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The Vanished Viking

Book cover with the words "The Vanished Viking"
The Viking — the legendary annual started in 1904 — disappeared in 2008. Many classes after have requested its return.

In the spring of 2015, then-College Archivist Jeff Sauve received an email from a member of the Class of 2010 Reunion Committee. The committee was seeking pictures of their campus experience to display during its upcoming five-year anniversary celebration and assumed they could find a trove of such images in the archives. But after a quick search, Sauve responded with an apologetic email informing the alumni that the collection contained only a few pictures related to their class year.

For more than a century, the Viking, the college annual, had been the central repository for each year’s memories. The publication chronicled life on the Hill, documenting the growth of St. Olaf’s faculty, student body, sports teams, and campus activities. It was a record of formal dances, wrestling championships, political protests, time-honored traditions, and foolish pranks. It announced the arrival of new administrators, celebrated the construction of new buildings, and mourned the death of Ytterboe the dog. Its cover — adorned with the Ole lion, a picture of Old Main, and a cartoon Norseman toting sword and shield — put a spotlight on the college’s heritage. It was a memory book, a time capsule. Each issue told the tale of a single trip around the sun.

And then, in 2008, the Viking abruptly ceased publication

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Cover of the 1929 Viking annual.

The first college annuals appeared in America around the time of the Civil War. Filled with college hymns, lists of fraternity and club members, and the occasional line drawing, these 19th-century yearbooks typically extolled the unique experience of each school and were subscribed to by alumni who wished to stay abreast of campus life. Usually funded by the junior class as a gift to seniors, they were haphazard affairs — often skipping several years for lack of financing.

St. Olaf’s first yearbook was published in 1903 by the Class of 1904. Roughly nine inches wide by eight inches tall and bound in maroon fabric, the 200-plus-page volume featured a surprising number of black-and-white photographs, as well as a full-color advertisement from a printing company. Its purpose was succinctly summarized in verse:

With pleasure here you may behold / Our Alma Mater’s present fold

And learn the whims and funny ways / That each has shown in college days.

In addition to enrolled students, the names of all St. Olaf alumni — going back to 1890, the first-ever St. Olaf graduating class — were included. Their numbers encompassed multiple teachers, several lawyers, dozens of clergymen, some physicians, and a single “dealer in mineral water” from western Wisconsin. Although they were mostly men, four women held degrees from the college.

The Viking chronicled life on the Hill, documenting the growth of St. Olaf’s faculty, student body, sports teams, and campus activities.

The earliest yearbooks were also thoughtful, richly detailed, and filled with information that would be meaningful to graduating seniors. Viking staff included photographs of iconic campus sites (the St. Olaf Elm was a favorite), beautiful illustrations, an abundance of literary work that included poetry and essays about friends and college life experiences (e.g. “The Quarantine Episode”). Stories written by Viking staff historian Ole E. Rølvaag, Class of 1905 — whose later novels of Norwegian immigrant life became legendary — were published in the 1904 Viking. The early yearbooks also included class histories and group pictures, opinion pieces, class mottos and songs, and many light-hearted observations about fellow Oles, including nicknames, majors, political leanings, probable vocations, and even “Miseriae Causa.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Viking also served as a viewbook — a marketing vehicle for the college with information aimed at prospective students. It listed the cost of tuition ($15 per year in 1904) and touted the college’s range of classes, from commercial law to Hebrew. The résumés of the college’s 18 faculty members, which included four women, were detailed at length, and the editors included images of St. Olaf’s various academic societies. The college’s extracurricular clubs, it seems, were limited to band, science, and oratory.

Advertising offset the considerable cost of the project. Among those who purchased space in the pages of the first annual were dentists, tailors, jewelers, the Northfield National Bank, Augsburg Publishing House, and the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway.

The 12-person staff (11 men and one woman) put long hours into the endeavor, but the result was worth the sweat, according to Editor in Chief Martin Hegland, Class of 1904: “Our annual is at last a reality!” he wrote in his introduction to the first Viking. “Its preparation has been both pleasant and profitable but it has also caused considerable care and more or less anxiety at times. Still, anxiety and care are short lived among college students, and now only the pleasant features of the work remain in our memory.”

The cover of the original Viking Annual, introduced in 1904.

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Publication of the Viking was sporadic until 1929, when annual issues became the norm. Financing was part of the problem — advertising alone was not enough to cover the cost of photography, paper, printing, and leather covers. The student staff campaigned hard to persuade their peers that buying a yearbook was a solid investment. In the spring of 1921, for example, students were encouraged to make a pledge and wear a tag emblazoned with a Viking ship — “The Sign of a Loyal St. Olafite.” In a newsprint flier titled the “Viking Messenger,” the staff listed 14 reasons why purchasing the annual was worth the money. Arguably the cleverest one was number six: “It will be of countless value to you in future years when, in a serious disagreement with your wife (or husband!), you can turn to this book and point out the good looking men (or girls) whom you turned down.”

The student staff campaigned hard to persuade their peers that buying a yearbook was a solid investment.

To their credit, the Viking’s editors tried to make the yearbook as good-looking as the Olafite population itself. The covers were often embossed or gilded. As photography improved, so did the number of candid photos incorporated in the volume. Special drawings and block prints were commissioned. Art that reflected the times — Art Deco in the 1920s and early 1930s, graffiti in the 1970s — was incorporated. The editors proved themselves innovators: The 1950 edition, celebrating the college’s 75th anniversary, was diamond-shaped — its slanted edges are still a thorn in the side of archivists trying to store the collection in an orderly fashion. The 1969 Viking was published as a boxed set of two paperback volumes. The 1973 edition was the same size as a record jacket, but the vinyl tracks the editors intended to include with that year’s publication were never completed.

