Hello from my study on the acre.
Over the past week there have been ongoing conversations (messages, timeline postings, PM, texts) between some of my classmates, and particularly classmates from when I was a student at Dana College, a small Lutheran liberal arts college. It was a college for 125 years (and also a seminary at one point), but the cost of higher education, the managing of a small college in the times of enrollment struggles, and a variety of other things resulted in its closure ten years ago. What is still important for those who claim Dana as an undergraduate alma mater seems to be two things: the affinity we have for the college and for each other, and our still growing understanding about the incredible education we received as students there.
First, while I do not post my age here, in the spirit of transparency, I will be 65 this week. It is one of those birthdays that create all sorts of considerations, emotions, and simply a response of “how the hell did I get here?”It is one of those ages where we need to do some things. I have an appointment (teleconference) with someone from our local Social Security office on the actual day of my birthday to apply for Medicare. Do I feel differently? Well . . . yes, and no. I have had 8 doctor’s appointments in the last few weeks, some significant and mildly concerning, others routine. Gastroenterologist, ENT doctors, balance clinic specialists, PCP, MRIs and technicians, Urgent Care . . . as I have noted more than once, growing old is not for sissies. Of course, I guess coming into the world at 17 ounces and 26 weeks in 1955 had to create some long-term possibilities or probabilities. Perhaps, the thing I feel most genuinely as I reach this milestone, a point where many say, “It is time to retire.” is I feel blessed. I remember asking my father how it felt to be retired (He was 69 when he retired)? He said in his typical, but rather matter-a-fact manner, “I am not really sure; I am so damn busy, I don’t know how I found time to go to work.” That response neither shocked nor sounded atypical for the journeyman electrician who worked 7/12s when I was in elementary school for almost three years.
Earlier this evening as I zoomed into the meeting with the Debate and Forensics team here at Bloomsburg, it was interesting to see the events they are working on for the upcoming tournament as well as the entire Collegiate Forensics Association (CFA) year. I am humbled by the way they work together for the good of each other, but how at the same time they are not afraid to push each other to improve and think outside the box. It is thinking about the world they live in and how they might offer insight through a variety of events through tournaments to communicate and learn from each other, from other colleges or universities, and how they might learn to be better citizens, questioning and debating the important issues of their time. It is something that requires thought, research, analysis, rhetorical strategy, and continual revision and reconsideration. I believe it is one of the things that will most prepare them for life. Some ask why I spent the time because I am not their faculty advisor, and as such, I receive no release time, no financial support, and no extra time in the day for the time I spend with them. I do it because it helps prepare them not only for their tournaments, but also for how to think, communicate, and change the world around them one event at a time. I know that sounds idealistic in some ways, but it is more about practicality that some might realize. One of the things I like most is helping students to even ponder a topic. That requires some careful thinking. It requires a sense of audience and purpose (hence, rhetorical). And perhaps most importantly, it requires students to step outside of their comfort zone and believe they can do something they have never considered doing. This is probably the most important thing I learned at Dana College.
When I arrived at Dana College the fall of 1979, I was six years out of high school. I was a Marine Corps veteran, and I had managed to flunk out of college already. I was just off a year long traveling stint with a Lutheran Youth Encounter (LYE) team, which was how I found Dana to begin with, and our team’s two visits to Blair exposed me to some incredible people and a beautiful space located on the bluffs of the Missouri River. We were welcomed as a team and made to feel as if our visit mattered and that was even more so the case in our return visit. I met people like Gary Beltz, Tom Kendall, Jim Borden, Kip Tyler, Barb (now) Boltinghouse, Merle Brockhoff, Mary Rowland. Each one of them were significant in affecting my decision to apply for admission. Then there was Richard (George, Rick) Schuler, who worked diligently with me, staying in contact with our itinerant travels as we meandered for 48,000 miles in nine months. When I got to the campus, I was nervous. I was a 24 year old freshman, which meant I was a bit of an anomaly from the get-go. I was already known because of my previous year visits, and then there were the stereotypes that many placed on pre-seminary students. I was no stellar high school student, and the academics of the classroom were beyond a distant memory. Yet, I would begin my fall courses and I would meet some incredible classmates through choir with Dr. Paul Neve and in my daily classes. My involvement with campus ministry teams offered yet another place to feel at home. I met people like Kim Nielsen, Shelly Peterson, Leanne Danahy, Monty Scheele, Tom Jacobson, Danette Johns as well as reacquainted with those previously noted. While I asked to have no roommate, somehow that did not happen and I was blessed to room with Peter Bonde, one of the best things that could have ever happened. Through him, I met people like Jules, his future wife, Barbara Kalal (now) Hawkins, Paulette Strecker, and the list could go on.
