St. Olaf College | News

Connections that last a lifetime

Lifelong friendships often begin at St. Olaf College, which makes Reunion Weekend a special time for our alumni who look forward to building new memories together in the place that made them.

Though we were unable to gather in-person in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2019 Reunion Weekend was a special occasion — especially for our nursing alumni.

Valborg Tollefsrud
Reunion 2019 was the first time that many alumni from our class years ending in 9 and 4 were able to see the new, high-tech nursing facility as part of an open house on Saturday, June 1, 2019, in Regents Hall of Natural Science.

Amid the general activity of the event, one room was set aside for a gathering of dear friends and colleagues from the program’s early history.

Valborg Tollefsrud attends Reunion 2019.

As nurses were sitting at tables, catching up, in came 94-year-old nurse and professor emerita Valborg Tollefsrud and surprised them all. Dozens of nurses burst into applause when their former professor arrived.

Tollefsrud’s legacy at St. Olaf as a teacher, mentor, and friend is cemented in so many nursing careers, as well as the endowed scholarship that bears her name. Also (the alumni insist) they memorialized “Tolly” by naming a dance after her.

When she finally spoke, everyone quieted their excitement to listen closely.

“We share what we can when we can, and if we don’t share, then it doesn’t do any good,” Tollefsrud told them. “All of you are the result of sharing and caring, so you’re all part of my family, and at 94 I value all of you.”

Sylvia Lee Sabo ’59 and Jan Dreyer Nelson ’59 attending Reunion 2019.

Family is a perfect way to describe how the friendships between nursing alumni have evolved over the years, especially for a tight-knit group of nursing alumnae from the Class of 1959.

Sylvia Lee Sabo ’59 and Jan Dreyer Nelson ’59 met during their first year at St. Olaf College and became roommates the next year while working at Fairview Hospital in Minneapolis. They spent their college years joined at the hip, and when Nelson got married, Sabo was Nelson’s bridesmaid. The two describe their friendship as one step below sisters.

Their closeness, forged over 60 years, can be heard with perfect clarity when they talk. As one speaks, the other adds meaning or assent in a synchronous rhythm, their voices weaving a tapestry of many treasured memories — like visiting China in 2004 to teach about breast cancer together. Proud alums, they even taught “Um! Yah! Yah!” to the cancer survivors they met.

“I believe one of the important aspects of my education is the way it prepared me to look at life from a more global perspective,” says fellow nursing alumna Carol Linebach Goeman ’59. “I feel it prepared me well for life.”

Goeman says she feels lucky to have arrived at St. Olaf because she nearly attended the University of Iowa. Her parents had attended both, and she was set on following in their footsteps. In the end, she chose St. Olaf because it was a small school. Here, she connected with Sabo and Nelson, and many other nursing students, who would become her lifelong best friends.

Nursing alumnae from the Class of 1959 gather at Nordstrom Grill on July 31, 2019.

Goeman and her fellow Class of 1959 nursing alumnae developed a tradition of gathering at Nordstrom Grill in Bloomington once or twice a year. The friendships she made on the Hill are important to her, and she dedicates energy to maintain them.

“You really have to work at them, protect them, and grow because of them,” Goeman says. “They are just lifelong, everlasting. I know they will be here for me forever. It’s a special communication that I just feel very privileged to have. My children talk to me about the special relationships that I and my age group seem to have with people. How connected we stay. They admire that we really make the effort. They’re there for whatever, whenever. I know they would come to my aid if I needed them.”

Valborg Tollefsrud Endowed Scholarship
Passing by the small gathering’s open door, Sarah Branigan ‘14 notices Tollefsrud inside and excitedly begins a conversation.

Sarah Branigan ’14 (far right) walks into a gathering of fellow nursing alumni to greet Valborg Tollefsrud (seated, far left).

Branigan received the Valborg Tollefsrud Endowed Scholarship which allowed her to attend St. Olaf. They exchanged letters for years in which Tollefsrud had encouraged her to pursue her career goals, which made a huge impact on her. This reunion event is the first time they meet in person.

Branigan now works in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit in Baltimore, Maryland. She explains to Tollefsrud how Baltimore differs from the Midwest, where she grew up. The poverty in Baltimore is intense, and the young patients she sees don’t have primary care most of the time. Chronic diseases are a problem — asthma is common due to the air quality — and violence isn’t uncommon. But she feels like her work is meaningful.

Valborg Tollefsrud with Sarah Branigan ’14.

“You feel like you’re making a difference in their lives,” Branigan says.

Meeting Tollefsrud in person, after so many years corresponding, was an important moment for Branigan.

“It was an emotional moment, and one that will forever be near to my heart given her profound impact on my education,” Branigan says. “St. Olaf nursing changed my life — it’s so special to me, and to so many.”