James Ostlie '17

James Ostlie: “It was fun to geek out”

Decorah’s Renaissance man.

That’s how the Cedar Rapids Gazette described James Ostlie in a 2011 profile touting the academic, athletic, and musical talents he displayed as a student at Decorah High School.

Spend some time chatting with Ostlie today, and that three-word description rings just as true, perhaps more so. Ostlie is as comfortable talking about blocks and blitzes as he is Norwegian fairy tales, and nearly any topic in between.

But it took a bit of prying to get him to talk about his impressive list of accomplishments at Luther. A magna cum laude graduate and biology major (with minors in environmental studies and Nordic studies), Ostlie earned induction into the Phi Beta Kappa and Beta Beta Beta academic honor societies, served as a board member for the PALS youth mentoring program and a member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, and garnered four letters for his outstanding play on the offensive line for the Norse football team, which he served as cocaptain. He was also a three-time All-Iowa Conference and Academic All-Iowa Conference honoree.

So what’s the key to his success, other than old-fashioned hard work?

“The obvious answer is time management—I have always done better academically while I was in season, when I have deadlines and need to be really productive,” says Ostlie, son of longtime Luther staffer Lori Ostlie. “I expect to be busy.”

That level of motivation was useful last January, when Ostlie drove several times a week to a forested property outside Decorah, strapped on snow shoes, and spent hours alone doing research for his senior paper—“Tree Species Composition of Old-Growth Sugar Maple-Basswood Forests in Northeastern Iowa”—which he was invited to present at an Iowa Academy of Science meeting in the spring. “I recognize it’s a topic that’s not inherently interesting to many,” he says with a smile, “but it was fun to geek out with some of the experts who really know their stuff at that meeting.”

Since graduation, Ostlie has spent even more time outdoors, making tree stand improvements, removing invasive species, and improving riverbanks on state land in Rochester through Conservation Corps Minnesota. He plans to follow a year of service work there with graduate studies in forest ecology, and ultimately has his sights set on project management for an organization like the Iowa DNR or Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.

“All the broader concepts and the moving parts involved in that type of work really interest me,” he says. “I like the idea of working with land owners and local and state governments on projects from start to finish, and I can envision putting my own stamp on some of those projects, creating them almost like an artist.”
Or, perhaps, like a Renaissance man.

—Sara Friedl-Putnam