IN the late spring of the year 1903 there was an epidemic of scarlet fever among the boys in the dormitory. Father was very much concerned for the health of his boys. He was not only concerned over their health, but he was also worried about their parents because he knew most of them very well, and he knew how anxious they would be.
On this account, he was kept busy writing letters to the fathers and mothers telling them about the situation and assuring them that their sons were in good hands and were being properly taken care of. The stricken boys were isolated in a private home so as not to expose the others. Luckily, there were no fatalities and the boys even had a good time during their enforced vacation.
However, before they could return to their rooms in the dormitory, it was considered wise to fumigate the rooms as a precaution against any possible return of the epidemic. In those days formaldehyde was used as a disinfectant. Father knew that old Helgeson, who was a rather simple-minded man, was not capable of handling the formaldehyde. There was no one else to help him, so he took it upon himself to fumigate the rooms before the boys moved back into the dormitory.
I can see Father now, his eyes streaming with tears, as he came back from the rooms. He had opened the windows to let the fresh air in, but the fumes were so strong that his eyes were full of tears. He continued to fumigate until all the rooms were fresh and aired and ready for the return of the students. Shortly before commencement time, he said to Mother one afternoon: “It is strange, but when I look up at the ceiling, I see two moldings. I know there is only one, but I see two.”
Soon Mother realized that Father was very tired. She told him he had been working too hard and urged him to get more rest. One afternoon he was resting in their bedroom. I, as a child of six, wanted to go from our parlor to our bedroom. In order to do that, I had to pass through Father and Mother’s bedroom. Mother told me Father was resting and I must not disturb him, but if I was quiet I could go. I adored Father, so I was as careful as I could be. My way of being careful was to stand on tiptoe and step forward with my knees held high and balancing myself with my arms. I must have looked very funny, because Father was watching me, and he laughed and laughed at me! That made me feel happy, as I loved to hear Father laugh.
Gradually Father began to feel weak in his arms, and his eyes did not improve. It was difficult for him to read. Shortly before school reopened in the fall of 1903, he went to Calmar to the Ytterboe farm as his own father was not too well. I have some of the letters he wrote at that time. He dated every letter. His letters were so gallant. He did not complain very much as he did not want to worry Mother. His letters are full of his loving, teasing ways. I shall let the letters speak for themselves:
“Calmar, August 21, 1903. My loving wife! Just got up and feel that I love you still. I don’t see how I can, with all your faults — but it seems I can’t help it. I am writing this with both eyes open and I don’t see double, so I must mean it . . . . . . I think what I need is a walk between here and Calmar every day — I feel it does me good. My arms are very weak, but my eyes are, I think, occasionally better at least.
“Nelly [his sister and Gertrude Hilleboe’s mother] and family will come with me August 31, but I suppose they will stay only one night as the school in Benson commences the eighth. Don’t give such terrible orders to the girls about me. [The girls were the Kittelsby girls, Mother’s sisters.] I had started walking, and Anna came running like a cyclone after me through town. The people in town surely thought I had robbed them and that I was to be brought back alive or dead. I tell you, a general cannot conduct a campaign at a distance. So keep your orders until I get home — and I suppose I must obey blindly as before. Now keep cool and quiet about me, or I shall come home and do you up in the first round if I can get my arms in pugilistic order — but I believe I shall have to practice. Greet Edel and tell her I think she is the best girl in the world, and Evelyn that she is the best girl on this earth, and Norman that he is the best boy under the sun, and you, that you are the best wife I ever had. Well done. H.T.Y.”
