On This Date: Photo taken 6/1/2007

Properly, Wallace Hall at Macalester College, in Saint Paul. Wally’s a dormitory, and is named after early Mac president James Wallace.

We were there for the 25-year reunion of the Class of 1982. It took me a long time to get through college; I was a Macalester freshman in 1967.

Both of the following are true:

James Wallace was president of Macalester College from 1894 to 1906, and a faculty member both before and long after his presidency. He may be the most important person in the school’s history.

Dewitt Wallace, his son, founded Readers Digest. The younger Wallace donated millions of dollars to Mac and may be the most important person in the school’s history. Macalester’s feelings about this are decidedly mixed.

The third candidate for the title would be Edward Duffield Neill, who founded the school. On a different scale you’d mention Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and Kofi Annan; Neill likely belongs on this list, too.

Number of pix taken on various June 1sts: 930
Year of oldest photo: 1992

How I Rated the Date’s Photographs:

  • 1 Star: 5
  • 2 Stars: 111
  • 3 Stars: 676
  • 4 Stars: 115
  • 5 Stars: 23

Nature and Revelation by Jeanne Halgren Kilde: a review

Nature and Revelation is a delightful book. Jeanne Halgren Kilde wrote the book for two perhaps-incompatible audiences: Folks with Macalester College connections, and readers interested in the development of private college/liberal arts education in North America. For the Macalester audience she addresses nearly all of the expected issues a member of the Mac community would expect (I list most of those here) and adds many things we members may or may not have asked. For the academic audience she offers a case study, with enough context and enough detail to make the case useful for further examination and discussion. For both audiences she’s produced an excellent work.

The book concentrates on collegiate governance, with occasional looks at the school’s often-troubled relationship with the Presbyterian church. The result is that the author provides fairly detailed accounts of the views and activities of most of the college’s presidents and a handful of other officers, with similar portraits of some key trustees. There’s considerable discussion of Macalester’s relationship with the church (and the local churches), which is often presented in terms of the school’s changing interpretation of the word nonsectarian. Naturally the school’s relationship with Dewitt Wallace is explored at some length, as that also changed over time. All of this is presented well, and is surprisingly interesting. There’s more here than I perhaps expected about what college fundraising entails, and on the impact those efforts have on the shape of the college as an institution. All in all, I found these discussions enlightening and worthwhile.

The author’s treatment of Macalester’s 1970 budget crisis is revealing. She attributes many of the difficulties to inadequate accounting, to structural issues resulting from restricted funds (ie, donations to support buildings and programs), and to the administration’s inability to raise funding to support daily operations. The clearly-important role of college trustee and Wallace advisor Paul Davis is both confusing and frustrating; that Kilde is unable to fully explain the apparent contradictions in his behavior is likely due to her inability to gain access to key Wallace family documentation. That Davis’ analysis of the school’s financial situation is similar to Kilde’s is clear. Why he lost faith in the school’s ability to find solutions is unclear, as is his motivation for his subsequent undermining those efforts.

The author’s emphasis on the school’s presidents and fundraising has an opportunity cost. This book pays little attention to campus life. Few professors are mentioned, and those mentions are usually more about their impact on the school’s mission than on their classroom demeanor. Curriculum issues are mentioned mostly in terms of their relationship to giving–it’s easier, as the book shows, to raise money for programs than for everyday funding, and that fundraising emphasis impacts the curriculum. There’s little in this text about residential life, about arts and sports, or about the daily grind faced by students. Indeed, very few students are mentioned, either by name or by implication. An exception is a fairly superficial recognition of the impact of the ’60s counterculture, and a discussion of the somewhat-related Mac Free College experiment. An interesting omission, considering the author’s established reputation as a student of church architecture, is the total lack of analysis–and nearly complete lack of mention–of the college buildings. I’d really like to see what she could do with that topic.

All that to say that there’s room for another book about Macalester, with perhaps more emphasis on the changing structure of the curriculum, the faculty’s ever-evolving membership, and changes to student life (and the student body’s makeup) which occurred over time. Nonetheless, Kilde’s book is valuable as written, and quite a gratifying read.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.


The cover story on the latest edition of Macalester Today, Mac’s alumni magazine, features Jim Dunn and Sam Ernst, executive producers and writers of SyFy Channel’s Haven. They’d previously written for The Dead Zone, which led to their current gig. All in all this is your typical alumni magazine success story, of course, but it’s always nice to know someone made good.

