Herbert Stellner

Speech by Herbert M Stellner, Jr. ’50

On April 13, 2000, at the banquet following the spring initiation, Herbert M. Stellner, Jr., ’50, a member of the first group of St. Olaf students ever initiated into the Delta of Minnesota, delivered the following speech:

“The Past + The Future = The Present”

I am indeed pleased and honored to be here with you tonight. I would like to talk a little bit about all of us as travelers in time and consequently, as works in progress.

William Faulkner, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, once wrote that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” George Allen, coach of the Washington Redskins football team, often said “The future is now.” How do we synthesize these somewhat divergent views of time? Perhaps it is sufficient to say that there is truth in both sentiments

When I reflect on my life to date, certainly Faulkner is right. During my formative years in the Dakotas and at Saint Olaf, I absorbed from my parents and my teachers important lessons which remain with me to this day. By way of illustration, let me describe three of my many excellent professors here.

Dr. Oliver Shefveland was a Professor of Economics, which was my principal area of study. He puzzled many students when they first attended his classes. Dr. Shefveland was a staunch exponent of the premise that “I can’t teach you much, but you can learn a lot.” Implicit in that premise is the reality that, in many respects, learning and life are do-it-yourself projects. His classes were rather unstructured and he always felt that textbooks were there as resources to utilize, rather than as objects to memorize.

One of the most interesting learning exercises I had at Saint Olaf was writing a chapter in Dr. Shefveland’s mock textbook on practical economics. Fifty years ago, not all students responded well to his educational approach. Perhaps some students still wouldn’t respond well. However, I can’t help but feel that his approach prepared us for life as it really is.

Another of Dr. Shefveland’s favorite premises was that “You only need one good idea to do something worthwhile with your life.” Perhaps that statement is an oversimplification, but it is true in so many instances, from the everyday to the sublime, that it commands our attention. In the business world, think of Bill Gates and the information revolution which he helped foster and which is changing our lives in so many ways. In the medical profession, think of the Mayo brothers and their concept of a group practice which has grown into a world-class medical center. In the realm of the spirit, think of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his nonviolent leadership which has done so much to advance the cause of civil rights. It is worth noting that only in retrospect do these ideas seem inevitable.

The second professor I mention is Dr. Arnold Flaten, Professor of Art, for whom Flaten Hall is named. Art is far removed from my duties at either Marquette Bank or Mayo Foundation. I am not even a Sunday painter, sculptor or architect. But I am an appreciator, I believe, and Dr. Flaten’s classes in art history broadened my interests and perspectives on all the fine arts, which can, and should, be such an important component of our lives. His classes were some of the most sought after by students from a wide variety of majors because of the strength of his personality and the force of his ideas.

When I was a student here, there was a significant discussion going on about the campus architecture. It was Dr. Flaten’s thesis that architecture should reflect the time of its origin, rather than copy the past. He felt continuity with Saint Olaf’s past could be preserved by using the same kind of familiar limestone as in the older buildings. At the same time, he felt the newer buildings should reflect contemporary construction techniques and current Midwestern spirit. As I’m sure you can imagine, Dr. Flaten’s thesis was not popular in all quarters, but in the end, it prevailed and the changes are obvious in the newer buildings on campus.

What did I learn from Dr. Flaten? I learned about art history and art appreciation, of course, but preeminently I learned the lessons of courage and integrity. I cannot guarantee that you will prevail in every situation, but I can guarantee that the lessons of courage and integrity will stand you in good stead throughout your lives, no matter how far removed they are from art history.

Dr. Harold Ditmanson, Professor of Religion, is the final professor I will comment on. The newest addition to the Rolvaag Library is named after him and he was, without doubt, one of the leading intellectual luminaries in Saint Olaf s history. I was brought up in a rather traditional religious setting and I loved my parents very much. However, I had many questions about the Christian religion, as perhaps some of you had or have. Dr. Ditmanson was one of the first persons with whom I was able to dialogue extensively on these questions. Nothing was too outrageous for him to consider and discuss in a logical and unemotional fashion. Without hesitation, and with great understanding, he discussed such ultimate questions as “Is there a God?” and “Was Jesus really God?”

But he didn’t stop there. Dr. Ditmanson went on to suggest helpful perspectives on these topics, such as Blaise Pascal’s “Great Wager.” At all times, his respect for his students as searching individuals was transparent and clear. Not only did he introduce us to many of the great religious thinkers, such as Blaise Pascal, Soren Kierkegaard and Paul Tillich, but he also taught us that many of the truths of life are bound up in paradoxes such as, “Look before you leap, but he or she who hesitates is lost.” I am eternally grateful to Dr. Ditmanson for helping me construct an enduring intellectual framework for a personal belief and value system.

When I think about George Allen’s postulate, certainly he is right also. The present is so fleeting that we are forever becoming. In fact, we are forever living in the future. I can think of no better example to illustrate this point than the life and work of Dr. Lars Boe, the fourth president of Saint Olaf. He and my father were good friends, and although I was just a young boy at the time, I remember well Dr. Boe’s unusually vigorous and colorful personality and his unusually wide range of interests. He was truly a visionary leader in the development of the college.

Saint Olaf began as a relatively specialized school educating the sons and daughters of poor but industrious Norwegian Lutheran immigrants. It has grown into a premier liberal arts college in the American mainstream, educating the sons and daughters of people with varied socioeconomic, ethnic and religious backgrounds. That transformation has not meant in any sense abandoning a rich heritage; rather, it has meant adapting and building on the heritage, while at the same time becoming part of the larger American context. Dr. Boe did not accomplish the transformation single-handedly, but he knew that change is an inevitable and never-ending process. Above all, it was he who lived in the future and he who provided the vision on which later generations have built. It is most appropriate that Boe Chapel is named in his honor.

Now, a few thoughts for the Phi Beta Kappa initiates of 2000 as continuing works in progress. I urge you to maintain your intellectual awareness and curiosity. With the hope that I am not mangling too badly the Latin which Professor Narveson taught me, and which Professor Groton teaches today, I wish for you “carpe diem” — “seize the day.” There is so much to learn and do.

When a friend of mine retired, he began the study of Greek on his own, for no other reasons than to pursue an interest and to extend the boundaries of his comfort zone. I can testify personally that extending the boundaries works. This year, for the first time, I read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Since I do not have a strong scientific bent, I found it to be hard reading. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating book and I plan to read it again, soon. Perhaps I will then understand better such esoteric matters as the “Big Bang”, the expanding universe, black holes, white dwarf stars and the “Big Crunch.”

I also urge you to take from this time and place a hopeful spirit, a tenacious pursuit of your own destiny, and a desire to serve. During your lives, you can expect the unexpected. There have always been problems and there will always be problems. Please don’t let them dishearten or deter you. While none of us can do everything, all of us can do something. Just think of the potential and promise you and your classmates have.

My class of 1950 may offer some encouragement in this regard. Out of our class came a governor, a college president, business leaders, lawyers, physicians, scientists, educators, clergy, homemakers and people in virtually every honorable walk of life. The same can be true for the class of 2000. However, I want to emphasize that it isn’t necessary to become rich and famous to lead meaningful and productive lives. Wherever your interests lead you, you can help and serve other people, your college and the community at large. I can assure you that there is no greater satisfaction in life.

How I wish those of us here tonight could reconvene in 50 years and share experiences with the Phi Beta Kappa initiates of 2050. But whether we are here in body or in spirit on that occasion, we will all have participated in that grand continuum of past, present and future which marks us as companion travelers in time and as companion works in progress. Congratulations on your achievements thus far, and best wishes for the future.