John Berntsen’s living legacy to Manitou Heights

Jeff Sauve Assoc. College Archivist Shaw-Olson Center for College History

The Christmas holidays officially began for me yesterday morning at 8:12 a.m. After I dropped off my little boy, Bailey, at daycare, I turned on the radio and heard Bing Crosby crooning, “I’ll be Home for Christmas.” I arrived at campus singing along with Bing and found Manitou Heights’ evergreens cloaked in a light snowfall. Hardly a more beautiful campus exists in the United States and much of that is due to one individual-former grounds superintendent, John Berntsen.

Although Berntsen passed away in 1971, I had the privilege of meeting his children and other family members this past summer. Current grounds manager, Jim Fisher, spent the day with them showing the strong legacy left by Berntsen. The entourage arrived at the College Archives in the mid-afternoon and we spent several hours telling stories, sharing photos, and reminiscing about a man who shaped the hill in so many ways.

In 1912 he arrived in Northfield at the age of 20. Berntsen soon found employment at St. Olaf, where for a brief time    he served as cook and meat cutter. Before long he found his home in the carpentry shop-a perfect fit as he had completed three years at a furniture-finishing school in Norway.

For the next 52 years, Berntsen made it his mission to beautify the campus. He was once quoted as saying, “I wanted to make St. Olaf so nice no student would ever have to apologize for it.” Before Berntsen arrived on campus there were elms, maples, and oaks, but not a single evergreen, which reminded him of the Norway he left behind. He sent to Maine for evergreen seedlings and established a nursery for the college.

His greatest triumph is the quarter-mile hillside below Thorson Hall consisting of over 600 trees, including Norway spruce, Silver spruce, Black Hills spruce and some flowering crabs and lilacs. The trees now tower 70 feet and sway and whisper when the wind blows.

This time each year, the whispers call home many Oles for the annual Christmas Festival. For Berntsen the festival was one of the most important events during the year. Not only was he in charge of setting up the stage and props, but he also helped design the sets. He wanted to make sure everything was safe. He would sit in the rear of the gymnasium (current Speech-Theater building) balcony with the fire hose and fire extinguisher nearby. The switchboard was right there, too. Perhaps some would hear him hum along or would inquire about his own singing ability. Berntsen sang solos in rural churches in Northfield and sang with the Free Church choir in Northfield.

Once F.M. Christiansen overheard Berntsen humming in the carpenter shop and said, “John, you’ve got music in your soul. The Lord should send you to hell for not using your talent.” Berntsen later commented to a reporter, “He seemed dead serious. But he didn’t ever say it again. I thought if he really wanted me, he’d come back.”

As you come home to Manitou Heights, please pause or perhaps take a stroll and think about the beauty that has touched our lives as well as the people that have helped make it so.

Many thanks to the grounds crew and facilities staff for all of their extra dedication at this busy time of year.