Anna Gieschen, Class of 1970
Anna Gieschen, 1970, Double majors, History, Philosophy. 1979, MALS, U of M. Thanks for the question and the chance to read all the answers. Rethinking the journey, I remember that I was not very good at philosophy, I sort of edged out of college in March of 1970 with just enough credits to graduate. However, studying philosophy may have helped me survive the state of mind I was in during my teens and early twenties. It may also have benefited my work as a health sciences librarian, where suspician of certainty, orderly thinking, seeing relationships among concepts, and recognizing language patterns may be as essential as in philosophy. I arrived at library school after some drifting, including a year’s try at grad school in philosophy at UW Madison, a year of volunteer work, and several other jobs, usually cycling back to working as a nursing assistant, which had been my student livelihood. I was lucky to find a field where I could stay in health care and be given new puzzles to solve every day.
Gary L. Harke, Class of 1970
After graduating from St. Olaf, black armband and all, I attended Yale Divinity School for an M.Div. Upon graduation and ordination I served the Moravian Church in Nicaragua in parish ministry and theological education until the Sandinista Revolution made it unwise to have the church’s most visible representative in Managua be a North American. I then moved briefly into parish ministry in the U.S. and then to a staff job with the Moravian Church–Northern Province that had an evolving portfolio over the years. Along the way I also served as an adjunct faculty member teaching (among other things) ethics to (mostly) returning students through a small college’s extension program.
For the last fourteen years I have served as the executive director of the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, the statewide ecumenical expression with 42 member church bodies representing Anabaptist, Anglican, Orthodox, Protestant, Pentecostal, and Historic African-American churches. I served on the Episcopal–Moravian dialogue that led to the current full communion relationship and current am co-chair of the United Methodist–Moravian dialogue. I will retire at the end of February 2014.
Of greatest benefit from my philosophy major has been the mental attitude I acquired—probably mostly from Fred Stoutland—regarding decisions/dilemmas/problems I run across in my work. Learning to be patient and thoughtful—mindful—has been of immense value, whether in pastoring a congregation that included both military officers from Somoza’s Guardia National and people hiding weapons for the Sandinistas, shaping public policy stances for the Council, or participating in the dialogue leading to the full communion agreement between the Moravian Church and The Episcopal Church. I have also found the discipline of formal and informal logic valuable for the work I’ve done, particularly when addressing issues of public policy.
Of those in the department 1966–1970, I remained closest to Stoutland. We corresponded occasionally and I mutter his name weekly when the Prayers of the People invite us to remember those who have died. Of Howard Hong I most vividly remember the time he walked into the classroom and, in large letters, wrote “GOS;” the lecture that followed on gross over-simplification has complicated my life and writing ever since.
George Hogenson, Class of 1970
I graduated in 1970 with majors in philosophy and Asian Studies, as well as a commission in the US Air Force through ROTC. As part of my program I studied modern Japanese philosophy in Kyoto under the direction of the Buddhist philosopher, Masao Abe, and in consequence started graduate school at Yale in their M.A. program in East Asian Languages and Literatures, with the intention of moving into the philosophy department for the Ph.D. Instead, at the end of my first year at Yale, the Air Force ordered me to active duty. For the first two years I worked with nuclear weapons safety issues in Texas and Korea, and then, through some rather complicated and unusual circumstances, I was assigned to Headquarters Fifth Air Force, outside Tokyo, as the contingency war plans officer for North East Asia. I left active duty in 1975 and returned to Yale in the Department of Philosophy where my work moved away from Buddhist philosophy and into the Continental European tradition, particularly Leibniz, Kant, Husserl and Heidegger. Work I did on Leibniz under Professor Rulon Wells somewhat accidentally brought me into contact with the work of C. G. Jung—particularly having to do with questions of temporality and Leibniz’s relatively unrecognized interests in Kabbalistic and alchemical theories. When I subsequently approached Professor Wells as a dissertation director, he suggested working on philosophical problems in Jung’s theories. I had already read Paul Ricoeur’s monumental work on Freud, which I found deeply compelling, and so, after some thought, we began work on Jung. This rapidly took the form of sorting out the philosophical issues that shaped Jung’s relationship with Freud, and my dissertation, completed in 1979, focused on those issues. In heavily revised form, the dissertation became my book on the subject, Jung’s Struggle with Freud.
While I was in graduate school I also continued as an Air Force reserve officer, working as a consultant on strategic issues in the Office of the Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon. With the completion of my Ph.D. the near total absence of positions in philosophy that year resulted in my taking a position as an assistant professor at the Yale School of Organization and Management, where the combination of my philosophical training and my military experience fit well with the School’s efforts to build a multidisciplinary faculty. I was also given an appointment in Yale’s faculty research group, the Institution for Social and Policy Studies, where I formed and chaired the faculty research seminar on international security studies and arms control. In 1986 I left Yale to become the Deputy Director of the Program on International Security Policy and Arms Control at the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. This position not only continued my involvement with national security policy, but also brought me into contact with other organizations, most notably the recently formed Santa Fe Institute, where the original work on complex dynamic systems theory—at first called chaos theory—was underway. My close contact with the Santa Fe Institute, and the attendant need to familiarize myself with the work the researchers were doing there, became an important influence on my own future work.
In 1990 a close friend, who was also a psychotherapist, encouraged me to try out some work in clinical psychology in addition to my more theoretical work on psychoanalysis, which I had continued to pursue since finishing graduate school. I consequently took a course in adult psychopathology in at the University of Chicago, and became, quite frankly, fascinated with the material. I therefore enrolled in the University’s School of Social Service Administration and completed my degree in clinical social work in 1991. After additional training and the establishment of a private practice in Chicago I began training in the C. G. Jung Institute of Chicago in 1994 and completed my training as a Jungian psychoanalyst in 1998.
I have since been in private practice as an analyst. I am presently on the Executive Committee of the International Association for Analytical Psychology, and am past president of the Chicago Society of Jungian Analysts. For the last 15 years I have published and lectured regularly on the application of cognitive science, complex dynamic systems theory and cognitive neuroscience to issues in Jung’s system of psychology. More recently I have also returned to issues in the philosophy of religion and phenomenology in relation to systems of symbolic representation, revisiting work done by Ricoeur and adding the work of philosophers such as Jean-Luc Marian to the project.
At St. Olaf, the most important influences on my philosophical development were Bill Narum, who encouraged and facilitated my work in Japan and also invited me to be one of the original student preceptors in the paracollege, Howard Hong, with whom I worked on Kierkegaard, and most importantly, Walt Stromseth, who modeled the highest standards of precision and attention to detail in the formulation of philosophical arguments, besides being an extraordinarily kind and generous person. As a senior I also had the opportunity to take Mark Ylvisaker’s seminar on Kant, which gave shape to many of my subsequent philosophical interests. In all of the activities I have been involved in over the years, my philosophical training has played an important role by way of the commitment philosophy makes to clarity of thought, and rigorous attention to detail. I often tell people who are skeptical of something as abstract as they take philosophy to be, that it is in fact the most practical of all the disciplines, because it teaches you to think critically, and is therefore a solid preparation for almost any life course one may find oneself following.
