In between music, math, and memories, a gift for Oles
It’s kind of a perfect liberal arts story. A music lover turned math major turned double major turned technologist. A life and experience worth sharing. Just ask Richard Steen ’69.
Margery Mayer, Richard’s mother, was a widely-acclaimed leading contralto with the New York City Opera. His father, Sigvart Steen ’31, was a first-generation Ole and also a Luther College grad who founded Luther’s Nordic Choir. The Steen family moved to New York for Margery to pursue her career; the family frequently took in New York’s vibrant cultural scene. Both taught music at Wagner College in Staten Island where Sigvart conducted its choir too.
“From earliest childhood, I was immersed in a world of rich and beautiful singing by my mother,” Steen says. “I couldn’t help but absorb much of her innate ability by listening to and imitating her and her voice students. By high school, I’d also caught my father’s passion for a cappella sacred music.”
Yet mathematics was also a big part of their family. Lynn Steen, Richard’s elder brother, studied mathematics at Luther College.
“Math was such a dominant creative endeavor for Lynn that I think he considered it a brotherly favor to constantly tease me with mathematical and verbal conundrums,” Steen says.
Much to their father’s delight, both brothers landed at St. Olaf College in the fall of 1965. Richard arrived on campus as a freshman. Lynn had just completed his Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was hired into the Mathematics Department at St. Olaf along with Mary Steen, his wife, who began teaching in the English Department.
Like Lynn, Richard initially majored in mathematics, adding physics and chemistry for good measure. He also sang as a baritone in Chapel Choir and then the St. Olaf Choir. He struggled early on though with a heavy load of introductory science and math courses.
Professor of Music Kenneth Jennings, the choir’s director with whom Steen studied voice, noticed his joy in singing and encouraged him to audit a music theory course.
“I soon found my calling in music and continued taking courses in mathematics until I was on my way to a double major in both,” says Steen.
The critical reasoning, research, communications, and personal relations skills I developed at St. Olaf, and refined with life experience, have been essential to me during each of my career transitions.Richard Steen ’69
Jennings tutored Richard in stage presence and building confidence as a performer while helping him prepare for graduate school. Steen also connected with Associate Professor of Natural Sciences and Paracollege, Paul Fjelstad ’51, who helped Steen study the interconnected relationship between music and math. Steen considered both Jennings and Fjelstad his mentors.
“We delved into all sorts of questions across music, philosophy, science, and more,” Steen says. “The engaging debate of ideas coupled with the personal attention I experienced at St. Olaf was foundational for me.”
That ability to pivot and interconnect learning across disparate fields was for Steen a primary benefit of his education, enabling him to lead a distinguished career in both music and technology. Following graduation, Richard earned a doctorate in music at Yale University School of Music, directed collegiate choral and vocal music as a music professor, and even operated a professional voice studio in New York City. He has been a professional soloist in oratorios, operas, vocal recitals, and music festivals.
Then, mid-career, Steen shifted to work in technology. After earning an M.S. degree in computer science, he managed computer services at Harvard University and at City University of New York, Queens. Those experiences led to 20 years as a Healthcare Information Technologist as Associate Partner at Ernst & Young and IBM. Now retired, Steen enjoys applying technology to music from the home he shares with his wife, Robin, near Lincoln Center in New York City.
I hope the integrative opportunities supported through this new fund will help students develop the critical thinking skills and curiosity to explore music from multiple perspectives.Richard Steen ’69
To honor his mentors and the ten Steen-family relatives who preceded him as St. Olaf graduates and musicians, Steen recently included a gift in his estate to create the Richard S. Steen Endowed Fund for Music as an Interdisciplinary Art. Using charitable distributions from his individual retirement account, he was able to fund a portion of the gift now. Its earnings will support faculty-mentored student research that creatively explores the connections between music and other arts and sciences.
“The critical reasoning, research, communications, and personal relations skills I developed at St. Olaf, and refined with life experience, have been essential to me during each of my career transitions,” Steen says.
His gift also honors Lynn and Mary’s work to advance research opportunities for students during each of their 44-year tenures at St. Olaf.
“Both were committed to helping Oles conduct independent research, thus providing flexible pathways within their liberal arts experiences,” Steen says. “I hope the integrative opportunities supported through this new fund will help students develop the critical thinking skills and curiosity to explore music from multiple perspectives.”
Following your passion wherever it may lead, being open and flexible, and making experiences possible for Oles is a nice gift.