“Calmar, August 24, 1903. My dear wife: I am going to write you another love letter with both my eyes open so that you may be sure that I can see and mean all I say. I am in general not any worse and my eyes are, I believe, a trifle better, but both my arms are very weak, hardly able to lift a chair. Oh, I wish Edel and Norman and Evelyn or you were here to eat apples. A bushel of fine apples are falling down every day — fine apples. We give all the neighbors apples, and the rest we feed to the pigs. If Edel were here she could feed the pigs apples. I tell you they like them — they take a whole apple in one bite. One chicken stood outside my bedroom window early one morning and called ‘E-E-Edel, E-E-Edel, E-E-Edel.’ I got up and told her Edel was in Northfield, and she said she hopes Edel would have come down here now when the apples were ripe. When I come out all the chickens are looking at me and wondering why Edel is not around, the pigs too. The colt asked for Norman and when he was told I did not take him along, he turned around and kicked after me, but I jumped and escaped — if I had not been so spry I would have caught it! The cows are calling for Evelyn to come and milk them and when I tell them that she is not here, they run down the hill shaking their heads and are so mad that I do not dare to come nearer to them than a glass of milk. Write George Seals that we must get his butter again. We may make arrangements with Skinner and Drew for a hundred pounds, but the rest we must get from the farmers. A week from today we are coming home. Love to you all. H.T.Y.
“P.S. I suppose you are at the wedding when this letter reaches you. Well, people persist in getting married no matter how much trouble they see others have. Well, they will get older and wiser. Your loving husband. H.T.Y. I cannot look this letter over.”
School opened for the regular session in the fall of 1903. Father was there attending to his regular duties. He had consulted the doctors in Northfield, Dr. Pringle and Dr. Hunt, as his eyesight was not improving and his physical strength was weakening. The Northfield doctors were completely mystified by his condition and advised him to consult with the doctors of the Luther Hospital in St. Paul. This he did and the doctors there urged him to come to St. Paul and stay there in the Luther Hospital where they could watch his condition more closely.
It was in the evening of an October day that Father gave his last devotional for his boys in the gymnasium of the boys’ dormitory. He knew he would never return. He spoke in a simple, manly way as was his wont. There were no dramatics, no sadness, no quotations from the gladiators of old such as “we who are about to die salute you,” no indeed! He spoke these simple words to his boys:
“This may be the last time I shall address you. Let me say, fear God, boys, stand by St. Olaf and attend strictly to business. Fear God. He does not need you as much as you need Him. Stand by St. Olaf. She needs your help and good will. Attend strictly to business. Our church and our country need men who can do that. Remember what I have said, boys. Goodbye.”
When he was in the hospital he wrote home to his family almost every day. His letters are cheerful and full of vitality. These letters are all written in pencil, and I am sure he never dreamed that one day they would be published. His sense of humor is evident in all his letters. All of them are intimate letters to his family. They are whimsical, droll, prankish and sometimes almost impish, full of his usual teasing ways.
He slept very little and the hours must have seemed long. He must have been deeply concerned about his family, the college and his boys. But he tried so hard to keep up his spirits so that Mother would not worry. Of course, Mother at home was sick with worry. She also had us three children to care for. I was six years old, Norman was twelve, and Evelyn was fifteen. I do not have all of his letters, but I shall use the ones I have. They all are written in pencil because his eyes were so bad that he could hardly see to write.
Again I shall let the letters speak for themselves. They are the letters of a gallant and courageous man. Each letter was dated, and they were written from the Luther Hospital in St. Paul.
“Luther Hospital, St. Paul. Friday, 9 a.m., October 15, 1903. My dear wife: Just finished my breakfast, and then you know one has to take some exercise and when one is not allowed physical exercise, some mental gymnastics will have to take its place. I expect the doctor in an hour or so, and then I will know if he expects to rub me down and electrify me or not. I slept ’til three o’clock last night. Lommen called on me last night [George Lommen was a relative of ours. George Lommen later moved to Alaska. He was Mayor of Nome, Alaska, for many years, and his son became known all over the country as the “Reindeer King of Alaska.”] and Edward and John Mohn later in the evening, so I am doing a lot of entertaining, but I did not invite them to supper, so it is not very expensive.
“You must have fine sunshine at St. Olaf now. Wish I could be over in Evergreen Valley [Norway Valley] and drink it in. I am writing this with both eyes open, so you can imagine what fierce eyes I have got. Must be getting of the kind again that captivated you in early youth. Just think of your being wounded so early in life and never getting over it. Carrying the disease all these years and, apparently at last, getting worse. Such is life! Queer that so much love can be in such a little body. ‘Men de er saa sote de smaa.’ Edel, shall I tell you ‘sompen?’ There was a hill, on top of a mill, et cetera. Mrs. Gronvold [relative] just brought me your letter and card in greeting. Love to all. H.T.Y Bounce Norman for me and put Evelyn under the table!”