Viking Annual Cover 1932

Autumn leaves and Old Main are among the constants in the pages of the Viking. But while some things remained the same on campus, many things changed over time. Stellan Quale, Class of 2019, who is employed as a student worker in the St. Olaf Archives and was recently given the task of sifting through the department’s yearbook collection, discovered tributes to students who died in World War II and tales of students who went to Selma, Alabama, in 1965 as part of the Tuskegee Institute Summer Education Program. Quale’s favorite find, however, was less serious: a goldfish-eating contest that existed for several years in the early 1970s.

Some editions of the Viking also reflect changes in the wider world. Coeducation of women and men was debated in the 1904 and 1905 editions. (The editors were in favor, perhaps not shocking, given that St. Olaf had enrolled both men and women students since its founding.) The singular volume encompassing 1919, 1920, and 1921 featured an eagle on the cover and is called the Viking Victory, acknowledging and honoring those who served both abroad and at home during World War I.

A commentary by longtime dean of women Gertrude Hilleboe, Class of 1912, in the 1946 issue of the Viking referenced America’s wartime entry into the “Atomic Age,” and an introduction by Editor Carol Berge, Class of 1947, solemnly observed: “The greatest war in history was fought while we strove to understand the meaning of it all. If while others fought and died for us, we did come to understand … then we know our duty: to do all within our power that there may never be war again.”

Commentary on social issues was a key component of the Viking issues that emerged in the late 1960s. Larry Mikulecky, Class of 1969, who served as editor of the yearbook during his senior year, marveled at how disconnected the Hill seemed to be from the upheaval that swirled around it. He wanted the 1969 Viking to make students and graduates think hard about their privileges and place in the world. “We wanted to capture the sense of what it was like to be at St. Olaf at the time, and we wanted to make some connection to the social aspects of what was going on — the Vietnam War, growing poverty, racial divides,” he says. “The rest of the nation seemed to be in turmoil, while St. Olaf was a Never-Never Land that had little to do with the world around it.”

Even editors who didn’t want to get caught up in controversy could sometimes find themselves in the middle of a hot debate. Belinda Quick, Class of 1992, was co-editor of the yearbook when a senior submitted a portrait of himself standing naked on top of a mountain, with his buttocks exposed. Could they publish it? Should they? Quick and her fellow editors argued in favor of publishing the photo, despite scorn from the college administration. “We were approved to publish,” Quick recalls. “But by the time we were ready to print, the gentleman who submitted the photo had talked to his mother, who was also none too pleased with the idea of seeing her son’s behind in print. So we covered it with a black bar. It still conveyed the message of the photo.”

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One of the first ads about St. Olaf College, made and distributed in 1904.

As the Viking entered its second century, interest in college yearbooks abruptly waned. Students showed less and less interest in purchasing annuals, and the cost of printing the lavish publications seemed to go up and up. When the Student Government Association decided to cut funding for the project in 2008, the Viking became financially unsustainable. Kris Vatter, director of student activities, blames Facebook, which launched in 2004, for the yearbook’s demise: “When everybody has a Facebook account, the need for a yearbook with pictures of your friends is gone,” she says. “No one was buying the books.”

But Molly Boes Ganza, Class of 2008, who served as co-editor of the 2007 Viking, the last edition published, believes digital photos — not Facebook — killed yearbooks. “When digital cameras came out, you could suddenly make your own low-cost yearbook,” Boes Ganza observes. “I know several people who created their own books with layout and photo-editing software.”

Molly Boes Ganza ’08, Viking Co-Editor in 2007When digital cameras came out, you could suddenly make your own low-cost yearbook. I know several people who created their own books with layout and photo-editing software.

Quick, the 1992 Viking co-editor, similarly notes that the global deluge of images that came with digital photography may have been a factor in the death of yearbooks. The cost and nature of film made analog photography something rare and special. “In the ’90s, we took photographs on special occasions. We didn’t take a lot of casual pictures,” she says. “And if we took selfies, it was always a gamble if they’d turn out.”

Where the real blame lies is anyone’s guess, but one thing seems clear: the Viking won’t be resurrected anytime soon. Vatter says students occasionally ask her about rebooting the publication, but none seem willing to raise the funds or develop a marketing plan that would make the Viking a sustainable proposition.

Covers through the years

That bothers Palmer Brown, Class of 2018. A history major employed as a student worker in the St. Olaf Archives, Brown says he’s often surprised and delighted by the things he finds in the college yearbooks. He notes that without yearbooks, there’s not much record of campus changes and happenings. The recent renovation of Holland Hall, for example, changed the building from a dark place filled with Harry Potter-like fascinations into a brightly lit classroom facility. Who will remember that? Who will remember the ivy that once crept up the side of the building? By reading yearbooks, Brown has discovered that students once planted that now vanished ivy. Without yearbooks, he says, such details will disappear. “Because of the ephemeral nature of memory,” he says. “We’re not always going to remember the essential events that happened during our college years.”

Facebook and other forms of social media are good at telling the stories of individuals — at least the shiny, fun side of things. But Boes Ganza, who works as assistant dean of fine arts recruitment at St. Olaf, sees value in yearbooks because they tell the story of a community. “A yearbook captures quotes from people I never talked to. It captures the clubs and organizations that I don’t remember existing. It shows the scope of the college experience, even if I wasn’t personally involved in those parts of the community.

“A yearbook contains the stories of the people who were a part of your community, who weren’t your best friends, but who were involved in your everyday life and helped create and impact the community that you lived in. It isn’t just your own personal experience. It’s the story of your class. It’s the story of the college.”

Joel Hoekstra, Class of 1992, contributes regularly to St. Olaf Magazine.