It says here that “they first met as computer-assigned roommates at Macalester in 1984…”–well, that caught my eye. I’ve written elsewhere today about the summer of 1981, but that note didn’t mention my summer job. After our little excursion to Fayette and other Upper Michigan places, my sister dropped me off in Saint Paul, where I spent the summer assigning freshmen to rooms. Since those rooms were shared, I made some effort to match folks by interest. I was afforded some slight help by preference cards, on which they may or may not have indicated favorite books, faith, musical interests, hobbies, expected major, home town, and similar information. Not much to go on, but I was double-checked by the admissions office, who occasionally vetoed a pairing. A few roomies later sought me out to thank me; no one cursed me to my face. All in all it was a fun summer. I’ve always claimed this was my favorite job.

Three years later, I gather, I’d been replaced by a computer. Hmmm.

James Wallace of Macalester by Edwin Kagin: a review

An oddly-balanced biography of Macalester College’s most significant president. The book gives a surprising amount of attention to his courtship and advanced education–they were oddly intermixed in ways you really need to read to believe–then devotes many chapters to the first five years of his presidency. After all that detail, the last four decades of his life are given fairly light, but probably adequate, treatment.

The strength of the book is its fascinating portrait of the early years of a small college. We see buildings under construction, we sit in on debates about whether to permit women students, we watch faculty get hired (and fired), we experience a neighborhood growing around the campus, we grow frustrated as the finances of the school devolve from difficult to grim. Then we follow newly-elected Macalester president Wallace as he slogs through a half-decade of budgets and fundraising–begging, really–during the 1890s recession. Finally things right themselves as the new century begins. This section of the book is extremely well-done, and worth reading for anyone interested in the beginnings of educational institutions. While the details are specific to this institution, the general pattern, I suspect, is common.

The text shows enough flashes of both anger and wit to reveal James Wallace as an interesting character. Reason and balance don’t seem to have been his normal mode. That he was a fine teacher and effective administrator are amply demonstrated; so, too, are the strength of his character and the loyalty of his friends and family.

This book is most likely to appeal to Macalester alumni, or to specialists in Minnesota education. It’s a well-done, but unexceptional, portrait. One supposes that Doubleday’s decision to publish it owed more to DeWitt Wallace’s Readers Digest influence than James Wallace’s importance.

Oh, yes. This book pins the cow incident on an early Mac student, not on DeWitt. Most of my readers will likely understand.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes: a review

An engrossing, thoroughly researched, well-written, powerful, and profoundly disturbing book.

The last lecture on the syllabus of my academic advisor’s Western Civ course was titled “The Lessons of History.” Ernie Sandeen explored the potential lessons we might have learned from our semester’s study, then proceeded to demolish each in turn. At the end of the session, he offered this depressing summary: “The lesson of history, I’ve learned, is that there are no lessons to be learned. Everyone draws conclusions; often different people draw flatly contradictory lessons from the same events.”

This book is like that.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Get Over It

This is the second in what I expect to be a set of three related essays. The first is here.

I attended the Class of 1982’s twenty-fifth anniversary reunion at Macalester College in June, and have been digesting the experience ever since. Some thoughts….

Many people find value in a reunion’s networking: Reconnecting with old friends, retelling old tales, and spinning new tales about the shared trip to middle age. I’m not one of those folks. My reunion was more about memory, about exploring a familiar neighborhood, about revisiting a place that still gives my life a foundation.

My networking efforts failed, anyway. Of eighty or so classmates who attended the reunion, only two clearly remembered me. My odd academic history made for some discomfort, as many conversations necessarily began with a discussion of why I didn’t seem familiar. My response involved enrolling at Mac in 1967, dropping out as a sophomore, a Vietnam year, classes at another institution, a decade spent mostly working in politics, and returning to complete my degree. My January graduation further confounds things.

Our Class Reunion theme was "Get Over It." This theme implies an unasked question: Was (is) the Macalester experience worth the price? The question came up by implication in those conversations with imperfectly-remembered classmates, by reference in a presentation exploring our responses to a reunion survey, and quite explicitly twice at the Class Dinner: Our hostess (Mary Morse Marti, I think) wandered around the topic for several minutes before explicitly raising the question as something she still found difficult to answer, and Macalester’s President Brian Rosenberg told us he considers all the early-eighties classes to be problems because their members have largely detached themselves from the community. These concerns have causes.

