When I interviewed on campus three years ago, one of my questions to the dean was, “In what ways has Luther College changed in the twenty years since I was a first-year student?“ The dean considered this for a moment and thoughtfully replied, “I think in all the ways that really matter, this is the same place it has always been.” He then went on to speak about the faculty commitment to students, the interpersonal relationships that define student life, and the special place that the physical campus holds in all of our hearts. The entire exchange made my heart sing.
I think about this conversation nearly every day. Luther College is a special institution. While it can be very difficult to say why, those who know Luther accept the idea as an axiom. We are now living in a terribly challenging time for each of us, the college, the nation, and the world; and I find it breathtaking to watch Luther’s “specialness” manifest in new and meaningful ways online.
As students prepared to leave campus last week, I engaged in a typical Monday afternoon conversation with several folks in the lobby of Jenson-Noble Hall of Music. We shared stories from a weekend of performances, voiced anxieties about a move to distance learning, and exchanged laughter about what social distancing would give us time to do in the next few weeks. Everyone’s fear of the coming unknown was palpable.
At some point, I mentioned one of the things I was doing to calm my children at home was doubling down on our read aloud time. Over the weekend, we had finally finished “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” after months of putting it off. I shared that I read the descriptive portions of text in my own voice, but have created a unique voice for each of the characters in the stories. After deferring for a while, I eventually acquiesced to requests for a demonstration. We laughed some more, and the students remarked how comforting it must be for my children to have stories like that read to them in that way every night. Suddenly, we happened upon a way to offer support and keep connected with each other in the coming weeks and months.
At 8 p.m. that Tuesday night, my family and I used Facebook to post a live broadcast of “Luther College Story Time with MP” from our cozy basement on the south side of Decorah. I read two family favorites: Crockett Johnson’s “Harold and the Purple Crayon” and “Pella’s New Suit” by Elsa Beskow. The thought was to do something simple that might calm anxious hearts and minds on the final night many students would spend on campus for a while. Little did we know that it would be the last night most would spend on campus this semester...
There were a dozen or so folks who had liked the Facebook page I created for Story Time earlier in the day, and that handful of folks tuned in during the broadcast. Most were my own family and the students I had discussed this project with the day before. But, as word spread, the views on that first video started to climb into the thousands. I started to receive messages from students, faculty, staff, and alumni, all of whom were saying thanks for a much needed respite. (One student sent a video of him and a half dozen others watching the broadcast projected on their dorm room wall.) By the next day, close to 300 people had liked the Story Time page and by week’s end, the college had asked that we host the broadcast on the Music Department Facebook page.
The whole thing seems kind of silly when I think about it. It’s just a guy reading some children’s stories. Many others are doing the same thing. Levar Burton has been doing it for DECADES. Yet, I’m starting to suspect why this particular idea has clicked for the Luther College community. It’s a tether. It’s a way for us to stay connected to each other and the valley during the pandemic. It reminds us that what makes Luther special isn’t the campus, it isn’t the activities, it isn’t the ensembles, and it isn’t even the world-class education. It’s arguably cliché, but what makes Luther special is people. It is faculty members who shepherd and inspire new generations of community leaders, administrators who work tirelessly to make the next right choice every day, staff who attend to levels of detail that when done right go too easily unnoticed, and precious students who are forged in a courageous, active, purposeful learning environment before being sent out to change the world as alumni
In all likelihood, we will each come back to campus at some point. We don’t necessarily know when and we don’t know exactly how. But I’ve become increasingly certain through the events of the last week that Luther College is less a place and more a people. Find ways to connect to your Luther people during these times and the “specialness” of the community will be right there with you. Then we can eventually “return to thee someday” assured that - in all the ways that matter - Luther will be the same place it has always been. Soli Deo Gloria.