Alumni News

Procuring the Great Con library

With contributions from faculty and alumni, the Great Conversation program has been able to purchase books for annual use by its students and staff. Since May 2009, when the Con Library began to be procured, the Great Conversation has been able to purchase one book for each of the five courses of the program. Today the library includes:

  • 126 copies of Homer’s Illiad
  • 63 copies of Cicero’s Political Speeches
  • 126 copies of Malcom Miller’s Chartres Cathedral
  • 126 copies of Michael Hugh’s Michelangelo
  • 63 copies of Simon Lee’s David

Great Con Library materials are being generously housed in Rolvaag Memorial Library, and will be checked out and used by the 120 students and the 6 faulty in Great Con. Because the development of strong personal libraries for students and staff is important to the Great Conversation, only those books which will be moved through quickly (1-2 days on the syllabus) have been and will be purchased for the library.

When additional donations have been made, the program will purchase the second half of the Con Library’s titles that now number 63 copies. Until then, students share materials, appreciative of the money they have saved and the Great books to which they have access.

25th Reunion for Class of 1985

On a crisp spring afternoon, at the home of Justin and Kristin Stets, more than 20 “ex-convicts” met as a group—presumably for the first time since this photo was taken two days before their graduation in 1985.


This, the first class to complete the Great Conversation, enjoyed lively conversation among themselves and with two of their professors who returned for the reunion: Conners of the class of ’85 caught up on careers, spouses, and children (some dutifully in tow).  They laughed about books assigned but never fully read. (Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War scored high.) They were served by two delightful recent graduates of the program, Claire Carlson and Michaela Roslawski, and met Johnson Award Winners, Amy Chatelaine and Bjorn  Wastvedt, with the four sophomores wondering aloud what the next quarter century would hold for their cohort.  They were led in lusty singing of the “Battle Hymn of the Great Con” by Acting Director of the program and Classics Professor, Chris Brunelle, and History Prof. Laurel Carrington (“Mine eyes have seen the gory truth: there’s way too much to read. / The lengthier the syllabus, the more our brains will bleed . . .”).  But mostly, they enjoyed friendships begun 25 years ago in Ellingson Hall.

The feeling of camaraderie was captured in the “formal” part of the afternoon. Prof. emeritus Omar Otterness, now retired and living in Minneapolis, thanked the group for their patience with him in a discussion class when he only knew how to lecture and reported on his many travels. He said that he felt very blessed to have worked actively in the elder hostel community in the Twin Cities, is still connected to a St. Olaf global missions group, and always is interested in knowing how Great Con alums are doing.  John Day, now Academic Vice President at John Carroll University, Cleveland, Ohio, summarized his moves from professor and chair of the English department at St. Olaf, to Associate Dean, to Dean and Academic Vice President at Roanoke College, Virginia, and on to Ohio during which time his and Sharon’s son Nathan became a teacher, daughter Caitlin a physician, and daughter Laura, a baby to the class of 1985, an education program director for the Metropolitan Opera Guild in New York City. Prof. Earling Jorstad, retired and living in Scottsdale, Arizona was unable to attend but sent a letter to the group.  Read in a pretty good imitation by Ansis Viksnins, Erling’s letter reports his retiring in 1994 after 38 years on the hill and a final book on “twenty five bicycle trails in the Twin Cities and Southeastern Minnesota.” Erling now enjoys volunteering at the public library and conversation around the swimming pool.  He remembers the Great Con as “a mountain top experience . . . I would do it again, with some reading changes, but also holding onto the vision and the intellectual energy the great texts have given to us.”

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Group sleuth Jan Bienhoff relayed her finding in the stacks of Rolvaag Library.  Jan uncovered that during the entire college careers of this cohort, only three stories appeared in the Manitou Messenger about the program: a report on the Great Con’s “Impromptu Messiah” of February 1982; a 1983 piece announcing a program review in which Jeff Halloin sctes the Great Con as the reason he chose St. Olaf over other colleges and Nathan Oppedahl reports that he learned about the Great Con from word of mouth, that is, from his big brother, Mark; and a 1984 opinion piece, in which Justin Stets worries about the “uncertain future” of Great Conversation since, after the program review, the faculty had to vote on whether to adopt the program permanently.

Justin needn’t have worried. As Director and English Professor Karen Cherewatuk reported on the findings of a 2010 program review, 1744 students have completed the program since 1985; the program has now doubled to two cohorts or 120 students per year; the interdisciplinarity, team-teaching, and discussion then considered radical aspects of the program are now widely adopted across campus; and alums highly value their experience in the Great Con. In the words on one alum and cancer survivor, “The Great Con doesn’t necessarily give career skills, but it gives you life skills.”  Justin read a poem on friendship from David Whyte’s collection, River Flow.  Ever the dedicated fundraiser, he reported that henceforth any donations to the annual gift can be earmarked for “the Great Conversation.” The class of 1985 marked the reunion by donating more to the program than any class, a total of $5000.

Happily squished together in the living room, with the sun glinting on the newly planted hills spread below the Stet’s beautiful home, the first ever Great Con cohort together toasted a love of books and liberal learning that first brought them together a quarter of a century ago.  It was a great afternoon of great conversations.