My classmates experienced the tail-end of the school’s budget crisis, and it’s quite possible to portray their college years harshly. They (we) remember the classrooms and dorms at their worst–old buildings, in many cases, whose maintenance had been deferred, then deferred again, as the college stumbled through the seventies. They attended a school whose glory years–the sixties–seemed impossible to recover in a very different political and economic climate, and whose present was dominated by fiscal concerns. Entire departments were, in the memories of my classmates, academically inadequate; students who concentrated in those disciplines feel particularly aggrieved about their Macalester experience. And, of course, my class directly remembers the football losing streak, which ended during "our" junior year (quotes because I wasn’t actually there).

For many of my classmates, then, their college career is a bitter-sweet memory. It strained the family budget, and left them personally in heavy debt, without delivering the satisfactions they’d thought–and still think–they should get from a liberal arts education. Their dissatisfaction is grounded in reality, and their questions about value are reasonable. Perhaps it really was an exercise in futility.

A final annoyance: After we graduated, the school’s finances recovered. While no one begrudges our successors their good fortune, it gives us yet another unsatisfactory comparison. It’s really quite sane to believe the early-80s classes at Mac drew a bad hand.

While I think this is a fair summary of the sentiments I heard at the reunion, it’s certainly as distorted a portrait of Macalester as the Oversimplified History I sketched a few days ago. I’ll talk about why in the next installment.

Dear Old Macalester

This is the first in what will likely be a three-post thread (the second is here).

Context: Macalester is a small liberal arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota. I was a Mac freshman in 1967, and graduated with the class of 1982.

Anyone from the Mac community who stumbles upon this essay is encouraged correct or enhance it in the comments. Thanks.

A Vastly Oversimplified History of Macalester College

Every campus has a narrative, and that narrative shapes the college culture. These stories may emphasize unimportant details; they ignore entire decades. Macalester’s, like most, begins with a founder, has a key figure who shaped the college, skips lightly through the decades, mentions some key teachers and graduates, describes a major crisis, and looks brightly to the future. To the best of my ability, here’s the Macalester story.

If anyone’s done a similar narrative for another school, I’d be grateful for a pointer. Thanks.

Edward Duffield Neill & Charles Macalester

Edward Duffield Neill founded Macalester College in 1874, served as its first president, and taught classes for many years. The minister to St. Paul’s First Presbyterian Church, Neill had been Minnesota’s Superintendent of Public Education and Chancellor of the State University (The U‘s ancestor, apparently). He’d subsequently had positions in the Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, and Grant administrations. Banker/financier Charles Macalester, now famous mostly for owning a fancy house overlooking the Delaware, made a real estate contribution to the young school, but plays no other role in this tale. Since Neill and Macalester were both Philadelphia natives, prominent Presbyterians, and politically active, albeit from different generations, I presume they were acquainted.

James Wallace

James Wallace, who joined the faculty in 1887 and taught until 1939, is the most important single individual in the school’s history. Dr. Wallace was Macalester’s president from 1894 through 1906; his presidential term both stabilized the college finances and established the college culture. One of the dorms is named after President Wallace, and the Fine Arts Center bears his wife’s name.

Among Dr. Wallace’s legacies to his college was his son….

DeWitt Wallace

If you’ve spent a few days on the campus, you’ve likely heard a Readers Digest joke. All Mac students and alumni recognize a heavy debt to the magazine; that recognition generally expresses itself as irony.

DeWitt Wallace began his student career at Mac about the time Dr. Wallace surrendered his presidency and returned to teaching. The younger Wallace made his fortune as the founder/editor of Readers Digest. While he did not graduate from Macalester, his affection for the school ensured the school’s financial stability for much of the twentieth century.

There’s more about Wallace down the page, but we’ll skip to the end for now: DeWitt Wallace passed away on March 30, 1981. (Concert Choir, of which I was a member, sang at his memorial service.) It soon became clear that his will provided a substantial endowment for the college, though the gift had significant emcumbrances.

The school’s library, built in the mid-eighties, bears DeWitt Wallace’s name.

