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ISSUE 118 VOL 18 PUBLISHED 4/29/2005

Leaving their mark

By Lauren Radomski
Advertising Manager

Friday, April 29, 2005

As the end of the school year draws near, graduating seniors are not the only people preparing to bid St. Olaf a fond farewell. Numerous professors are also approaching a pivotal time in their lives – retirement.

Many of these professors have spent over 30 years on the Hill, leaving their marks both inside and outside of the classroom.

For example, several have participated in study abroad programs. Professor of English David Wee has led the global semester three times and has taken students to Holden Village on 10 interims. George Holt of the family studies department, Ted Vessey of mathematics and Theo Wee of music (no relation to David Wee) have all been involved with Term in Asia.

The influence of these individuals extends to the athletic arena as well.

In 1975, David Wee organized and coached the school’s first women’s cross country team. An All-American distance runner while a St. Olaf student, David Wee served as an assistant coach during his years as a professor. Vessey also had a hand in athletics, advising the alpine skiing club before it became a varsity sport in 1977.

When asked what aspect of teaching they will miss most, every faculty member responded in a manner similar to that of Professor of History Robert Nichols.

“Oh, well, the students of course,” Nichols said. That’s the only real reason to be here.”

David Wee called St. Olaf students “bright, diligent and fun to teach,” while Holt noted “their idealism, their passion, and the love and warmth that they give to our faculty and to me personally.”

Holt cited graduation as an especially poignant time of year for him. The 32 highlights of his career at St. Olaf have been the 32 graduations he has witnessed.

Holt loves to see his students “on the threshold of creating their own families, creating their own careers and creating their own lives.” For Holt, “seeing [students] released into the world” is accompanied by feelings of hope and pride.

Relationships with faculty and staff are also very meaningful for the retirees.

“The incredible congeniality of the faculty,” Vessey said, “is especially impressive because it is not the norm at other institutions.”

Other professors point out how these relationships have enhanced their own learning experience. “To be surrounded by colleagues and friends who are experts in their fields makes learning come alive for me,” Holt said.

Certain aspects of teaching, however, will not be missed.

For example, few tears will be shed over the absence of papers and tests to grade. David Wee remembers many late nights alone in his study, grading piles of papers or preparing for the next day’s class.

While Vessey found “joy in coming to work every day,” he admittedly lacked enthusiasm when it came to grading finals.

Retiring professors have had the opportunity to witness significant changes to the St. Olaf campus. Some of these have been physical modifications, such as the demolition or addition of buildings and the increasing ecological awareness on campus. David Wee actually arrived on campus before the construction of what will soon be referred to as the “old” Science Center.

Several professors expressed excitement regarding developments within their departments.

Holt notes tremendous growth within family studies and sees St. Olaf as the only first-rate liberal arts college with a quality program in this area. Holt looks forward to the time when family studies “becomes fully recognized as a discipline that can really participate in the college mission.”

Vessey has enjoyed contributing to the development of a strong mathematics program. During the late 1980s, according to Vessey, St. Olaf graduated a higher percentage of math students than any other institution in the country. The math major has increasingly become “more user friendly,” Vessey said. Classes are no longer as sequential as they once were, allowing students time to study abroad.

However, not all campus changes have been for the better.

While technological advances such as e-mail have certainly made life easier, they detract from personal interaction among faculty members and students. Writing an e-mail often takes the place of picking up the phone or walking across campus, or even across the hall, to visit a friend or colleague.

Vessey noted a decrease in faculty camaraderie due to “the emergence of departmental coffee pots.” For many years, faculty and staff met for coffee around chapel time every day.

Gathering in a particular section of the old student center, faculty from different departments had the opportunity to chat with others whom they would not otherwise see. Unfortunately, thanks to departmental coffee pots and the absence of a large, informal meeting place in Buntrock, faculty and staff increasingly stay within their own departments.

David Wee, who also observed this phenomenon, used to know almost every faculty member. He said that this accomplishment has proven difficult in recent years.

The professors voiced a variety of retirement plans. Nichols called it “the big sabbatical.” Many will spend more time on hobbies. Boating, traveling and gardening are on the to-do lists of Nichols, Vessey and Theo Wee, respectively.

Holt will take the summer off before looking for a new job. He hopes to continue St. Olaf’s mission in whatever work he encounters.

Students can expect to see at least two retiring professors back on campus fairly regularly.

David Wee plans to continue assistant coaching in cross country, while Robert Scholz of the music department will conduct the St. Olaf Choir while Anton Armstrong is on sabbatical next spring.

A brief article cannot fully do justice to the many talents of these departing faculty.

The intelligence, enthusiasm, humor and compassion that these professors have exhibited over the past 30 to 40 years have helped shape St. Olaf into the institution that it is today.

Undoubtedly, they will be dearly missed.

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