I am now living in Oak Park, just outside Chicago—and three blocks from Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio—with my wife, Kate, and our 14 year old daughter, Katherine. Our son, Peter, is majoring in philosophy and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, in preference to being the fourth generation of our family at St. Olaf. Kate and I are avid cyclists, when one or the other of us is not traveling on business—Kate is a marketing consultant—or to attend a conference.
Daniel B. Johnson, Class of 1970
After a middling score on my philosophy grad recs, but a surprisingly good score on my LSAT (which I only took because my older brother in law school bet me that I couldn’t beat his score) I made the obvious choice (J.D., U. of Minn., 1973). I’ve been practicing law in Minneapolis and Stillwater ever since, though I’m semi-retired now and spending winter in warmer climes.
Law was a fine career path in 1970, when a good summer construction job paid enough to cover law school resident tuition and then some. But times have certainly changed. Law students today have to be passionate enough about the law to bet the equivalent of a home mortgage on a legal education. I doubt that I’d place that bet today.
I’ve enjoyed reading in the thread about how people chose philosophy as a major. In my case, I started out as an economics major and took Howard Hong’s intro history of philosophy course as a distribution requirement in the fall of my sophomore year. I enjoyed it so much that I signed up for part two in the spring. Then I met this wonderful girl, a history major, who was going on the Far East Semester in the fall. I just knew that I had to go, too, but I ran into a problem: the application form required a faculty advisor’s approval. My economics advisor wouldn’t sign, arguing that being gone for a semester would put me out of rotation for my upper level course work. So I marched directly over to the administration building, changed my major to philosophy, tracked down my newly assigned faculty advisor, Walter Stromseth, and handed him the form. He smiled, signed, and said, “Life experiences are good.” Well, I knew I was in the right place.
I agree with many other commenters in the thread that philosophy was good training in critical thinking. I did not, however, find it to be good training in clear and persuasive writing. An expert witness, no matter how well qualified, is a poor communicator if he only draws blank stares from the jury. So I would say to befuddled undergraduates struggling through weighty philosophical tomes with blank stares: relax, it’s not you, it’s that most of the great philosophers (John Rawls notably excepted) would have done well to take a remedial writing course.
John R. Pederson, Class of 1970
I just barely escaped from a chemistry major upon finishing my sophomore year at St. Olaf. Memories of William Narum’s ethics course, taken as a freshman, steered me back to the philosophy department. I never had so much intellectual fun as in the next two years. Walter Stromseth was a thoughtful and kind advisor. Fred Stoutland painstakingly started me down a road to being a good writer (“You might as well learn now that the best philosophy is the clearest philosophy” is what he scrawled across my red pencil-saturated epistemology paper.) Howard Hong both inspired and infuriated me. And Mark Ylvisaker’s First Critique Kant class was one of the most challenging intellectual adventures ever.
My first year of graduate school was at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Mass. That year I was also able to enroll in graduate courses with Hilary Putnam and John Rawls at Harvard. In 1971 it was exciting to participate in discussions that were reflected in final edits of Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. My straddle of philosophy and theology was resolved – at least in part – pragmatically. Theologians ate better than the philosophers. I completed the M.Div at Luther Seminary in St. Paul.
This past summer I retired from a very satisfying thirty-nine year run as a Lutheran pastor. I have kept up my avocational interests in philosophy. My most recent congregation most supportively sent me to continuing education events at Oxford three times and a sabbatical at the University of Aberdeen where I studied with John Webster. All of those experiences both drew upon and were informed by philosophical interlocutors.
Retirement has given me more time for philosophy as avocation. I disposed of many of my theology books but kept all my philosophy and literature. I’ve been auditing University of Colorado philosophy courses on pragmatism and aesthetics, “quoted often by students when you’ve not been in attendance,” so my teacher relays with a smile. This year I attended the annual meeting of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy (mostly a bunch of pragmatists and neo-pragmatists). And current bookmarks rest in books by D.Z, Phillips, William James, Richard Rorty, and Sami Pihlström on my reading stand.
I am most grateful for my St. Olaf philosophy studies. Without exaggeration I can say that not only have I used my philosophy major every day since graduating, but also that philosophic disciplines learned at St. Olaf have brought a life-long satisfaction in a life of the mind.
Gail Sundem Noller, Class of 1970
I am Gail Sundem Noller, 1970 graduate with majors in philosophy and psychology and member of the founding board of the ParaCollege. I believe I was one of the first few female philosophy majors at St. Olaf, since it was a male dominated field of study back then. I recall working in the admissions office freshman year, typing away (actually keypunching, an early form of computer) when Howard Hong spotted me and hired me to type his Kierkegaard manuscripts. I spent four years in a small office perched high in the chapel typing his handwritten manuscripts on a standard typewriter. Since every page had to be perfect – no using white-out, corrective tape or erasure – my hands would start sweating as I neared the end of the page fearing one error would mean starting the page all over again. On day Howard announced he was buying me a new typewriter. Since electric typewriters were becoming popular I was excited that Howard had finally caved to modernity. I was deflated the next day when I arrived to find another STANDARD typewriter… not electric. I had the strongest fingers on campus!
To the dismay of Howard Hong, I went on to get my Doctorate in Psychology from the University of St. Thomas and have spent my career as a Licensed Psychologist. I was one of the founders of the hospice movement in the Twin Cities and have spent four decades working with the dying and the grieving. I have written a book and a video (now DVD) series, funded by 3M and distributed by the American Cancer Society called Finding Your Way: Families and the Cancer Experience. I am married to a physician (Jerry Noller, ’68), have three adult children and five grandchildren. Life is good.
My philosophy education frames all that I do, from writing to counseling to mothering and grandmothering. The St. Olaf Philosophy Department infused our education with values and empathy which helped to develop my ability to care as well as to analyze. The ability to live relatively comfortably with ambiguity; to appreciate and embrace mystery; and to tolerate the powerlessness of not-knowing and not-curing as one faces death, these are gifts from philosophy. I remember learning the concepts of existential loneliness, existential guilt, and existential fear… they are part of the human condition. These are the struggles of my patients. I am grateful for my philosophy education and those fine professors.
David Ericson, Class of 1971
I was a 1971 graduate with a philosophy major. I worked especially with Stoutland and Stromseth throughout, but also with some of the younger faculty of the time. I’ll never forget my late afternoon seminar on Kant during which there was a televised lottery on who would be drafted for military service first (Vietnam War years). No one wanted to discuss Kant, when the existential question was much closer! Since I was not headed for Vietnam at the time, I spent a semester at Cambridge during my senior year and was lucky enough to be tutored in part by G.E.M. Anscombe (Wittgensteinian scion), I came back for my final St. Ola fsemester even more impassioned by philosophy and spent many a night (after Marguerite’s in Dundas) working on a paper “Three Concepts of a Person” to enter in the Ringstead Prize competition. Tom Carson (’72) and I were judged co-winners, though I think it was a sop to me since they were amazed that I could think and write half-way clearly after all of those Dundas nights – sort of like Dr. Johnson’s dancing dog.