October 16, 1903, 11 a.m. My dear wife: I thought you might like to see my nice writing, so I shall send you a letter. The Doctor is in Des Moines, and I will not see him until Friday, so I am only lazing away my time in bed. Eating most of the time and sleeping occasionally. Ed Mohn called last evening so I am not lonesome. Just had an egg nog. If Edel had been here she should have had some. Wonder if she gets anything to eat now when I am gone? Tell Brenna [one of the workmen, I guess] to get three planks of even side from the Ladies Hall and put on back step before the planks are gone. If potatoes are good, buy 500 bushels of Bailey. Ask Larson [janitor] if he can find the casting for one chimney top on main building and bring down to Lysne and Zanmiller. If he cannot find them, they will have to send for them. Three orders in one day for you is about all you can stand, is it not? Don’t worry about me, I am all right. Greet the children and the boys. God bless you, my dear wife. H.T.Y. Got a comfortable room.”
“October 17, 1903. 7 a.m. My dear wife: Just had a cup of malted milk and so, of course, I feel quite literary! The doctor was here yesterday and he said that he wanted me to stay in bed and have absolute rest for one week before he uses electricity as massage. I guess he has heard of my laziness and wants to give me a good dose of it to satisfy me thoroughly. I get about the same things to eat as you prepared for me, and I guess I could have rested at home too as well. If that is all I need — but I am here and I’ll dare them to do anything that I can’t stand. I, of course, have it good. Gentle nurses putting their curly heads into my room and asking, ‘How do you feel now?’ Edward [Mohn] was here again last night, and I think it is going to be hard on the Mohn boys. He read the paper to me. Today I was sitting here, and Iowa University played football. I wish I had the strength that I had when I played at Iowa City. I got the ball near our goal and rushed on and knocked the halfback over on his back, sprawled over him and got the ball, got up steam so that when I struck the fullback he went head down and heels up, and the ball and I were at the goal at the same time before the others had time to whistle — well, if you girls had been there to see it, you would all have insisted on marrying me then and there! Talk about America not having any great ruins like Europe! [He refers to his lack of strength at the present.] I asked the doctor if I could get out to shave today, but he said no. Don’t let any of the girls come to see me, as I will soon look like a wild Australian. The nurse said that if I had a razor, she could shave me — think of it, it would pay me to stay here simply to get a shave — I hope they are not cutthroats — but where shall I get a razor? This world is a queer world, so many millions of razors and not one little razor for me. If you have tears, prepare to shed them now — great sorrows come to great men. And how is Edel? Shall I tell you ‘sompen?’ Tell Norman to always wash his right ear before he washes the left. That is the first law of health. If you don’t believe it, ask Miss Mellby, the great authority on hygiene. Tell Evelyn always to put on her left skirt before the right. That is the first law of dressmaking. And now, Edel, you will have to be the mother of the family when I am away. Take care of little Mamma — see that she does not sleep too much. Wake her up in the middle of the night and ask her ‘how she feels now’ — all such little attentions don’t cost much, but you know they go a good way. Tell Mamma for me that when I come home we will smoke the peace pipe and let bygones be bygones. And now kind regards to you all and the boys. Ann Gronvold just brought me the letter from you and the children. Thanks to you all. H.T.Y.”