That first semester was a whirlwind, and I had classes that stimulated and amazed me. The lectures were engaging and the passion of my professors was something I had never experienced. Surprisingly (and I know that even more so now), my freshman composition professor was Richard Jorgensen. Yep!! He actually taught a semester of freshman composition. I think I forced him to use a least a pen or two marking my papers. Of course then there is the fact I would eventually major in history and I had him every single semester (now we are taking a complete package of red ink pens). I met other people in my classes, Kristi Swenson, Sarah Hansen, Bob Schmoll, Michael Keenan, Nettie Grorud, and Lori Neve to name a few. There was an upper level student named Sandra Barnum, whose father was the director of admissions, if I remember correctly. I thought she was one of the most beautiful and intriguing people I had ever met. Of course, I never told her that! Each of them helped me acclimate to being a student and I found I could actually excel. This was not anything I had every experienced. I ended my first semester with a GPA of around 7 (out of 9). It was not great, but it was much better than anything I had ever done. I had an incredible interim class on the Civil War with Dr. Jorgensen, and then it was into second semester. The second semester, I was excited to return; I wanted to know what was next in store. The class next in store for me was Humanities (HUM) 107 as well as a Latin Seminar. Quite simply: that class, that series, changed my life. It was the foundational learning experience upon which I believe everything I now do is based. That is a strong statement, but hear me out.
This semester, this remote learning semester, in this pandemic world, we all, regardless of age, are being asked to dig deep and consider who we are as well as what the world is we are existing, meandering, surviving in. For my freshmen students, their senior year did not end up as expected, their freshmen year is nothing like they hoped, and the world has been turned upside down. It is at times like these we need to understand who we are? What is our identity? It is upon that question I have focused their first year writing class. Understanding one’s self is a large and complex assignment and it is certainly not figured out in a 14 week Foundations of College Writing course, but it is worth starting there. That is what the Humanities sequence did for me. It allowed me to examine my world, but also to see what the present world (that late 1970s-early 1980s world) was about. More importantly, the program, created and supported by so many Dana faculty, provided us the tools to do more than merely glimpse at our Western Culture. We were immersed in what that culture meant to all the world, but also how all the world influenced our culture. Through units, lectures, study guides, events and access to an incredible set of mentors, we were allowed to think, analyze, and synthesize. We were not told what to think; we were taught how to think. That lesson, that gift, has never left me. Few knew how highly regarded the Humanities program at Dana was. It was one of the best programs in the country (I know this because I researched it when I was coming to Dana). It was one thing to know that upon arrival; it was another thing to experience and live it. Those three semesters, those required events, and the ability to study in Parnassus was where I learned how to learn. It is where I began to understand not only who I was, but what it meant to be a global citizen. Those things sound almost idealistic to a fault at this point; however, they are anything but.
As noted, some of my classmates have a pretty serious conversation occurring on my timeline. There is passion and some descension. In light of our current world, that is not surprising, but there is also listening and pondering, and that is more in the spirit of what we were offered at Dana U, as some of us fondly referred to it. When I was a student at Dana, it was a difficult time in terms of budgets, workloads, pay, and sabbaticals. I look at all of that much differently as a professor myself. Knowing all of those things from the other side, it is even more incredible how our professors worked through all of that with no appearance of anything wrong. I knew a bit because I was a 24 year old freshman, but I also knew the staggering number of hours our professors put in on our behalf. They never wavered in their commitment to the students. The same can be said for those in many of the administrative positions, those who made sure we had all the things necessary for living and thriving on campus. What I know at this point in my life is simple. We were provided living, breathing examples of what it meant to profess, to mentor, and to care about the students who attended their class. In spite of the ever-present concern about whether or not there would be enough money to be open yet another year, the Bansens, the Olsons, the Stones, the Johnsons, the Neves, the Brandeses, the Nielsens, or any professor’s name you care to add, showed up each and every day to provide and offer us the most phenomenal education we could ever hope to receive.
Forty-one years after my arrival as a student and living on Fourth North Holling, I am in touch with some of those classmates, and yes, those professors. Some of us have followed in their footsteps, students who are now named Drs. Jeff Langholz, Ruth Mirtz, Terri Pedersen Summey, and I know there are others, but it is late and my brain seems empty. I know for me, I hope to be half the professor they were and if I succeed, I will feel accomplished. What did I learn? Too much to put into words. So much that I am still realizing what it all meant. Most importantly, I learned to dream and believe that the liberal arts we were immersed in has unparalleled value and it has created a foundation that has served me in every aspect of my being. For that, there are no levels of gratitude that can, or will, ever repay those Saints we sat among. As I reach this milestone of 65 (as it is about 18 minutes after midnight), I am humbled. While this is not the Dana choir, it is the musical arrangement of what we did in every concert, and it is one of our sister colleges. It is one of my favorite musical memories and I can still hear voices of Monty Scheele, Tom or Peter Jacobson, Amy Nicols, or Elizabeth (now) Brockhoff and it brings me immeasurable joy.
Thanks always for reading.