Since I decided that I was not likely a budding Kant in the making — even with dogmatic slumbers — I scoured those areas of philosophy that I enjoyed and which were underworked. I had taken an interim course in philosophy and education from Fred Stoutland and Ed Twedt (educational foundations guy) which I really enjoyed. So, nothing to lose, since I had applied to law school as well with assurance, I went after the top three philosophy of education Ph.D. programs in the U.S. Happily, I was accepted at one of them (with no background in schools or education) at Syracuse University, thus saving the world from yet another lawyer.
Syracuse U., at the time, was one of the four hotbeds of educational policy research, holding at the time one of the first national centers funded by the federal government (1970 – 1976). As a graduate research assistant, I became enamored with the possibility of applying rigorous theoretical thought to practical educational issues. A co-director of the center was my Ph.D. advisor of the same bent who had studied with Max Black and Norman Malcom at Cornell. At the same time, I did most of my studies in the philosophy department (not merely education) at Syracuse, where they allowed me an M.A. in philosophy (thesis on philosophy of action — I am very Aristotelian).
Though my dissertation was on the concept of happiness (political and social theory), I also began work on a project to develop an original theory of the educational system (wherever it is found as opposed to the theory of education itself), under the direction of my advisor and co-director of the Educational Policy Research Center. It was a work of Aristotelian social science. I have been working on this in my own research for over 30 years now, often relating the behavior of the system to philosophical issues in social justice.
My first teaching job was at Virginia Tech in 1977, where I was involved in establishing a new program in educational policy studies. Amazingly, Tom Carson was there, too, since he had been hired into the philosophy department. We discovered that we had both written our dissertations on the concept of happiness, through clearly different approaches. Small world.
Since I was in a non-tenured position, it was a great two years, but time to leave. Somehow, I buffaloed them into hiring me in the Graduate School of Education at UCLA. I had a great time at UCLA for thirteen years, a wonderful university that is the envy of most around the world. It was not easy to gain tenure at the time since some administrators were trying to emulate Harvard in ridding itself of most assistant professors. Though a philosopher of education, I still had to run the gauntlet of the philosophydepartment on the university-wide tenure committees. The philosophy department at UCLA, then and now, is one of the most technically-minded (Anglo-American) philosophy departments in the world. Luckily, I was finally able to pass muster with my work on the logic of causal inference (inductive logic) which is so strongly applicable to statistical inference work in educational and social science research. My love of probability theory and ability to bring new applications to bear on problems of causal inference constitute some of my most important contributions. Issues in the philosophy of social sciences, including the philosophy of action, of are a mainstay of my work.
During all these years, I kept in touch with Fred Stoutland. While I was working on my dissertation at the U. of London in England, I met up with Fred while he was on sabbatical at Oxford. And it was great to see him for a week at UCLA much later on. He has been a great influence on my thinking and work over the years, all begun many years ago at St. Olaf.
Though I had been thinking about education for some 20 years, the U. of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu brought me into a completely practical setting as an administrator in Curriculum and Instruction. I loved UCLA, but watched LA become worse year by year. After doing research at the East-West Center during summers, they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I have been here now on the faculty in the College of Education as an administrator and now doing all kinds of things in my faculty position throughout the university for 21 years. I spend even more time now in Japan, China, and, especially, Vietnam — the place that I dodged over 40 years ago. I have discovered that the depth of Asian thought — once you get past my Anglo-American philosophical prejudices — is easily a match for the best of the West. Lucky I live Hawaii.
Tom Carson, Class of 1972
I am grateful to the Saint Olaf Philosophy Department for introducing me to Philosophy and for a great deal of mentoring and personal support which continuted long after my graduation. I am particularly indebted to Bill Mann, Fred Stoutland, and Walt Stromseth.
After graduating, I went on to Graduate School in Philosophy at Brown where I met my wife. I thank Fred and Walt for encouraging me to got to Brown — I have never regretted that choice. At Brown I became very close friends with another Ole Philosopher Mark Overvold (70) who taught there for a year. I was his TA and we worked together on closely related dissertation topics. I have been teaching since 1976, when I began with a temporary appointment at UCLA. After that, I spent 8 years at Virginia Tech. In Virginia, I ran across other Oles living nearby, Dave Ericson, Haave Morriem (72)Mark Overvold and Eunice Belgum (67). Since 1985 I have been teaching at Loyola Chicago. The first PhD dissertation I directed at Loyola was written by Andy Boyd (Saint Olaf class of 1986(?)). I am very fortunate to get paid for doing things that I love to do.
Mark Overvold died in 1988. Fred Stoutland organized a memorial conference for Mark at St Olaf in October 1990. I was pleased to be a part of that. And I am pleased that I was able to maintain connections with the past and present members of the Saint Olaf Philosophy Dept. Charles Taliaferro and I had a scholarly exchange on the ideal observer theory in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research in the late 1980s. In 2011, the Dept invited me to give the annual Belgum Lectures on the topic of Lincoln’s Ethics. Giving those lectures was the most enjoyable and rewarding experience of my professional career. I am pleased to report that the Philosophy Dept is in still thriving and in very good hands. My Lectures have developed into a book Lincoln’s Ethics which will be coming out in early 2015.
Rich Hileman, Class of 1972
Besides the philosophy professors of my time, Stoutland, Stromseth, Hong, Ylvisaker, I have always been grateful to Professor Schwandt, whom somebody else mentioned as well. I took the first semester of his history of political thought, and faithfully audited the second semester even though, with two majors, I couldn’t fit it into my schedule. I’ll never forget Professor Schwandt saying he decided to become a professor when he realized he could be paid for reading.
I had a double major in English and Philosophy, and was in AFROTC in order to avoid being drafted. I had a deferment from active duty to go to law school, but didn’t need it because the war ended our senior year. I started law school at the University of Iowa, and quit after a semester because it made my stomach hurt. This wasn’t because of law school, but because I knew I wasn’t done with philosophy.
I spent several months doing construction common labor, and then entered the PhD program in philosophy at Iowa. My major area was epistemology and my minor area was Greek philosophy. As part of that, I took three years of Attic Greek which I still indulge in sporadically today. After finishing the coursework and the comprehensive exam, I spent a fourth year working on a dissertation, but mainly discharging TA duties and shooting the bull with the other grad students. Iowa was a classic Anglo-American analytic department and I learned a lot, but in the end it wasn’t my cup of tea. Under the influence of Wittgenstein and G.E. Moore, I found myself asking why in the world anyone would be trying to write a dissertation defending direct realism as an epistemological theory, and I couldn’t come up with an answer.
So I left grad school ABD and went back to law school at Iowa–this time able to concentrate–where I went straight through in two years and three summers. Law school, for me, was, like philosophy, a great education, and I loved it. Law school demands the same thought skills that philosophy does, you just don’t have as much time.
I practiced law, primarily as a trial lawyer, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa for 20 years, then retired from active practice (still fully licensed) to do what I want to do. Still at that.
I also still like to read some philosophy. Plato every so often, Karl Popper, Walter Kaufman, a little Richard Rorty. I also like to read the personal confessionals of career philosophers, like Bryan Magee’s Confessions of a Philosopher, and Colin McGinn’s The Making of a Philosopher.