“Sunday, 7 a.m., October 18, 1903. My dear wife. Got the children’s and your letters yesterday which, of course, was a treat. Edel’s letter was very interesting — it was short and sweet — [I couldn’t read or write] — Evelyn’s was long and full of good things. Norman’s was half long, but solid like a boy should be. You ask if I can talk yet — [paralysis was affecting his whole body] — it will be a long day when I cannot talk. Don’t you hear how I talk to you in my letters? Do you think a dumb man can write the way I do without speech? First, of course, I talk. Then I write down what I have talked. Yes, I can talk, if you come up here some time you will find out
I can talk. I will talk over with you all the times you were put out with me and talked so much that I could not get a chance to say anything in my defense. The doctor went away again yesterday and will not be home for five days. I take iodide of iron, ten drops, three times a day, and one sea salt sponge bath a day and then stay in bed for five days more to begin with and then I do not know what. Yesterday the sun shone in my room very nicely, and I took a sun bath which, I think, did me good. John Mohn was here last night and now even the ladies begin to call on me. They come from great distances. Mrs. Peter Muus, Mrs. Wilson, Mrs. Thompson, Mrs. Gronwold. We talked about old times at St. Olaf. They told me how scared they were some times when I was after them. Well, Mrs. Gronvold now has a chance to get even with me. Greet the children and the boys and love to you. Your husband. H.T.Y.”
“Monday, 10 a.m. October 19, 1903. My dear wife! Have had my breakfast of milk toast, butter, malted milk, coffee and iodide of iron. The sea salt sponge I get in the evening. I am now sitting in the bed letting the sun shine on me — fine sunshine — yesterday was a surprise when Mrs. Holgrims called on me. Just think of it, that she shall think more of me than you do and call on me before you do. You say that you think a good deal of me, but you know it is what you do that counts. Mrs. Holgrims does not say much, but she does. A lady from Minneapolis called on me — one I had never seen before — all of my friends are calling on me, and I am making new friends every day — soon the whole of Minneapolis will be down, then I suppose St. Paul will wake up to the situation and, headed by the Governor, will offer me the freedom of the city — to roam wherever I please — well, such will be fame!
“And the faculty did not have anything to do Friday? Well, that is the way. When the father is away the children prefer to play. Once I remember Father and Mother went to Waukon, Iowa, for four days, and Thyke [brother] and I were to hoe corn — but we did not. We met on the battlefield and held a consultation and promptly came to the conclusion that it was too wet. I believe it had rained once the previous month. When Father asked what was the matter, we said it was too wet. Father was a wise man and the hoeing began early the next morning, and we did not strike water nor was it too wet the whole summer! We had simply been mistaken in our diagnosis. If I stay here much longer you will have to (in order to keep you busy and away from the poorhouse) publish these letters. You might publish them under the heading of ‘Idle Thoughts in Leisure Moments by Great Men.’ You will have to say ‘men’ because no one will believe that one man could produce so much idle stuff in his leisure moments — but ‘men’ might because ‘a little nonsense now and then is relished by the best of men.’ I cannot read over what I have written because new ideas are crowding and asking to be let loose — I guess I have too much brains — that is the matter with me — tell Edel that she will have to let Miss Mellby and Miss Larson [piano teacher] take care of her kittens and come and see me when she can make the necessary arrangements. Tell Norman not to go to bed too early, and tell Evelyn not to get up too early in the morning, and you, my dear, don’t sleep all night but think of your loving husband in the evening. H.T.Y.”
“Friday, October 20, 1903, 12 noon. My dear wife: Got your letter with Strömme’s picture [Strömme, the writer] and Edel’s razor. Callers yesterday, Lavik, Ekeland and Lommen, and Mrs. Ringstad. [Mrs. Ringstad was a relative of ours. We called her Tante Pet. My daughter, Elise Sanguinetti, thought this was such an affectionate title that she used it for a character in all of her three published novels. Mrs. Ringstad, Tante Pet, was a widow for many years until she married Andrew Veblen, a brother of the world-renowned economist and social scientist, Thorstein Veblen.] She is very good, brought me cake, jelly and pultost and all good things. I am still resting and feeling about the same. I strained my eyes a little yesterday writing, so I had better not write much today. I sent Martha Larson’s [piano teacher] drawings to Professor Steensland, as I feel not competent to judge such art with double vision. [Professor Steensland was paying court to Martha Larson, and they later married.] Lommen comes this p.m. to read the news to me. Greet Edel and Norman and the boys and Kildahl and all the Mohns. My voice is good and my tongue does all I call upon it to do. Your loving husband. H.T.Y.”
