Class of '46
Dear Fellow ’46ers,
Our faithful class agent, June Naplin Christensen, asked if I would be the guest writer for this class letter. In appreciation for her loyal, able and cheerful service as class agent, I willingly agreed. I recommend the exercise for all of you. So many people and experiences came to life again and an even deeper appreciation of the importance of Gustavus in my life. For this letter I have chosen to focus briefly on three things (1) a contrast between the facilities and conditions now and then, (2) the character of our experience at Gustavus, and (3) changes and similarities between then and now in the educational experience and campus culture.
Now and Then When we return to campus now, what we proudly find is a college with excellent facilities, beautifully landscaped, positioned to enjoy the overview of the town, river, the hills, and the receding horizons beyond. What a difference in the facilities. Old Main, Uhler, Rundstrom, a transformed gym, and athletic stadium are all that remain. The Myrum Fieldhouse, the Auditorium, Johnson Hall, the Library, South Hall, and the Post Office are gone and rightfully so because Gustavus could not successfully compete for students with the campus of 1943 in the educational market of 2001. Overseas travel and education, published student research, international students on campus, the Nobel Conferences, extensive internships, etc. are illustrative of expanded educational opportunity as the third century and second millennium of Gustavus begins. As you recall in the early ’40s oversees travel for Gusties meant shipping off to the experience of battle. Internships then meant being drafted prior to graduation to become temporary substitutes in schools which lost teachers to the military or for pre-seminary students it often meant hitch-hiking on weekends all over the state to fill in for pastors who had left to become military chaplains.
The Character of Our Experience at Gustavus In my thinking about the differences between then and now I went through an analysis of those I knew best, the South Hall Boys, and asked whether or not they were ill prepared for their future careers compared to today's graduates. There is no question that South Hall was shabby in comparison to current dorms. The Gustavus Library in ’43 was not only smaller, but less adequate as well. In terms of outside lecturers, I remember only two in my 2 ¾'s years at Gustavus, one in philosophy who put most of the audience to sleep, and the other whose field of inquiry I can't remember. Debate and athletics contests were cut back because of limits on transportation. But we had many assets. We had excellent professors, small classes, and the opportunity to get to know them as persons. Our professors were not only our instructors in their disciplines, but our mentors in how to live, by their standards of excellence, by the values they embodied and what they believed.
The fact that we had grown up during the Great Depression and were already about two years into World War II when we started college had prepared us for the adjustment in transportation, cut backs in extra-curricular activities, schedules, etc. Living in South Hall in antiquated, somewhat run-down housing was never considered to be a sacrifice by the South Hall Boys. We were very much aware that many of our high school classmates were living in tents, eating C-rations, under fire, unsure if they would come back whole or come back at all. As I remember it, South Hall was the only residence on campus for civilians during those years and the civilian men were either 4-D's, 4-F's or waiting to be drafted. I was 17 in September of ’43, had passed the written test for V-12, but had failed the physical. My sister, Elizabeth, already at Gustavus, talked me into starting college and waiting until I was drafted. One of our South Hall group, Art Noma, was a Japanese American who went home with me for Christmas in ’43, but soon after returning was shipped off to an internment camp. I often wonder what happened to him. Another resident had come to college on the bus with one suitcase and a large, boxed, high quality microscope. He left at the end of the semester and popped in for five minutes a year later, taking a taxi up the hill, while his freight train was adding cars in St. Peter. He had become a brakeman. Gerry Larson ’47, who had a deferment because of a handicap, and I joined together with the girls of the Society of Spinsters, all of whom later married, to form a picnic club when the food service was closed. Gerry and I, after our first course in biology, were hired as lab assistants. Pre-seminarians were usually away on weekends filling in at congregations whose pastors had entered the chaplaincy.
I majored in history and Greek and minored in biology and philosophy. My professors were Ph.D. trained. Doc Pete was a walking encyclopedia and Sydney "Skip" Ahlstrom who later taught at Harvard and Yale is generally acknowledged to have written the definitive history of American Religion. Dr. Conrad was a specialist in New Testament Greek and was and remains, at 94, a spiritual father to his former students. When I came to college I not only was conflicted about whether to volunteer or wait for the draft, but I struggled mightily with intellectual problems related to faith.
Reared as we all were in a public educational system which was grounded on the assumptions of empiricism that all truth is to be based on observable fact and theory that explains those facts, I found it difficult with those assumptions to affirm the existence of God and the divinity of Jesus. And confronted in certain disciplines with a type of psychological and social determinism, I was at a loss to affirm individual freedom. I was struggling at a fundamental level. The combination of Paul Holmer's exposition of Kierkegaard's Christian existentialism and Pres. Edgar Carlson's exposition of the existentialist theology of Martin Luther in his chapel talks, helped me to perceive that the reality of God is beyond tracing out in an objective empirical approach and that this truth, the truth about God, while intimated in nature is confirmed only in human subjectivity, enlightened by God's spirit. It was Holmer's opening a door through philosophy and Edgar Carlson's reinterpretation of Luther's theology that led many of us to understand and affirm our faith intellectually. This was a turning point in my life. It also led me away from a pre-med orientation to a pre-sem path and to a 40-year career in Christian higher education.
Edgar Carlson in 1948 published The Reinterpretation of Luther, which still ranks among the top 20th century expositions of Luther. At Yale, Holmer and Gustavus graduate, George Lindbeck ’43, over the years collaborated in a post liberal approach to theology, which Lindbeck elaborated in his book The Nature of Doctrine, which is generally accepted as one of the foundation treatises in the current movement of post-modern theology. We undergraduates at Gustavus in ’43-’46, living in sub-standard student housing with curtailed extra-curricular activities, working our way through college were privileged with much top tier education.
From Then to Now In the 55 years since our graduation from Gustavus several changes have occurred in American society, which have significantly influenced both public, private and church-related higher education. We are more affluent. Higher education itself has become a necessary preparation for more of the jobs now available. A counter-culture movement in the ’60s challenged prevailing morals and institutions. In the ’60s availability and use of recreational drugs spread. Permissive sex became common in entertainment media and elsewhere. The academic performance of U.S. high school students dropped significantly in comparison with peers in other industrialized nations. As the society became more diverse, the courts tightened the wall of separation between religion and the state. Church related colleges could no longer require attendance at daily chapel and receive federal money. That pillar of American church colleges became a thing of the past.
Another significant shift came in the selection of faculty as a result of anti-discrimination legislation and the increasing emphasis in graduate education on advancing the discipline versus performing as a contributor to the total development of the student. It has made it more difficult, as a result, to maintain a faculty interested in and capable of dealing with religious and ethical issues related to their respective disciplines and the purposes of the college as an institution promoting liberal education and Christian faith and life. Yet, LECNA, The Lutheran Educational Conference of North America, commissioned a recent study, by a respected polling service, of the 45 Lutheran Colleges and Universities belonging to the Conference, polling students, former students, parents, alumni, Lutheran Church members at large, etc. and found a very high level of appreciation for the quality of education and for the Christian values they received at Lutheran Colleges and Universities.
From my forty years of teaching and administering in Lutheran Colleges and in providing oversight on behalf of the Church, Gustavus is and has been one of the top leaders, both academically and in the effectiveness of communicating the faith. I am not only proud of the campus, but of its curriculum and campus culture as well.
See you at our 55th reunion,
1946 Guest Letter Writer