It is simple what my philosophy major has meant to me. First, getting it (and my major in English) gave me the greatest intellectual enjoyment of my life. If that isn’t a good in itself, I don’t know what could be. Second, without it I would not be who I am. Of course that applies to everything about St. Olaf.
What could other students get from philosophy? Just what I and all the other graduates have. Philosophy is the ultimate generalist education. This means you are prepared to go nowhere, but you are able to go anywhere. I’d say that’s pretty well shown by the responses to your email.
Kirby D. Rekedal, Class of 1972
I graduated as a PBK Philosophy major in 1972, and went on to two years of grad study in Philosophy at Johns Hopkins, specializing in ethics and classical. Once I was married for a couple years I realized something a little more practical might be in order, and did a year of basic sciences to then start medical school in the fall of 1976. After several years of training at Hopkins and Yale I ended up in neonatology, an area that is filled with many, many issues illuminated by the central issues in philosophy.
While I do not write or present in formal philosophical forums, I have remained very active in teaching medical ethics over the years to our pediatric residents and serving on several ethics committees. People sometimes ask me how I can think on so many different levels at the same time – combining biochemistry with family systems theory, resuscitation with religion, and physics with metaphysics – and for this I must credit Philosophy, and the ideals I held and built on at St. Olaf. All I can say is a humble thank you, and hope that we have been able to pass some of this along to the next generation.
Mark Wessman, Class of 1973
I’m Mark Wessman from the Class of 1973. I guess I’m jumping into the conversation a little late. That’s not unusual for me—it may be the reason my students insist on calling me, “the late Professor Wessman.” Anyway, I started St. Olaf in the fall of 1969 and was introduced to two things that have stayed with me ever since: philosophy and the music of the Grateful Dead. The introduction to philosophy came courtesy of Bill Mann, who had (and, I presume, still has) a real gift for clarity of thought and expression (as well as a wicked sense of humor). Bill moved on, and the teachers who became my mentors, role models, and friends were Fred Stoutland, Ed Langerak, and Walt Stromseth. They were all superb teachers, critical thinkers, clear communicators, and truly decent human beings. I learned a lot from each of them. Fred and Ed would later prove very helpful with references etc. when, after some wandering in the desert, I decided to try for an academic career.
After graduation, I had the opportunity to earn a second B.A. (in philosophy in theology) at Oxford, which has since ripened (as honours B.A.’s do) into an M.A. I had J.L. Mackie and A.M. Quinton as tutors and attended lectures by nearly every British analytic philosopher I had ever heard of. I came back to the U.S. in 1976. The job market in philosophy looked pretty gloomy at the time, so I sold musical instruments for a year and tried to figure out what to do next. The next thing turned out to be Harvard Law School. That proved to be a great move, as I met the love of my life there. (Who knew the place issued spouses?) We’ve been married 33 years and have two grown children, one in San Francisco and one in New York. My wife and I initially clerked for a federal district judge in Los Angeles and then practiced law in Atlanta for six years. In 1987, we left practice, and I took a job as a law professor at Tulane Law School in New Orleans. A year later, my wife became the Assistant Dean in charge of our pro bono program. Apart from occasional visits at other schools, we’ve been here ever since. They let me teach philosophy of law for the first couple of years but have since come to their senses. I now teach Contracts, Sales, Secured Transactions, and Bankruptcy. One of my colleagues says I write like a philosopher. I’m not sure I know what that means, but I like the sound of it.
I have always thought that my teachers at St. Olaf had as much talent as I have encountered anywhere and put more effort and energy into their teaching than academics at a lot of other institutions. What I have come to appreciate more recently is their intellectual honesty and genuine humility. The latter qualities are all too rare.
Tom McFarlane, Class of 1973
I am Tom McFarlane, ’73, our class 40th reunion was four wonderful days last May. What a great campus… yearned a little for Ytterboe Hall . Graduating I had a Joe Namath football jersey in hand and my draft number upon it (12). Historicity turned me from Stromseth’s phil of religion, Stoutalnd;s logic and Langerak’s existentialism, to a sanctuary and a Master of Theology degree from Perkins School of Theology at SMU in warmer Dallas. Ordained a United Methodist was not a great leap. I had been the St.O Student Congregation president junior year. I surely tried the infinite patience of pastor John Swanson during long theological reflection.
A dozen years in parish ministry, a doctoral degree in pastoral care from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary at Northwestern U, a professional certification as a pastoral counselor AAPC Fellow and. a license as a clinical professional counselor all followed. My research was father son relationships, a correlative study of a son’s perceived paternal blessing and his adult life satisfaction.
I am a fan of David Hume’s take on intuition; Naram for helping me into Whitehead and process thought; mentor Stoutland for fielding my initial querry about philosophy very logically, telling me philosophy may teach me how to think; Stromseth for introducing natural theology and; the youngest prof I ever had on the Hill (now retiring) teaching his first class, Langerak, for introducing existentialism. I also love Llyod Gunderson who taught ancient philosophy while schooling us in Greek grammar and vocabulary.
Pastoral care became my career. Pastoral counseling may be a parable something like, if one human being can give you undivided attention for an hour then think how much more God may care. Often men were coming . I still work with clergy supporting them personally and professionally. Some of them have been in my care for over 25 yrs. What a privilege to work with folks for most of their adult lives. I read papers at various conferences. Turned down a Fortress Press editor in Minneapolis who asked for a Father Son Blessing book.
A family and raising two girls came first. Founding and administrating a pastoral counseling center in St Louis that flourishes today and, playing tennis or sailing all preempted any book. Now the clergy guys keep asking for one based on what they call Tomisms. I also taught some pastoral care at Eden Sem in St Louis., worked with sem students at Perkin on their pastoral formation, helped missionaries and ministerial candidates work through their psychological assessments, and consulted with pastoral care doctoral students on their research at Garrett. I retired two years ago to warm Sarasota.
Moses Ben Maimodines suggested that about the most we can hope to achieve is to push the balance a wee bit to the good in life.
I read what you all wrote and go whow. That is very good. For me, what a ride, started on the Hill, learning to think.
Jim Brandt, Class of 1974
I am Jim Brandt, 1974. Graduated with majors in philosophy and English. I remember a course as a freshman with John (?) Ylvisaker in fall 1970. Great conversations about freedom and determinism. Somehow I recall Led Zeppelin being part of the experience. Had great courses in Phenomenology and Existentialism (with Ed Langerak?), Nietzsche (Stromseth), Kierkegaard &Philosophy 41 with Hong. The work on Kierkegaard was particularly formative for me as a person and a scholar. And the work on Kant prepared me well for work on Friedrich Schleiermacher. I have two books on his Christian Ethics, the subject of my dissertation from the University of Chicago (Theology).
I graduated from Luther Seminary and was ordained, now in the ELCA. For 24 years I’ve taught at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City where I am Professor of Historical Theology and Director of Contextual Education. A great privilege to walk with students as they are formed for ministry, research and write in areas of ministry and theology, and serve the church. One highlight has been taking students to Guatemala for an immersion experience, every other year since 1996. A transformative experience for many. The seeds for my engagement in experiential learning, critical reflection, and social justice were sown at St. Olaf. As a student I wanted to become a master teacher like so many I experienced at St. Olaf. Perhaps I have achieved that. Whatever the case may be, I am forever grateful for the formation I received at St. Olaf.
