St. Olaf Builders

AT ALUMNI MEETINGS during commencement it has for many years been customary to have representatives from the 50th and 25th anniversary classes give a short talk. On one such occasion the 25th anniversary speaker said, “When we were students we didn’t have such buildings as the Gymnasium, Holland Hall, the Music Hall, Agnes Mellby” . . . and went on to enumerate all the stone buildings erected Since his time.

Someone from the audience called out, “What did you have?” His answer has become classic, “We had Kildahl.” It brought sharply into focus the fact that it is not mortar and stone that constitute a college, but the men and women who teach and those who learn.

St. Olaf has been most fortunate in the leadership given it by its founder and its six presidents, each seemingly equipped with the Special qualifications needed for the era in which he served and each leaving his distinctive mark upon the institution. Through those early foundation-laying and slowly developing years, St. Olaf had, though small, an exceptional staff of able and dedicated faculty members.

As indicated in a previous chapter, President Mohn, Mr. Ytterboe, and Mr. Felland constituted the core of the faculty for the first ten years. Among those added to the staff during the next fifteen years of President Mohn’s administration we find Such familiar names as Ingebrikt F. Grose (English and religion), Edward W. Schmidt (biology), Nils Flaten (Romance languages), Andrew Fossum (Greek), Agnes Mellby (preceptress and German), and Olav Lee (Latin and religion).

When St. Olaf became the college of the Church, its student enrollment increased rapidly. President Kildahl showed an almost uncanny skill in selecting his additional faculty members and during his presidency brought to this campus a group of men and women, young, enthusiastic, and ambitious, each one eager to put his best efforts into developing his department. And so we got P. J. Eikeland in Norwegian, Julius Boraas in education, Erik Hetle in physics, P. M. Glasoe in chemistry, Engebret Tufte in biology, F. Melius Christiansen in, music, George Weida Spohn in English, Agnes Kittelsby in history and English, Anna Drotning in home economics, Ole E. Rölvaag in Norwegian, P. G. Schmidt in, mathematics, P. O. Holland in the business office, George Berg in Greek, C. A. Mellby in history, J. Jörgen Thompson in Norwegian, and principal of the Academy (later Dean of Men), Emil Ellingson in chemistry, Wm. Benson in history, Martin Nordgaard in mathematics, and Adelaide Hjertaas Roe in music.

Under President Vigness were added such well-known names as Paul E. Bollenbacher in German, Edward Ringstad in psychology, George Ellingson in German, Albert Holmquist in biology, Henry Thompson in religion, Carsten and Esther Woll in music, and E. A. Cooke in physical education and health.

President Boe stated frequently that he was fortunate to become head of an institution with a strong faculty in departments well established and with years of effective service ahead of them. He often remarked that he foresaw as one of St. Olaf’s greatest future problems the replacement of these men and women with people of like caliber who would have the same devotion not only to academic achievements within their departments but also to the basic principles and purposes of the college which serve as such a strong unifying force within the institution. Associated with these St. Olaf builders, as this collegiate building group has often been labeled, is a long roster of able assistants and instructors. Each is due an expression of gratitude.

In the early years of Dr. Boe’s presidency other builders belonging to the “old school” were added. Among these are Martin Hegland, Agnes Larson, Karen Larsen, Nora Solum, Ella Hjertaas Roe, Marie Melmin Meyer, Theodore Jorgenson, Carl B. Helgen, Theodore Huggenvik, Arthur Paulson, John Bly, Oscar and Gertrude Overby, Grace Holstad, Esther Gulbrandson, Peter Fossum, Johan Arndt Bergh, Adolph Engstrom, Arthur Lee, Sever Klaragard, Olava Bäkken, Adrian. Christenson, Frederick Bieberdorf, Elizabeth Kelsey, Charlotte Donhowe, H. B. Hanson, Clarence Clausen, Edward C. Jacobson, Hjalmar Lokensgaard, Anna Thykesen, Bert Narveson, Charles Weisheit, Clarence Carlson, Carl (Cully) Swanson, Mabel Shirley, and Arthur Solum.

Except for three recently retired faculty members I have listed only those who were added to the staff from 1874 through 1930 and who rendered the college an extended period of service. With the exception of one from the very early days of the college none served less than fifteen years. Most of them gave a life-time of devoted service to St. Olaf, from thirty years to more than forty, one, Olav Lee as many as fifty years. The great number of these builders are no longer among the living. A few, after many years at St. Olaf, took positions elsewhere; others have retired or will retire soon. With a faculty thus wholeheartedly committed to her program, St. Olaf was spared the disruptive influence of frequent turn-over in her faculty during her growing-up years and could move steadily, even though at times slowly, forward. This has been one of her greatest sources of strength. She is fortunate in having also today dedicated men and women who continue to build in the same spirit.

The following incidents are cited as illustrative of the dedication to St. Olaf that characterized these men and women and their colleagues as well as many of their successors.

When the 1920 St. Olaf Lutheran Choir returned in May from its first triumphal invasion of the East, morning classes were dismissed so that the student body could greet the singers and their director on their arrival at the Milwaukee Station. On their return to the campus all gathered in the festively garlanded Hoyme Chapel for a special welcome home program. The response by Dr. F. Melius Christiansen, while it cannot be exactly quoted was essentially and characteristically as follows: We have many kinds of trees on our campus which are symbolic of our basic academic program. The oaks, for example, represent the natural sciences; the elms, history and the other social sciences; the maples, the languages and literature; the pines and spruces, religion. Among all these towering trees we find some lovely flowers that also express the spirit of St. Olaf. The choir took some of this St. Olaf spirit as represented by these flowers to the East and the folks there seemed to like it.

After Dr. Christiansen became nationally known, he received many offers from other educational institutions and musical foundations which he regularly turned down. Then one day in chapel President Boe reported a recent offer that Dr. Christiansen had received. It was one that involved both a salary four times as much as he was getting at St. Olaf and the opportunity to devote most of his time to composing, which then was his major interest. President Boe went on to say he had told Dr. Christiansen that in the face of such an offer he had nothing to say, that it would be a great loss to St. Olaf to have him leave, but he could make no attempt to dissuade him since we could in no way compete with such an offer. Dr. Christiansen had replied that he wanted to think it over. The next day he reported to President Boe in these words, “I am staying at St. Olaf. I like it here.”

Dr. Karen Larsen was teaching at Mt. Holyoke College when she was asked to join the history staff at St. Olaf. In a letter to me telling of her acceptance she wrote, “I am happy to come to St. Olaf because I have faith in her and in her program of Christian education.”

One summer we learned that Dr. C. A. Mellby was going east to investigate an offer he had received to teach history of art, his favorite field, at the University of Pittsburgh. Others had unsuccessfully tried to woo him away from St. Olaf, but this offer was so tempting that he felt it merited his most careful consideration. We waited with almost bated breath for his decision on his return. He reported enthusiastically about the excellence of the department, the exceptionally fine facilities provided for his work, the tempting salary. “But,” he continued, “I didn’t accept the offer. I am too deeply rooted in St. Olaf and her program.” Of all these early builders, their colleagues, and many of their successors it my be said, “Theirs was not a job, but a mission.”

Manitou Analecta


Introduction and Foreword
Early Contacts
St. Olaf Builders
Loyal and Faithful
Student Life
Ytterboe Hall Boarding Club
War Comes to St. Olaf
When the Chapel Burned
Dearest of “Homes on the Circling Heights”
A Dream Come True
Second World War Years
Getting Back to “Normalcy”
Some Distinguished Campus Visitors
“The Play’s the Thing”
‘Once Upon a Time’ Traditions and Other Miscellany
Our College Songs