Macalester students are told a story involving DeWitt Wallace, a cow, a stairway, and Old Main. Kagin’s book James Wallace of Macalester credits the prank to an earlier, and unnamed, student.

Charles Turck

Dr. Turck was President of Macalester College from 1939 through 1958. The school has a decidedly international focus; this is a Turck legacy.

Digression: Hubie & Others

Hubert Humphrey taught at Macalester during World War II; he returned to the school after his Vice-Presidency. The Humphrey anecdote at Mac describes a class session which continued for hours, adjourned for supper, and resumed in the evening.

Macalester’s most generally famous current faculty members appear to be Diane Glancy and Wang Ping; former choral director Dale Warland also has some fame, as does one-time Newton’s Apple host Jan Serie. As you’d anticipate, many current and former faculty members are well-known within their academic disciplines. David White, Mary Gwen Owen, Ted Mitau, Dave McCurdy, Hildegard Johnson, Chuck Green–these fine teachers, famous within Macalester’s community memory, had less public impact beyond the campus.

Walter and Joan Mondale are Macalester alumni. Kofi Annan graduated from Mac. More recent alums include Tim O’Brien (the writer, not the singer), Bob Mould, Charles Baxter, Dorothy Benham, Jeremy & JJ Allaire, Stephen Paulus, Pete Fenn, and Peter Berg. (Someone please mention more women I should include on this list. Miji Reoch seems to be the best I can manage, and it’s likely you’ve never heard of her.)

The two preceding paragraphs are necessarily time and interest bound. Another author would certainly name different names, though I’d anticipate some overlaps.

Alex Haley spent a lot of time on campus, though he wasn’t part of the faculty. Apparently he wrote Roots (or was it Malcolm X’s autobiography?) in what used to be International House but is now the President’s Residence.

Then there’s the football thing.


Macalester sought to raise its academic profile during the sixties. This campaign had several components; these included a building spree, several new faculty hires, and a fair bit of curricular experimentation. The key component, to all appearances, was a decision to enlist better students. Ten percent of my freshman classmates were National Merit Scholarship finalists. Other schools recruit football players; Mac recruited–and still recruits–bright kids. The school also went out of its way to encourage the enrollment of international and minority students, with interesting effects on the campus culture.

At my first Macalester convocation, someone (I think it was the provost) compared Mac to Stanford, and talked about creating “Pinnacles of Excellence” within the college community. Rich Greenwood turned this image into a parody of the Up with People theme song: “Up, Up, with Steeples! You meet ’em wherever you go. Up, Up, with Steeples! They’re the best kind of profs, you know. If more people met more steeples, more steeples everywhere, there’d be a lot more people to worry about, and a lot less people who cared.”

Simultaneous with the change in the student makeup was a political shift; late-sixties Macalester was considerably left-of-center, even after you allow for the national and local political landscapes. This was an engagement politics: One fifth of the student body was active in the 1968 election (I know this because I helped coordinate that effort), and I’m one of scores who remained active in the Democratic Party.

There’s some evidence that the college overhaul was built on a risky financial foundation.

The Financial Crisis

The campus changes evidently didn’t sit well with our benefactor, as Mr. Wallace severely reduced his commitment to the school around 1970. This reduction nearly undid the college, as the school’s relationship with Wallace approached dependency. After a couple difficult years, the trustees appointed a new president and reached an accommodation with the Wallace family. A decade of retrenchment followed, during which maintenance was neglected, school fundraising was diversified, and (according to student memory) the college wandered from its educational mission.


DeWitt Wallace’s will created several foundations, one of which became the basis for securing the Macalester endowment. This gift made the college Famously Rich, and permitted the school to recover its educational mission. While there’ve been a few setbacks along the way, the school remains well-to-do.

Except that tuition and board have gotten ridiculously expensive, the school prospers. We all look forward to Good Things.

Remember the headline, atop this discourse: An oversimplified history. This little essay’s largely factual, but it’s a myth.

Railroad Fever

Andy McFarlane has been recreating/interpreting a set of color tours originally mapped by Michigan Travel on his Michigan in Pictures blog. Today’s entry runs the tour right by my house, which of course means I’m pretty familiar with most of the places he mentions. This item was provoked by that entry, which mentions the Paul Henry-Thornapple Trail, but mostly it’s unrelated to the tour.