I was married for 22 years to Heidi Peterson, ’76, also a philosophy major. We have three wonderful sons together. Divorced from Heidi in 2003, now happily married to Kathy Fuger. She made the obligatory pilgrimage to Manitou Heights several years ago, saw that I am Ole to the core, and married me anyway.
With a sister and two sons in Minnesota, I get there when I can. I love nothing better than a BWCA trip with my sons. First introduced to the BWCA by mySt. Olaf roommates back in 1975. I sing with the Heartland Men’s Chorus (KC’s gay men’s chorus—I’m one of five straight guys out of 140 singers) and still play a bit of basketball, work on immigration issues, and preach and teach around Kansas City.
Roderick Hale, Class of 1974
I majored just in philosophy, taking the maximum number of philosophy courses that I could. I was thinking of an English major but did not do well in my second English course. Actually, I think the Vietnam war had a great deal to do with my choice of major. Yes, Hong, Stromseth and Stoutland were all great teachers: I had Hong for a history of philosophy course in which he divided the class up into groups (all the Descartes sat here, the Leibniz people were over there, etc.) Jack Schwandt was the other great influence on me (it is bizarre to think he was in political science when his interests were far different) I have fond memories of Bill Mann, Doug Alfors and Karen Fiser (I had an independent study with her on Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. I don’t think Rawls’ did justice to the intuitionists whose views match more clearly our considered ideas of justice, or so I argued 3 years later at Wisconsin.)
I remember fondly some of the outside lecturers we had including Chisholm, Foot and M.G. Singer who was spending a semester over at Carleton
After 3 years of grad school in the philosophy department at Wisconsin, I left with my M.A. There was probably not going to be a teaching job in my future even with the Ph.D. so I went the law school route, getting my degree in 1981. I’ve been practicing law ever since in Minneapolis, doing among other things, representing the mentally ill and chemically dependent in commitment matters which I have done for 28 years.
I still think about Ed Langerak’s final exam question in philosophy 73, a survey course in ethical theory. We were to discuss the following: we all say that a person, call her “Sally”, should follow her conscience and do what her conscience tell her to do in a situation. Yet, we also believe that if we are considering Sally’s possible ethical choices and we think a person should do “x”, that any similarly situated person should do “x”, including Sally. How can we both believe Sally should follow her conscience (she might decide to do “y” instead) and that she should do “x”?
Only Langerak could come up with 280 different versions of ethical egoism and 154 different versions of relativism! More importantly, what was I to make of Hong’s query one day: “Was Eliot right in saying that we live in a wasteland?”
Philosophy provided me with essential critical thinking tools that were far superior to those I learned in law school. Plus, it provided me with some actually important reading that everyone should have done. I can’t imagine saying I had an education without reading the classics and being exposed to the works I saw in art history at St. Olaf.
Jeff Williamson, Class of 1974
I am Jeff Williamson, a 1974 Paracollege graduate with the equivalent of majors in philosophy, physics and math. I actually started out in the Music Department as a church-organ major but quickly found that I had neither sufficient technical talent nor the disposition to focus on a single area of knowledge. Having broad interests (literature, abstract math, and anthropology in addition to physics), I made the fortunate decision to join Paracollege at the beginning of my sophomore year. I started out in physics. One of my first experiences with Philosophy Department was Walt Stromseth’s survey course on 20th century philosophy. This really opened my eyes to the fact that philosophy was not primarily a subject to be studied and appreciated, but an actual, living intellectual activity that involved analytical investigation of fundamental conceptual problems. I was completely captivated! My decision to do philosophy was solidified by my two-year association with Karen Fiser. Through Karen, I encountered Wittgenstein and learned that not only did I really love doing philosophy, but seemed to be able to do it pretty well. Other department faculty with whom I worked closely included Fred Stoutland and Ed Langerak. So what did I get from all this? I credit St. Olaf College and its alternative unstructured curriculum in general, and philosophy in particular, for nurturing my intellectual independence, integrative thinking, capacity for original thought, and independence. Most importantly, my STO/PC experience legitimized my broad ranging curiosity in anything involving systematic and structured thinking. I received an intense if somewhat specialized exposure to several disciplines including, music performance, physics, abstract mathematics, as well as philosophy.
I then moved on to graduate school, specifically the History and Philosophy of Science Program at Princeton University. What a fascinating but terribly intimidating place! I got to interact with really interesting faculty. Probably Tom. Kuhn and Saul Kripke were the most influential. I also did independent studies in mathematical physics with Simon Kochen, and Art. Wightman. However, I did not thrive in this environment: I never really understood the Department’s fascination with linguistic analysis: not just studying it but doing it. Real life issues like how to make a living doing philosophy and finding a comfortable intellectual and spiritual space in the world of contemporary philosophy eroded my self confidence. I stayed at Princeton for two years, was never bored. Upon leaving, I realized how lucky I was have been part of an intellectual community at St. Olaf that was not only stimulating but nurturing.
My next career transition was purely accidental: I was hired as a treatment planning technician (called “dosimetrist”) in radiation therapy at University of Minnesota. I became a part-time graduate student in 1977, eventually completing my Ph.D. in Medical Physics/Biophysical Sciences in 1982. I discovered I really liked medical and imaging physics. It is very satisfying, team-oriented work, mainly organizing physicians, physicists and technical support staff to safely, effectively, and efficiently treat cancer patients. As a researcher, I became a specialist in applying large-scale scientific computing techniques to image reconstruction and dosimetry problems. Over the last 35 years, I have held faculty positions at University of Minnesota, University of Arizona, Washington University in St. Louis, and Virginia Commonwealth University and have served as clinical physicist, teacher, researcher, and administrator. I most enjoy graduate teaching and organizing teams of researchers to solve clinical problems but also enjoyed my leadership positions. Over the years, I have been PI of approximately $30,000,000 of NIH research grants.
How did philosophy contribute to this career path? The ability to conceptualize complex systems; to quickly and persuasively write; to navigate the boundaries of diverse knowledge domains, and to create and confidently present research programs based on shallow but broad knowledge of many areas are essential skills for an NIH-support multi-disciplinary researcher. What better training for such a role than philosophy? So even though I never went back to Princeton to complete my philosophy degree, I found a good “jack of all trades but master of none” field.
Charles Barker, Class of 1975
My days on the hill were wonderful. I intended to be a math professor until Calculus put a stop to that. During an Interim abroad freshman year (already breaking the rules!) the performance of a great violinist inspired me to begin practicing the violin in earnest. But William (H.K.) Narum’s Oriental Philosophy course got me thinking and Howard Hong’s near perfect circles on the blackboard were a thing of beauty. My junior year Howard asked me to work on the Index to the J&P in the SK library which was then in the attic of Holland. It reeked of stale Dixie-Maid cigar smoke and old books. I fell in love with it immediately. He taught me his “secret” knock which I still use with my own boys today. He was always at his desk with a lit cigar when I would arrive for work, even before 7am.
