, during the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Forum at Luther.
Karen Martin-Schramm with Wangari Maathai,Kenyan environmental and political activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, during the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Forum at Luther.


“I really feel like it has been a  calling—that all my gifts have been used in this job,” says Martin-Schramm, who stepped down in March. “I am so thankful to have had this opportunity, to have been able to contribute to the college in so many different ways.”

Martin-Schramm joined Luther’s staff in 1996, three years after her husband, Jim Martin-Schramm, joined the college’s religion faculty. She had just wrapped up a yearlong stint organizing the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize Forum, hosted by Luther, when the college’s newly elected president, Jeffrey Baker, hired her as his assistant. Though she already had a decade of administrative experience—including two “fascinating” years with the National Council of Churches in New York City, during which she met Billy Graham, Desmond Tutu, and many other prominent faith leaders— Martin-Schramm says she still had much to learn as she settled into the college’s executive suite.

“The suite in the Union was new, I was new, and Jeff was new,” she says. “It was the two of us, armed with some boxes of materials, and together we had to figure out how to run the President’s Office.”

Figure it out they did, but their productive partnership came to an abrupt and painful end when Baker was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1998. “Jeff made such an impact here in such a short time,” she says. “The outpouring of support was incredible, as was his strength, once he became ill.”

Richard Torgerson, Baker’s successor, was quick to spot—and employ—Martin-Schramm’s project-management and organizational  talents when he arrived in 1999. Over the next 15 years, she helped coordinate two multiple-year strategic planning processes, orchestrated numerous special events (including a visit by the king and queen of Norway in 2011 and the years-in-the-works  sesquicentennial celebration that same year), helped develop the college’s first integrated communications and marketing plan, oversaw numerous executive searches, directed a campus signage redesign, planned three more Nobel Peace Prize Forums (NPPF), and worked  directly with the Luther Board of Regents.

Closest to her heart, Martin-Schramm says, was her work with the NPPFs and the Luther regents, whom she describes as “down-to-earth, dedicated, and exceptionally giving.” For 20 years, she prepared meeting agendas and background materials, attended those meetings, and served as campus liaison with the college’s governing board. “The best boards are the ones that reflect the character of  the institution, and our regents really do reflect Luther’s student-centered spirit of community,” she says. “Working with the board has  been one of the most fun, inspiring, and rewarding parts of my job.”

Equally rewarding was her work with the four Nobel Peace Prize Forums hosted by Luther. As forum organizer, Martin-Schramm was instrumental in bringing Nobel Peace Prize laureates such as Kenyan environmental and political activist Wangari Maathai (2006) and Iranian attorney and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi (2011) to campus. “I firmly believe that the forum changed students’ lives,” she says. “It’s a big, big deal just to be in a room in Decorah, Iowa, with a Nobel laureate.”

While she says an administrative career in Lutheran higher education has felt like destiny—“One of my grandfathers served as president of Texas Lutheran College, the other received an honorary doctorate from Luther, so it’s in my DNA”—it’s time, Martin-Schramm says, to take on new challenges. This summer she and her husband will accompany a dozen Luther students to England, where the couple will serve as codirectors of the college’s Nottingham program for the coming year.

“I didn’t have a lot of interaction with students on campus, so I’m really looking forward to getting to know several of them during our time in England,” says Martin-Schramm, flashing her trademark smile. “And when we return to Decorah, who knows what’s next?”