(The following letter was written to me, though I had not learned to read).
“October 22, 1903. My dear little Edel: Don’t let Mamma or the children read this, Edel. Good morning! How could you wake so soon? How could you drive the stars away and shine away the moon? How could you? Shall I tell you ‘sompen?’ There was a mill, on top of the mill there was a hill, around the mill there was a key, under the key there was a walk. What is it? The nurse still carries breakfast to me — does your nurse carry breakfast to you? If she does not, you had better come up and stay with me and I’ll give you ‘sompen’ of mine. Thank you for the baseball picture. Tell Baby Norman and Baby Evelyn not to eat everything up for you — if they do I’ll be down and fix them. Say, but you must send me a little razor. The one you sent me won’t do a thing and I have not shaved since I was home, and I look just about like Kruger. [I think he has reference to the Boer War.] Probably you will not have me for a Papa any longer when I look this way. Or what do you say? Hope Norman has a chance to shave so he will not frighten the teams along the road going to school. Five cents for a dream about me — have you dreamed about me yet? Be sure to give the kittens some milk before you come to St. Paul. Your obedient servant, Papa.”
“October 22, 1903. Thursday, 8 a.m. My dear wife: Well, I am sitting up and waiting for my breakfast and I thought I may just as well write you a letter. I don’t feel any change for the worse or better. I do not sleep as much now, only two hours last night. I suppose because I rest so much all the time. So you do not care to hear about corn hoeing. Well, shall I write about the situation in China? Well, when you come up Saturday we will smoke the pipe of peace, and you can choose your topics — meanwhile you will have to bear with the infirmities of your old man. Will you be here Saturday morning and will you stay Monday eve or Tuesday? Love to you, the children, and greet the boys. H.T.Y.”
“Saturday morning, October 24, 1903. My dear Evelyn and Norman: I suppose you children are left fatherless and motherless and Edel-less by this time — but you can be glad that you are not home-less and that you are not thought-less! I suppose Edel is pretty important and busy looking to see if everything is all right before she leaves, and giving her final instructions to Norman as the father of the house and you as the mother of the family and Harold [Harold Kildahl was the youngest of the Kildahl boys and my playmate. He died at the age of seven.] as the guardian of the kittens. Seems to me I see a little better, but I am very weak in my hands and arms so they are not any better. Glad to hear that the students are so good and that everything is running nicely. Now, good night, children, and God bless you. Your loving Papa.”
“October 27, 1903, 12 noon. My dear wife: I got pretty lonesome after you and Edel left, but I can, of course, stand it. I slept about four hours last night and have taken a sun bath this morning. Electricity did not affect me one way or the other as far as I can feel yet. Saw Thorson [Harold Thorson]. Love to you and all the children. H.T.Y.”
“October 28, 1903. Wednesday, 7 a.m. My dear wife: Just got up into a chair in order to tell you that I slept about six hours last night. That’s more than I have done for three months in one night, so I guess electricity begins to work. The trouble will be if I begin to sleep two hours more for every day I take electricity, it will bother me after a while to get it all in twenty-four hours. Ask Norman, the great mathematician, how can I do that? John Mohn and one of the Brandts [relatives] called on me. After treating with the doctor, I went over and got five pegs put in my sole which cost me five cents. Did you ever get your sole fixed so cheaply? Lommen called after the sole mending, and I went to bed at six p.m. I see the sun again today and I have another day before me. Hope Edel is well; have you commenced to eat again? You must not come here if you forget to eat. With love to you all, H.Y.T.”
