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ISSUE 116 VOL 15 PUBLISHED 3/21/2003

Uncovered: Truths behind the myths

By Bethany Jacobson
Staff Writer

Friday, March 21, 2003

Almost all St. Olaf students will be asked, at some time in their lives, whether they know Rose Nylund. Telemarketers calling to get our addresses immediately exclaim “Oh! Like on ‘Golden Girls!’” While the fictional town of St. Olaf is only as real as Rose Nylund herself, the relationship between St. Olaf College and Betty White, who played Rose on “Golden Girls,” has been going strong for many years.

“The Golden Girls” was a popular sitcom that began airing in 1985, featuring four single, elderly women living together in Miami, Fla. Rose Nylund was the quartet’s innocent, Scandinavian, small-town farm girl, and her long, nonsensical stories about life in the town of St. Olaf were a running gag on the show.

When the producers first conceived the idea of “Golden Girls,” they had no idea that a place called St. Olaf actually existed – thus ending the persistent rumors that one of the scriptwriters was a Carleton grad! The college’s current public relations officials thought it was a fine idea. Not only did they give permission for the writers to use the name St. Olaf for their fictional midwestern town, but they also began sending St. Olaf merchandise to the set for “Rose Nylund” to wear. St. Olaf sweatshirts and mugs do occasionally appear on episodes of the show.

The fictional town of St. Olaf bore little resemblance to the college or to Northfield. In the town of St. Olaf, cows, pigs, and other animals ran rampant, and a horse was once accidentally elected town water commissioner. Butter churns also seemed to play a larger role in peoples’ daily lives than they do here. The ever-popular Scandinavian sweaters, however, would probably have fit in just as well there as they do here.

In 1989 the St. Olaf Choir was in California while “Golden Girls” was taping, and they were invited to become part of the studio audience. After the taping, the choir sang “Happy Birthday” to one of the cast members and then taught the entire audience, White included, how to sing “Um Ya Ya.” White is also an honorary member of Theta Alpha Phi, the school’s dramatic society. No wonder White has said “I feel like I went to St. Olaf!” During “A Conversation with Betty White” on the Disney Channel, the actress regaled her audience with an impromptu rendition of the St. Olaf school song, which certainly seems to show the proper St. Olaf spirit.

White has visited the college two times, most recently in 1992. She said that at first she was worried that St. Olaf students and faculty would be offended at the way “Golden Girls” made fun of the “terminally naïve” Rose and her occasionally abstruse Scandinavian vocabulary. (Vanskapkaka, anyone?) “You’d think they wouldn’t be speaking to me!” White said. But relations between the college and the actress have always been “warm and wonderful,” she reports.

While Rose Nylund’s naïveté was often the source of humor or even exasperation for her friends (“CONDOMS, ROSE! CONDOMS, CONDOMS, CONDOMS!” shouted one co-star during a memorable episode) it also served as a balancing and humanizing agent when contrasted with her oversexed, cantankerous roommates. During her 1992 visit, a chapel session spoke on the virtues of “being like Rose Nylund:” trusting, kind, and generous. St. Olaf students can certainly all relate. During her long association with St. Olaf, White herself has demonstrated this generosity of spirit. She has signed autographs, met with the school’s theater society to hear their stories and give advice about the life of an actor, and participated in panels. Whenever the subject of St. Olaf would come up in her public life, she spoke warmly and fondly of her relationship with the college. Rose Nylund may have been White’s most successful role, and she has not been afraid to share that success with St. Olaf College, acknowledging the impact of our values and way of life in her portrayal of Rose.

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