My desk was in the back room in the northeast corner of the attic. Howard would come in from time to time to get a book. Usually he would read the necessary passage and replace the book. But occasionally he would come in, slowly gaze about, then abruptly turn and go not saying a word. I couldn’t figure out what he was doing until finally realizing that he had misplaced his cigar and was on the hunt for it. On any given day, there might be several cold burnt out butts dangling on lonely bookshelves. A box of 25 Dixie-Maids was then only $5. Many years later I sent Howard a box of Cohiba Esplendidos that I had smuggled in from Mexico. I was never sure if he liked them.
In my senior year Walter Stromseth casually mentioned that if I were to take his Nietzsche course I could get a philosophy major from the “regular” college and a music major from the Paracollege. This was great news for me but, brilliant and always kind, he had to hold my hand through the entire course.
I was very lucky to have two paths open to me when I graduated. I had won a scholarship to Manhattan School of Music and Howard had secured a place for me at the Kierkegaard Institute in Copenhagen. Howard was a surrogate father for me. His patience, his clear organized thinking, his nicotine stained shock of white hair, his wry comments, the twinkling of his eye, he was someone I wanted to emulate and grow up to be. Alas, I didn’t, I had the violin disease.
After about 8 years of New York freelancing the violin gave way to the baton. My musical ideas far exceeded my violin technique. Conducting was a breeze in comparison. American Ballet Theatre gave me a job in 1987 and I’ve been there ever since with outside stints conducting the Australian Ballet and the Royal Ballet.
Along the way I learned Ancient Greek in order to read Homer but the bonus material was astounding. I became eager to tell how Parmenides used the same word to describe the implosion of the universe as Homer used for the congealing of Polyphemus’ yogurt or how the accelerando at the end of the parados in the Bacchae is the result of well-placed meter in 5/8, a sort of 5th century BCE metric modulation. Unfortunately, it was most often met with a blank stare. I did have the great fortune of reading the Iliad with Seth Benardete.
While working in Australia I met and married a beautiful principal dancer of the Australian Ballet. We live in New York with our two boys, one (age 11) a fine pianist, the other (age 9) has already danced in three productions with ABT at the Met.
The impact of a philosophy degree from St. Olaf is immeasurable for me. How fortunate to learn from those wonderful genuine men and brilliant pedagogues. Jack Schwandt should be an honorary member of the philosophy faculty. He played an important role in that mix.
Reverend Doctor Robert Gormbley, Class of 1977
I am a 1977 St. Olaf graduate and I confess that I certainly was not the most brilliant, nor dedicated, student of philosophy at that time. None the less, I did enjoy my studies. I have fond memories of Dr. Hong with his Platonic Cow and Spinozian clock. The one professor who had the greatest impact on my life and helped to guide me to my vocation, was Dr. Ed Langerak. I can’t recall how many courses I took from him, though I still have my notes from Epistemology! I recall one conversation with him when he said, “philosophy asks important questions, but there is a point where philosophy reaches its limits and then you take up the questions of theology.” He used the example of two equilateral triangles, one with its base on the ground, and the second, inverted above it, with the two points of the triangle touching. The bottom triangle was philosophy and the inverted one was theology. Ed helped me move from the one, to the other. When I graduated, I traveled back to the east coast and began my seminary work at Andover Newton Theological School. Having a St. Olaf education that included philosophy and religion, was a great asset in earning my Masters in Divinity, and later a Doctorate in Ministry. I still have a section of my library with books I acquired as a philosophy student such as Being and Nothingness, Fear and Trembling, Pensees, and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. While some of these have aided me in sermons, I believe I keep Kant’s Critique to remind myself I actually read it. That was another Langerak course simply titled, “Kant.” It was anything but simple. After finishing my Masters in Divinity, I was ordained as a United Church of Christ pastor, then married and began my ministry in 1980. 33 years later I have served five congregations in three New England states, helped raise three children, none of whom seem inclined to enter the ministry, and have been involved in any number of adventures, including a short stint as an adjunct faculty member at Andover Newton Theological School. I remember when I wrote home to my parents from, St. Olaf, concerning my choice of major and receiving their reply. “That’s great Rob! We’re glad you have decided on your course of study. Where do you think you might find a job?” Little did I realize my course of study as a philosophy major would lead me to the study of theology and then into the vocation of ministry. I would say my study of philosophy and Dr. Langerak in particular, has played a major role in my life.
Steve Thorson, Class of 1977
I matriculated with the Class of ‘70 and graduated with the Class of ‘77. Intervening was the Vietnam War and four years in the U.S. Navy. I fought in a war I hated for a country I love.
The major blessing of my Navy years is that I met a wonderful, Lutheran girl from Indiana. We have been married 39 years.
Our son, Kai, Class of ‘04, also graduated with a degree in philosophy. (Is it in the genes?) He is a fourth generation Ole.
I graduated from Hamline University School of Law in 1980. I have been an attorney in private practice for 33 years.
For young philosophers, fear not. The rigors of your philosophy major will serve you well. You will not need to hang out your “Philosophy Shoppe” sign at the local mall. (Although, I think that it might be just the sort of thing our culture needs.) Your philosophy major is giving you these gifts: critical reading; critical thinking; and clear writing. Howard Hong (who almost never answered a question directly) said something like this to me: “You might think that you have ‘thought it,’ but if you cannot write it, are you done thinking?” Those gifts are with me every day.
Jane Barrash, Class of 1978
I was a philosophy major (and political science), and Ed Langerak was my favorite teacher. Consciousness orientation is what I’ve been doing the last 30 years with Continuum Center, which has been around for 35 years…founded to explore the nature of consciousness, human capacity, and the interconnectedness of life for personal, professional and planetary transformation.
With my philosophy major I wanted to go out in the world to change our conceptual framework of the world and get us past the mechanistic, materialist paradigm that (despite grand advances) has led to so much dysfunction and degradation. We have confused the tools with the map. Continuum started with an exhibit and evolved after ’81 to host internationally known scientists, cultural, corporate and thought leaders, including former chief of brain biochemistry at NIMH, former First Lady of Egypt, and the 6th man to walk on the moon. past speakers
I have so much research and practical experience in this realm…I so very much believed and am now convinced that philosophy can save the world! 🙂 I actually made a film about how this is indeed a consciousness-infused, magical responsive universe, and St Olaf figures prominently in the real life and mostly real time story about how the universe is more like a magical mirror than a predictable machine. Making The Quantum Leap 8 min preview
Crafting the way of an unconventional way of navigating life and demonstrating the very practical applications of philosophy (synthesizing quantum physics, neuroscience, psychology, biology, and medicine with Native American, East Indian, Asian, Tibetan, West African, Mayan and Egyptian teachings) of consciousness, was no straight or sure path to material accumulation – but I have learned patience and faith. (I have not been in a position to be any kind of donor… so much of my work is pro-bono or greatly discounted for schools or organizations so that is where my donating has so far been directed.)
As a Jew by culture and genes, I am spiritual but not religious. I see the former as inclusive while the latter can feel exclusive. I have some funny stories of being one of 3 Jews on campus (one of my older brothers, Joe, being another), and I must say though I have a sense of humor and outgoing personality, others could have felt much more alienation. That’s probably important for you to know. I’d love to help St Olaf become more inclusive.
