"A marvelous life:" Longtime USD Professor Wayne Knutson Dies at 89

Image Wayne Knutson Wayne Knutson outside USD's Warren M. Lee Center for Fine Arts, early 1970s (Courtesy: USD Archives and Special Collections)

VERMILLION, S.D. — Distinguished Professor Emeritus Wayne S. “Doc” Knutson, whose influence on theater and the arts spans from the University of South Dakota to the Black Hills, died late Monday at age 89.

Knutson, who taught and held several leadership roles at USD over 35 years, entered hospice care in early November due to heart trouble.

“Dr. Wayne Knutson was an amazing man, with many areas of interest and many talents,” said Larry Schou, dean of USD’s College of Fine Arts. “He spent his career at USD helping build up the programs in theater, in English, at the Black Hills Playhouse (where USD students perform) and in the College of Fine Arts.”

“One of the many things I will remember about Wayne was his passion for storytelling and his concept of working hard and doing the job well,” Schou said.

Knutson, the first instructor to receive the title “university distinguished professor” by the South Dakota Board of Regents, arrived at USD in 1952 in the dual role of professor of speech and dramatic art and director of the university theater. He served from 1966 to 1971 as professor and chair of the Department of English. He was dean and professor of the College of Fine Arts from 1972 to 1980; vice president for Academic Affairs and professor of fine arts from 1980 to 1982; and professor of English and theater from 1982 until his retirement in 1987. He continued to teach part-time and was a freelance theater director and writer.

Students and colleagues remember Knutson as the consummate teacher, a role he embraced and expounded on in an undated, typewritten article entitled “Why I Teach.”

“I think it came about when I was a college student and realized that to be a teacher was to be a student as well -- that a person could want to be a teacher because he wanted to learn -- and because he wanted to learn, to explore, to experiment, to understand his subject interest, younger students would willingly want to go with him on an adventure of human awareness and responsibility,” Knutson wrote.

He married Esther Johnstad in 1950. They had three children, stayed in Vermillion after his retirement and remained active in the community. Knutson regularly met with fellow retired fine arts professors and leaders Ron Moyer and the late John Day in ROMEO (Retired Old Men Eating Out) lunches.

Moyer, who was hired by Knutson in 1974 for a faculty position at USD, said the trio talked about their lives “but also the state of the arts in South Dakota -- to remember the wonderful artists like Oscar Howe we had known and worked with, Fred Manfred and those folks. So John and Wayne were in many ways two of a kind: people with big hearts who vigorously cared for the arts and humanities and the people who were working in those areas. Wonderful, wonderful human beings.”

Knutson’s “interests were always broad, but at the top of his interests were the students, the faculty, the people of South Dakota,” Moyer said.

Knutson acknowledged to the Vermillion Plain Talk newspaper in February of 2015 that he was in the final act of his life's play but remained optimistic.

"It all becomes a big story. Like any story, it has chapters. Grade school, high school, college, marriage, family, profession, and then you come to the final chapter of life. That's where we're at. You still don't know how it's going to end, like a good book. You don't want to go to the last page to see how it ends, you'll wait for it. Time is more precious, spouses become more important than ever. Friends from way back become important,” he recalled.

"It's been a very good trip from the time I was a first grader in a one-room rural school. I happen to think I had a marvelous life.”

Born the youngest of 11 children in 1926 on a Roberts County, South Dakota, farm, Knutson graduated from Sisseton High School in 1944. He served in the Merchant Marines in 1944-1946 and U.S. Army infantry in 1947-1948 before attending Augustana College, from which he graduated in 1950 with majors in English and theater. He received a master’s degree in theater in 1951 from USD and a Ph.D. in English and theater from the University of Denver in 1956. In the summer of 1973, Knutson attended Harvard University as a member of the Institute for Educational Management.

Among his other accomplishments:

  • The 450-seat theater in USD’s Warren M. Lee Center for Fine Arts, built under Knutson’s leadership, bears his name.
  • Wrote several plays and opera librettos. Selections from one drama, “Dream Valley,” aired on a Voice of America broadcast in 1959. He also wrote “The Dakota Descendants of Ola Rue,” which was produced for South Dakota’s Centennial in 1989.
  • Directed 65 plays at USD, the Black Hills Playhouse, Pierre Players, Black Hills Community Theatre, and Lewis and Clark Playhouse, and supervised as many plays directed by graduate students.
  • Adjudicated more than 500 plays and judged more than 10,000 high school students in theater and oral interpretation of literature in South Dakota and Minnesota.
  • Produced a play based on the Stavig Letters that was the subject of a South Dakota Public Broadcasting program which won a Regional Emmy award in 2011. Written in Norwegian and translated into English, the 150 letters between two brothers, Lars Stavig, who immigrated to America, and brother Knut, who stayed in Norway, span more than five decades from 1881 to 1938.
  • Held numerous memberships and offices, including: chair of the South Dakota Arts Council; chair of the South Dakota Humanities Council; member of the Literature Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts; chair of the North Central Theatre Association; chair of the South Dakota Council of English Teachers.
  • Received the Governor’s Award for Distinction in Creative Achievement, 1986.
  • Earned the Best Teacher Award at USD in 1968, the first such award given by the student association.


USD's College of Fine Arts encourages students to pursue their chosen professional field in art, music or theater through their study with nationally recognized faculty who are working professionals. Students learn and grow to be professional fine artists with great job potential anywhere in the country. The college offers opportunities for additional real-world experiences through work with guest artists, study tours abroad and opportunities at the National Music Museum and the University Art Galleries on the Vermillion campus and the Black Hills Playhouse in Custer State Park. The college brings more than 80 guests artists to campus annually to work with students.


Founded in 1862 and the first university in the Dakotas, the University of South Dakota is the only public liberal arts university in the state, with 205 undergraduate and 73 graduate programs in the College of Arts & Sciences, School of Education, School of Law, Sanford School of Medicine, School of Health Sciences, Beacom School of Business and College of Fine Arts. With an enrollment of nearly 10,000 students and more than 400 faculty, USD has a 17:1 student/faculty ratio, and it ranks among the best in academics and affordability. USD’s 17 athletic programs compete at the NCAA Division I level.


Michael Ewald
USD News