CHAPTER 21: St. Olaf’s First Rhodes Scholar

HERE was a young student at St. Olaf whose name was Joseph Tetlie. He was handsome and talented. His academic achievements ranked high, his musical talents were considerable, his athletic prowess was noteworthy. He was a member of the St. Olaf Band which went to Norway in 1906. He was also a member of St. Olaf Octet which F. Melius Christiansen said was the forerunner of the St. Olaf Choir. He was pitcher on the St. Olaf baseball team.

I was about ten or eleven years old, but I had seen much of Joseph Tetlie because he was paying court to my sister, Evelyn. That was the way we expressed it in those days. However, no formal announcement had been made.

I heard that he had received a Rhodes Scholarship. I had never heard of a Rhodes Scholarship; in fact, I had never heard of Cecil Rhodes, but everybody seemed to think it was a great honor. He was to have three years at Oxford University in England and all expenses were to be paid. So in 1910 he went to Oxford, St. Olaf’s first recipient of that great honor.

Soon letters began to fly back and forth from Oxford University to our house at 1300 St. Olaf Avenue. Evelyn used to read parts of his letters to us. He wrote that at Oxford he had a bedroom and a sitting room. He said they called the bedroom “bedder” and the sitting room “sitter.” They never spoke the word congratulations, they only said “gratters.” At my age this made an indelible impression on me. As a result of all this, I became a complete Anglophile saying “sitter” and “bedder” and “gratters” to all my friends.

One time he sent a book. It was a drama entitled “Mi-les’ to nes’,” accent on the second and last syllable. We went around saying, “Have you read ‘Mi les’ to nes?” Even Mother and Tante Agnes said Mi les’ to nes’. Then one day someone came to our house and saw the book and said, “Oh, I see you have gotten Milestones!” And plain old “Milestones” it was. We all felt rather ridiculous. I became very thoughtful over this and decided I had better stick to my own way of speaking since even Mother and Tante Agnes had been mistaken. However, I stuck to “gratters” for many years, because I liked the sound of it and I could just hear those distinguished Englishmen saying, “Gratters, old chap.”

Joseph Tetlie made a fine record at Oxford in academic matters. He also became a member of the Pembroke crew, winning many races on the Chewell River there. Two years he held the position of stroke, which was the most important position on the crew, and Pembroke College felt triumphant when they were invited to row in the Queen’s Royal Regatta at Henley. The Tetlie family has many interesting trophies which their father had won during his years at Oxford.

After Joseph Tetlie returned from Oxford, he attended the United Church Theological Seminary at St. Anthony Park and became an ordained minister in the Lutheran Church. My sister, Evelyn, and the Reverend Joseph Tetlie were married June 14, 1917. I was Maid of Honor, but I do not remember everybody in the wedding. I know my cousins Bea Mohn and Gertrude Hilleboe were bridesmaids, as were Tulla Kildahl and Sophia Silvertson Mohn. It was a lovely wedding. The spiraea was late and in full bloom. We bridesmaids took these graceful branches and made crowns for our heads and carried armfuls. It was sweet to think that the flowers came from our own garden.

Those years were the beginning of the war years, and the Reverend Joseph Tetlie was asked to serve as a chaplain in the United States Army. This he would have liked to do; he wanted to help his country in that capacity. But he had already given his word to the church that he would go to China as a missionary. The church insisted that he go at once, so the Tetlies went to China in the summer of 1917. They were in China for five years when Evelyn contracted an oriental disease called the sprue, and they were compelled to return to Northfield in the year 1922. My sister’s improvement was slow, but when she became herself again the Tetlies went to the University of Chicago where Joseph started work on his Ph.D. Lack of funds worried them constantly, so when the call came from the congregation at Madison, Minnesota, to fill the pastorate, Pastor Tetlie accepted the call. Almost simultaneously, he was asked to become professor at a university in Tennessee. He, however, felt he could do more good if he stayed among his own people — the Scandinavians of his own background.

While at the University of Chicago he made a very liberal theological statement. This statement was widely discussed among the clergy and laity alike in the United Lutheran Church. I was visiting in Northfield at the time. In fact, Evelyn and I were watching a baseball game at the college when one of her friends came up to her and asked: “Does your husband believe that we are descended from monkeys?”

The church, however, knowing the Reverend Tetlie’s liberal views, continued to keep him in the official church body, but, as a result, they never used him to his full capacity. He was thereafter considered by the church as unorthodox. It was a great pity. It was in the summer of the year 1962 that the Reverend Tetlie decided to retire from the ministry and move back to Northfield to our old house on St. Olaf Avenue. They arranged the house beautifully and were so happy to be back again in Northfield and under the shadow of their alma mater which they loved so dearly. I went up to visit them in the fall of 1962. Northfield and the St. Olaf campus were beautiful with the maple trees showing their most brilliant colors of yellow and red, the leaves falling softly on the emerald green grass. It was an enchanting sight for me who had been away from the beauty of the Northern autumn for so many years.

I was shocked, however, to find my sister Evelyn not very well. It was the beginning of her illness. Even with my sister’s illness, they both seemed very happy. At long last, after living in parsonages all their lives, they had a home of their own. It was to be hoped that they could have many years in Northfield so near to St. Olaf College which meant so much to them both.

While I was there, Joseph Tetlie had a massive heart attack and died on November third. His funeral took place on November sixth. November sixth had always been such a joyous day for us that it seemed especially touching and heartrending that the first Rhodes Scholar from St. Olaf should be buried on that very special Founder’s Day. Because he had been a distinguished alumnus of St. Olaf and because he had been a member of the St. Olaf Octet, the St. Olaf choir sang at his funeral. They sang “Trust in the Lord” and “Beautiful Saviour” under the direction of Olaf Christiansen.

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
Hoyme Chapel
Old Buildings at St. Olaf College
1300 St. Olaf Avenue
Agnes Margaret Kittelsby
Professor O. G. Felland
Agnes Mellby
Town and Gown
Music at St. Olaf
St. Olaf’s First Rhodes Scholar
My Mother, Mrs. H. T. Ytterboe