STOries: The caffeinated English coffee club
A sun-faded, slightly moth-eaten felt banner recently found in the forgotten recesses of an English Department closet in Rølvaag Memorial Library presented a dusty mystery. Measuring 16 by 25 inches, the hand-stitched, dark blue lettering bears an uplifting motto in serviceable Latin: Tollite casus, Hortare timidos (“Raise the fallen, cheer the faint”).
A quick search online revealed a brief mention of the banner in a March 5, 2001, St. Olaf News obituary for 102-year-old Marie Malmin Meyer. Meyer taught English for 45 years at St. Olaf College — the longest term of service for any English faculty member in the school’s history. Reflecting on Meyer’s exacting instruction, Professor Emeritus of English David Wee ’65 notes, “I didn’t know how to read text carefully when I came here. She pushed us to pay close attention to the language of plays and the poetry. She was a model of careful scholarship and attention to text, and to the importance of our literary heritage.”
The origins of the mystery orange banner unfurled after reviewing an oral history interview of Meyer conducted in March 1991 by Professor of Religion Joseph M. Shaw ’49. In the interview, Meyer recalled that the English Department, consisting of a half dozen or so faculty members, instituted the English Coffee Club in 1929. Whenever the club met, the banner was hung out of an English Department window as an invitation to other faculty to gather on the top floor of Holland Hall, where the English faculty were then housed.
The club held these coffees on Friday afternoons, with George W. Spohn, English Department chair, presiding over the faculty morale-boosting gatherings. Non-English department faculty were known as “et ceteras,” Meyer recalled. One such attendee was bachelor economics professor Allen L. Meyer. “He was always at the coffee parties afterwards, and he and I started dating.” They were married in 1933.
The Messenger poked gentle fun at the English Coffee Club’s apparently insatiable thirst with an April 1934 headline: “Consume Sixty-five Tons of Coffee.” The writer of the Messenger article calculated this prodigious amount by estimating that the club would have needed one ton of coffee beans over the previous five years to brew enough cups, and “properly cooked, this amount would yield approximately 1,097.865 cubic feet of coffee, which would weigh around 65 tons. This amount would be adequate to convert the English office into a swimming pool eight feet deep.”
English Professor Arthur “Art” Paulson was decidedly out of sorts if not partaking of at least six refreshing cups of java during the end-of-the week social, Meyer contended. He countered by claiming that Meyer was the department champion, drinking no less than eight cups. All teasing aside, Meyer recalled that the real purpose of their coffee klatch was to “establish a clearing house of the spirit — a place for the thorough discussion of important problems.”
The real purpose of their coffee klatch was to “establish a clearing house of the spirit — a place for the thorough discussion of important problems.”
In 1942, the newly built Rølvaag Memorial Library offered a new home to the English Department. In the lowest floor of the building was a convenient snack shop called the Lion’s Den, open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. With that development, the banner was presumably put away for good, a memento of times past. The Den, prized on campus for its 5-cent cup of coffee, featured a cozy, hazy, smoke-filled room, coffee-stained stools, a jukebox playing the latest hits, and dark corners for couples. The demise of the Den took place in 1960 when a new student center was erected.
Former St. Olaf President Sidney A. Rand once said, “Whenever anything important is done around here, we always have a cup of coffee.” To this day, coffee remains a conspicuous part of a campus culture that promotes sustainability. Bon Appétit, the St. Olaf food service provider, uses fair trade organic coffee. With the Art Department’s opening of the Ron Gallas Cup Library in the fall of 2015, students, faculty, and staff may borrow a handcrafted mug made by a professional artist.
If Marie Malmin Meyer were still here today, no doubt she would have lifted her artsy cuppa joe and exclaimed after a refill or two, “Raise the fallen, cheer the faint!”