I returned to Macalester College as a 31-year-old senior in January of 1981. One reason for the mid-winter start was Mac’s January term, which would let me get my feet wet in a differently-demanding fashion than a fall start would have entailed. I signed up for Jim Stewart‘s one-off course titled 1877; the course description amounted to “1877 was an interesting year. We’ll read newspapers from the time on microfilm, and will make presentations about what we learn.”

For some reason the 1877 microfilm wasn’t available, so Jim fell back to a set of early 1869 newspaper films Ernie Sandeen had acquired for some other project. This changed the focus just a bit, but the main class objective was unchanged: We were learning a particular set of research tools, and practices. We were set to exploring for the first week; the class sessions began with observations about the mechanics of reading microfilm, then moved to discussions of such things as evolving newspaper layout, editorial emphases, and advertising practices. For the second week, Jim assigned us stories to track down without consulting modern sources; we talked in class about how the story-as-reported differed from the story as we recalled it from history textbooks, and what those differences might mean.

The third and fourth weeks were self-assigned projects. My third week project was about newspaper organization; specifically, I compared the layout of the Detroit Free Press as of 1869 with three other papers, and speculated a bit about why they differed. My final week’s project was about Railroad Fever.

The entire nation had the Railroad Fever in 1869. Most newspapers in the collection routinely included notes and articles under that rubric, clearly because everyone recognized the symptoms. Michigan was nursing two outbreaks: Promoters were raising money to build a more direct line (an “air line”) between Detroit and Chicago which would roughly follow the route of the Chicago Road, and actual construction was occurring for a line connecting Jackson and Grand Rapids. Both remain interesting, for different reasons.

The Air-Line promoters touted their project as a competitor to the Michigan Central line which already connected the terminal cities; MC was widely seen as a monopolist and therefore widely despised. When the microfilm ran out, the project was unsettled–but the fund-raising effort worked. Jackson and Niles were connected by rail in 1871, and an existing line was purchased to complete the Chicago connection. Worth noting: The promoters promptly leased the new line to the Central; indeed, it seems quite likely that they were Michigan Central agents from the start. (I’ve left out a lot of detail; see Wikipedia’s account of the railroad for those.) I gather this rail has been pulled up, but that’s a relatively recent occurrence; it still had regular traffic a couple decades ago.

The 1869 news about the Grand River Valley Railroad was always about celebrations. The line reached Morgan, on Thornapple Lake, early in January; by the time our newspapers ran out there were parades and parties in Hastings. GVRR was already a Central captive, but these towns were pleased just to find themselves on the map. It may be that they later learned to hate the monster.

The Valley branch remained in use under the Michigan Central/New York Central/Penn Central/Conrail succession into the 1970s, with CR ceding the line to the State of Michigan in 1979. The State leased the line to the Kent, Barry, and Eaton Connecting Railway until that road failed in 1983, at which time the line was abandoned. The track would soon be pulled up, but obvious remnants of the right of way were left along the entire route. Those remnants are the basis of the Paul Henry-Thornapple Trail.

Which takes me back to Andy’s color tour. Life is often circular, as are my tales.

Dale Warland Singers

Another concert I wish I’d attended.  Dale Warland’s retiring, and the Dale Warland Singers sang their last concert yesterday in the Cities.

Courtesy of A Capella News

A couple years back, I bought the DWS recording of Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb.  I’d sung the piece in high school; Tom Kasdorf is partial to Britten, and our choir was up to the technical challenge.  In TK’s first rehearsal he introduced us to Christopher Smart‘s  Cat Jeoffry, who’s been following me around ever since. 

When the Warland Singers recording arrived, I picked it up at the post office on my way to work and popped the CD into the player on my desk.  Suddenly, a bit over a minute into the performance, a vision of Dale, in a rehearsal on Macalester’s stage, dancing and chattering the complex rhythms of Britten’s second movement:

Let Nimrod, the mighty hunter….

It was probably our second rehearsal.  We’d stumbled badly on a run-through, and Warland was isolating the technical problems.  We worked on the rhythms for a time, added the words when he was confident we’d mastered the counts, and finally fit the music to the section.  I’d forgotten I’d sung this at Mac.  But I’d not forgotten Dale’s teaching methods.

Best wishes, Dale.  Hope the new career goes as well as the Singers.