I became a world champion figure skater at 54. I got my first state gold at 51. Because it helps credibility and promotional purposes, here is a link to my first (and only) youtube “performance”… a pair of run-throughs (2nd is better) of the program I was learning for 2 upcoming competitions when I was finally able to make it through without collapsing from exhaustion (though much improvement was still needed).
Also, retired professor of nursing at St Olaf, Mary Johnson, had this to say after going through my one-day seminar: “Jane has a superb delivery – I really liked how she organized the myriad of material that’s covered. I felt it had the right combination of story, experience, sharing, evidence and discussion. This is so important for nursing students to learn about…it was a fascinating day.”
Curtis Brown, Class of 1978
I graduated from St. Olaf in 1978 with a regular-college major in Philosophy and a Paracollege concentration in (if I remember my title correctly) “Intention and interpretation in philosophy, history, and literature.” In philosophy I worked mainly with Fred Stoutland, with whom I did several Paracollege tutorials, but I also have great memories of studies with Walter Stromseth (Recent European Philosophy, Philosophy of Religion), Ed Langerak (independent study on Kant), and Howard Hong (Kierkegaard, of course). I was gone before Vicki Harper joined the faculty, but still remember very fondly attending an event at the U of Minnesota with Vicki and Paul Kirchner (I think it was a poetry reading given by the literary critic I. A. Richards). I’m pretty sure it was from her, on the car ride back, that I first heard of Ernst Gombrich’s book Art and Illusion, which became a favorite.
From St. Olaf I went to the Philosophy Department at Princeton, where I received the Ph.D. in 1982 (with a dissertation called Beliefs and Their Objects, advised by Gilbert Harman). From the fall of 1982 to the present, I’ve been teaching at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. I was lucky to get this position, and have been very happy to be at a place that has a lot of similarities toSt. Olaf (though I miss the -20 January weather). The years are going by awfully fast. When I arrived at Trinity in 1982, I was often mistaken for a student, but no one has made that mistake for a very long time. Now I’ve had at least one student whose father had also taken a class from me. Since 1980 I’ve been married to another Ole, whose name at that time was Karen Vaughan (Biology and Music, also 1978), and we have two children (Lauren, 26, and Matthew, 22). Karen is a neonatal nurse practitioner at San Antonio’s University Hospital.
It is odd to realize that, with Ed Langerak’s retirement, the Philosophy Department has lost its last member from my time there. Also gone are Ytterboe Hall, where I lived all four years, and the Paracollege, which was, at least for me, the perfect intellectual environment. I’m sure, though, that through all the changes, St. Olaf has continued to be a wonderful place to live and learn.
Michael Daugherty, Class of 1978
I am Michael Daugherty, graduated in ‘78, but entered with the class of ’79, with degrees in Philosophy and Ancient Studies. Courses with Drs. Langerak, Stoutland, Stromseth, Hokema, Dittmanson, and others, and Dr. and Mrs. Hong. A brief stint in Paracollege with Paul Kirchner, who tried in vain to teach me to write. All fine teachers, great critical thinkers, outstanding writers.
I entered Olaf as an erstwhile Math major. While struggling with multi-variable calculus as a freshman among juniors and sophomores, I happened to walk by Howard’s History of Philosophy class, when he said “in this class we are going to explore what it means to call yourself a human being…” I wandered right in, skipped my math class, and never looked back.
That wasn’t my first encounter with Howard. Before classes began freshman year, I got lost and ended up in the Eagle’s Nest through a mistakenly open door. This nice old janitor fellow in a rumpled canvas suit and earth shoes asked me if I liked old books. When I said yes, he told me ‘he knew the owner’ and I could come back any time. That afternoon, I first met with an academic advisor. I asked about that curious place, and Ed Langerak (who was substituting for my advisor, one Howard Hong, who was supposedly still up in Hovland), told me “That’s no janitor, that’s your real advisor, Howard Hong.”
I spent four years and three summers in the Eagle’s Nest, proofreading manuscripts, typing index cards cataloguing books, inhaling wonderful cigar smoke and rarified air of words in translation and dissection (Howard made me take Norwegian in lieu of finding a Danish course somewhere else), and writing papers on Kierkegaard for Howard’s classes. I recycled as many of my papers on Kierkegaard as I could for philosophy, religion, ancient history, and english classes that seemingly had nothing to do with Kierkegaard, but I thought I saw some connection. Kierkegaard was telling the story of my life, after all. He still is.
I lived with Howard and Edna for most of my college days. I learned logic – of plumbing in helping fix the unique fixtures of the hand built home on Heath Creek; I learned a bit of ontology – tending the hickory trees planted nearby and learned to what end; a bit of metaphysics – when his snow blower that I didn’t know how to run, hit the gravel and the garage door (what did a kid from Kentucky know about the existence of snow and snow blowers and how they relate to each other?); and ultimately, I learned enough about ethics, theology, and truly meaningful epistemology (about how to be subjective about others, and objective about my ‘self’) by living and working with Howard and Edna Hong.
Upon graduation, I allowed my need to support myself and my widowed mother to trump my desire to go to graduate school in philosophy. (One philosophy professor, who shall go nameless, but who resented the notoriety of the Kierkegaard Library, I suspect, threw tons of water on the spark of my interest in Kierkegaard by saying to me “you should go on to law school, you will likely never contribute anything original to the field of philosophy.” When I brought up Kierkegaard, he scoffed, and told me the study of linguistics would soon make existentialism the province of the curious among the English department.)
I went on to law school at the University of Notre Dame, the only law school at the time that taught legal ethics, and offered a course in preparation for the newly created national ethics exam. There, I wrote a paper on Kierkegaard and the individual’s right (as opposed to the vague ‘societal right’) to a public trial, which landed me my first job out of law school. When I went to St. Olaf, they handed out religious preference cards that read “ALC, Missouri Synod, or Other”. At Notre Dame they read “Roman Catholic, or Other”. I wrote on both – “Either/or”.
I soon found out I was a bit too philosophical and not committed enough to the concrete to be a great team player in a huge law firm. For the past 23 years have been a solo practitioner in St. Paul, Mn., in corporate and commercial real estate law for individuals, small business owners, and one huge publicly held, but closely managed client – again, mentoring to that single individual. I suppose you could say I am helping individuals sort out substantive and critical presuppositions about issues affecting their business, shareholders, and consumers alike.
6 years ago, I tried to retire from the practice of law, finished a Masters in Literature (yes, that Olaf prof was right in a way, Plato, Aristotle, and Freud are now being taught by the English department at St. Thomas). I was hoping to teach high school English (disguising philosophy as literature). I wrote my Master’s thesis on – Kierkegaard, and Francois Mauriac, and the moral/ethical/religious imperative of literature. Mauriac wrote in an obscure autobiography that late in life he began reading Kierkegaard. Mauriac says “it was as if Kierkegaard was telling the story of my life”.
So it goes. One of my prouder accomplishments in life is having my master’s thesis in the card catalogue of the Kierkegaard Library.