“Friday, 8 a.m., October 30, 1903. Thanks for your letter and Norlie’s. Is it not strange how accurately some people can size a man up? Now I hope you know what sort of a man you have got. I have gotten back to my old habit of not sleeping much again. Three or four hours last night. The effect of electricity has not worked in any way yet — too early, I suppose. My right arm and leg are getting weaker, but the left are holding their own. My tongue is not any better. I suppose I should not tell you all these things, but you seem to wish to know just how I am. Do not worry. I suppose that’s the course it must take. Would you open the iron box in the safe in my office and look at the certificate of deposit [Brekken Fund] of the First National Bank and see if it is due yet. It comes due every six months and if not presented when due, I do not get the interest for overtime. If due, it should be renewed for the same amount and the interest should be deposited to the credit of the Brekken Fund. Kildahl had better do it, and must take with him the Brekken Fund bank deposit book so that the bank can write out a receipt and mark “Interest Brekken Fund” on stub in red ink, and put same to the credit of interest in Brekken Fund ledger. The ledger is found on the top of the safe. If anyone pays interest on Brekken Fund note it is to be deposited in the bank. The Brekken Fund money is always kept separate from the other money. I shall write the postmaster about the money orders. Tell Kildahl that he can get them cashed. Love to Edel, Norman. Now cheer up yourself, my dear. H.T.Y.”
“Saturday, 8 a.m., October 31, 1903. My dear wife: Go right to bed and sleep as long as I did last night! Guess how long I slept? You may not believe it, but I slept eight full hours last night without waking once. More than four months since I slept that long. I feel fine this morning. I am going to beat Edel sleeping now. I don’t expect to beat Evelyn and Norman. Your loving husband. H.T.Y.”
“Sunday, 9 a.m., November 1, 1903. My dear wife: Got your letter yesterday after I sent mine. Thank Evelyn for her letter. She will have to tell me all that happens at school. Also important announcements at chapel. How were the boys at Hallowe’en? Did not sleep so much last night again, but I could not expect that after the dose I got Friday night. I get pretty lonesome evenings, but then this cannot last so very much longer. Wish you were here again, but you are needed at home more than here. Wonder if I could get galvanic electric treatments in Northfield? The doctor puts a pole in the back of my neck and uses an electric roller on my face. Would you inquire of Dr. Pringle and Dr. Hunt? If I could get that at Northfield, I might get a chance to stay home. Salt baths and massage I could get at home as well, I should think.
“Alous Finseth called on me Friday eve. Wrote to H. B. Kildahl yesterday. Will write to Hilleboe soon. Feel pretty well today. My arms are not any worse, and my eyes are about the same. If you were here, I would be happy — strange that a little thing like that could make me happy. Greet Edel, Evelyn, Norman and all. Yours. Y.”
“November 2, 1903. My dear wife: Well, it was a surprise yesterday when Evelyn came up. It was nice to see some one of your (?) relatives. Hope she got home all right. I slept about four hours again last night. Otherwise, I am about the same. I see no improvement since I came here, except it might be a little in my eyelids. But then I am worse in other parts again. But I suppose that is nothing to wonder at. It must have its course. Wish I could be at home though. I weigh 158 ¾ pounds. John and Edward Mohn, Strömme, Thorson, called Sunday. Holstead called last night. I may come home next week. There is some business to be attended to — insurance. At least I would like to. Glad to hear the students are so considerate. Goodbye and thank you for all your kindnesses. Greet Norman and my other relatives. Yours, Y.”
The doctors at the Luther Hospital tried everything they knew how to try. Doctors were even called in from as far away as Chicago. They too were baffled by Father’s symptoms, and his case was written up in medical journals. However, they finally pronounced his illness as Formaldehyde Poisoning,” and they were helpless to do anything for him. He was brought home, and a room on the third floor of the boys’ dormitory was prepared for him in the north wing, the windows facing the western sky.
So it was that early in the morning of February 26, 1904, Professor Halvor Thykesen Ytterboe, the man who saved St. Olaf College, passed through the gates of death. He was forty-six years of age.
The Old Main
Mohn and Ytterboe Family Connections
The Old Synod
The Reverend Bernt Muus
Young Professor Ytterboe
The First Bathtub at St. Olaf College
A New Day and A New President
Chapel Prayers by H. T. Ytterboe
Erik Hetle and Ole Rölvaag
Old Buildings at St. Olaf College
1300 St. Olaf Avenue
Agnes Margaret Kittelsby
Professor O. G. Felland
Town and Gown
Music at St. Olaf
St. Olaf’s First Rhodes Scholar
My Mother, Mrs. H. T. Ytterboe