Just as I was about to retire to high school teaching, I began serving as a mentor and lawyer (not agent) for NFL football players transitioning from college; teaching of sorts I guess you could say. They don’t know it, but Stages on Life’s Way is the model for my dialogue with these young men, who have more abrupt stages in their lives than most of us.
I’m heartened by these reports from others. Liberal arts is struggling, folks, but perhaps our stories can inspire a few of the current generation fixated on finance and accounting to learn how to cipher the broader questions of understanding other individuals through the study of literature and philosophy (even linguistics, I bet).
Valerie Johnson, Class of 1978
With help from my wonderful advisor, Professor Walt Stromseth, I was accepted by Harvard in a joint J.D. (Law) and Masters of Theology (Theology in Literature) program. Afterward, I did legal history research at Oxford University for a Harvard Law professor.
When I returned from England, I first worked as a legislation assistant and speechwriter for a U.S. Congressman. Knowing how to make the “the weaker argument the stronger” is invaluable in Washington!
I loved my job but the pay was lousy, especially on The House side. After about a year, I was offered a job in the private sector that paid 50% more than I was making on The Hill.
I took the job intending to stay there for one year and then get a job on The Senate side. Instead I stayed with that company for 27 years. It is called Towers Watson (TW), and is now the most successful human resource consultancy in the world.
As a consultant, I developed communication strategies and award-winning campaigns for dozens of huge and complex projects for Fortune 500 companies. We were usually helping clients do something that had never been done before — challenges requiring outside experts. Having a background in philosophy was perfect for answering the WHY questions logically and succinctly. Training in philosophy is also great when it is your business to “make it up.”
After about 20 years at TW, I became the Global Director of the Communications Practice and one of the few women at the highest level in the company. With the help of a very rich pension plan, I was recently able to retire early. One of my favorite things to do now is take educational trips with St. Olaf or Carleton professors in Asia or the Mideast (including Ed Langerak).
I have four sons. The oldest is working on a Ph.D. in the philosophy of mathematics. My second is becoming a pediatrician. The younger two are still in college. They love to debate issues with each other. I wonder how that happened….
Russ Graef, Class of 1979
One day in philosophy class Dr. Hong asked us to name the philosopher’s vegetable. Our whole class wondered what he was talking about. The answer? The radish. If I remember correctly, he said some philosophical society had an emblem with the radish on it. The reason why the radish is the philosopher’s vegetable is because it grows beneath the surface. This is what philosophy does. The radish reminds us that we need to get beneath the surface in our pursuit of wisdom.
I have had the honor of serving our country as a Navy Chaplain for the last 18 years. It has been a privilege to serve with the great men and women in the Navy and Marine Corps. The philosophy background I received at St. Olaf has helped me face some challenging times. It helped me understand (and communicate) that there is more to life than what is on the surface. Like the Faith in Christ that keeps me strong, philosophy has helped me understand that there is a meaning to life that one cannot know until one goes beneath the surface. Hurray for the noble radish!
Lyle Witham, Class of 1979
Thanks Professor Taliaferro for this chance to share and say thank you to the wonderful human beings who have occupied the chairs within the St. Olaf Philosophy department for the past several decades. And thanks to all the “Majors” for sharing your perceptions of how studying philosophy at St. Olaf has been a defining event in your life story. And, if a generalization is called for, it appears that experience has added or contributed to each of you being in the process of “living a life that matters.” Sorry for the generalization, but I suppose the search for generalizations is part of the philosophical “dis-ease” (one of the “Hong-isms” that stuck with me) that drove many of us to study philosophy. Anyway, I am so impressed by how the study of philosophy with mentors such as Narum, Hong, Stromseth, and Stoutland changed so many lives (that then went in so many directions), but share, it appears, a common outcome—living in thoughtful and engaged ways that matter because we have attempted to make a difference. Well done group. You make me proud to be a member.
Thank you David Narum for that brief peek behind the smoky doors of your childhood. I remember more than a few philosophy majors at St. Olaf who imitated their mentors down to the detail of using pipes and cigars to stimulate thought, but as a distance runner that was not one of the “practices of the initiated” that I could follow. Still, I remember even that detail fondly, and often studied in the smokers’ study room under the library after midnight when the library closed (in the area where the Kierkegaard library is now located). Second-hand smoke worked nearly as well as caffeine for keeping alert late at night as I plowed through the many books that I was required to read to fit a philosophy/English double major into, essentially, two years, after spending two years in the paracollege (and a year away from St. Olaf), during which time I read an enormous number of wonderful and challenging books, but failed, somehow, to do so in an organized enough way to get full credit for all the life-changing stuff that I was learning. Oh well. It all worked out. In a sense, I was also an unofficial history major, since I took three semesters of the history of philosophy, one year of the history of art, one year of the history of (the Christian) religion, one year of world history, and all of the “English major” period courses, which were essentially histories of English literature that read original sources. Having spent those two years of organized study so I could get a degree, I have since spent the last 34 years back in my “paracollege mode” of learning—reading philosophy, science, history, and literature for the sheer joy of learning and thinking about it. There are so many new and exciting books coming out each year, it is impossible to stay current. I know there are other life-long-leaners out there on this email string, so if Professor Taliaferro wants to create a “smoky electronic room” where such ideas and books are discussed, I am likely to be one who would join in.
To see if there is interest in a “smoky electronic room” discussion group, here is my pale, inept imitation of a Howard-Hong-like final test question:
Comment on this quote: “Precision is the foundation of both language and science. The definition of a word, like the boundaries of a thermodynamic system, spells out exactly what it is and what it is not.”
No grades will be given. No footnotes required. The internet, I suppose, makes it easy to find out who said it, and in what context. But maybe not…
Oh, I began an M.A. in philosophy the fall after graduating from St. Olaf at the University of Minnesota. The University of Minnesota philosophy professors, also a wonderful and ethical group, sat all of us new MA and PHD candidates down on the first day to warn us that we were at the end of the baby boom, that the number of students entering college was going to drop soon, and that most of the tenured positions in most philosophy departments were filled by older members of the baby boom who were likely to stay in those chairs for a couple decades or more. So, to cover my bases, I took the LSAT a couple weeks later, and started law school at the University of Minnesota a year later. Still, I finished my M.A. as I went to law school (March 1983), and, though I did not love (or even like) studying law, I finished law school (May 1983) and passed two bar exams (Minnesota and North Dakota, my home state) in September 1983. While I did not particularly like studying law (although I did love studying the philosophy of law), to my surprise I found I loved practicing law. And then I was lucky enough to develop a specialty in the law, environmental and natural resource law, that has been my “job” (if loving what you do is a job) for the last 22 years—first as an assistant attorney general, then in a management position within a cooperative. The amount of applied philosophy that is needed in natural resource and environmental law is astonishing. In fact, in a meeting I have to go to on Monday on the legal “design” of a pending EPA rule, the first suggestion I plan to make to that group of lawyers is that we suggest that EPA apply Ockham’s razor to that design: of all the possible legal designs, EPA should choose the design that is most simple, yet still accomplishes the purpose of the law. Who knows, there may be another philosophy major in the group who has waited his or her whole life to use their major in a legal discussion…