Luther Alumni Magazine

Ruth Caldwell

Retiring faculty helped shape learning at Luther

At the end of the academic year, 12 dedicated, influential, long-serving Luther professors will retire. While Kevin Kraus, dean of faculty, is confident that the college will find worthy replacements, “We’re definitely going to miss their contributions,” he says.

Ruth Caldwell / Steve Hubbard / Carolyn Mottley / Marjorie Wharton / Tex Sordahl / Donna Kubesh / Chuck Christianson / Jim Griesheimer / John Goodin / Odette Bruneau / Mary Lewis / Nick Preus

The 12 people who are leaving come from nine academic departments and Preus library. All of them sat on multiple committees, and half of them served or currently serve as department heads. Four are Luther alumni (Hubbard, Wharton, Sordahl, and Preus), three taught in more than one department (Hubbard, Wharton, and Preus), and one commutes 270 miles for the privilege of teaching here (Christianson). Among them are a former bus driver (Goodin), a former flight attendant (Bruneau), and a current Episcopal priest (Griesheimer). One of them directs a museum (Sordahl), one keeps score for women’s basketball games (Mottley), one tats in her spare time (Kubesh), and one landed a hot air balloon on the Luther campus in the 1970s just for fun (Preus). Collectively, they’ve taught at least 22 current Luther professors and represent 357 years of service to Luther.

Ruth Caldwell, professor of French
Started at Luther in 1971

“I was pretty much a mail-order bride for Luther,” Ruth Caldwell says. While living in Paris after graduate school, a chance meeting and interview with Luther’s dean John Linnell (her only question for him was “Where is Luther College?”) led to a contract letter waiting on her return stateside.

Ruth Caldwell
Ruth Caldwell

Caldwell is the longest serving of Luther’s 2015 retirees, having taught at the college for 44 years. She is exacting and meticulous, maintaining high standards for herself and her students; when Caldwell’s students learn French, they really learn it. In addition to chairing her department for 18 years, Caldwell was the first to suggest that Luther start offering Italian courses (she subsequently obtained a master’s degree in the language). Colleagues note too that she hosts a steady stream of international visitors to the college and serves as a mentor to new faculty members both within and beyond the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics.

“An awareness of legacy at the college has been at the heart of her work here for a long time,” says Ruth Kath, longtime friend and colleague. “Passing on the history and strengths of the college and of the liberal arts is of vital importance to her, and she takes that responsibility very seriously. There is even a languages fellowship in her name, established by one of her former students. We all benefit from her care.”

In a meditation on vocation, Caldwell muses, “The joy I feel in perceiving the power of words has made me understand more deeply the centurion in Matthew 8 when he says, ‘Lord, I am not worthy . . . but only say the word . . .’ It is my hope that I can help my students deepen their appreciation of the power of the word in this and other texts, as well as the spoken word, whatever field they ultimately choose.”

Steve Hubbard ’68, professor of mathematics
Started at Luther in 1973

Not only has Steve Hubbard ’68 been a pillar of Luther’s Mathematics Department, he is also an early member of the college’s Computer Science Department. Along with Walt Will, who Hubbard insists deserves the lion’s share of the credit, Hubbard was one of the first Luther faculty to teach computer science.

Steve Hubbard '68
Steve Hubbard '68

“But even though I knew how to write programs in a couple of languages,” he says, “I didn’t know any computer science. There’s a lot more to it than just writing programs.”

So Hubbard began taking all the courses in the computer science major, sitting in on a class or two each semester, doing all the homework, taking the exams, and working 70 or 80 hours each week between his teaching and his learning.

Building up the Computer Science Department consumed the middle 15 or 20 years of his career, Hubbard says. “I was one of the first three or four people teaching computer science at Luther. Then the others gradually left the department, so it was just Walt and me, these retread math and science teachers during a time when it was impossible to get real computer scientists.”

Eventually, however, the college hired several Luther graduates to build out the department, which now consists entirely of Hubbard’s former pupils. How’s that for leaving a legacy?

Hubbard, who loves to stay fit and for decades ran 40–50 miles per week, is looking forward to having more time to work out in the years ahead. “My golfing buddies are three retired Luther profs,” he says, “and they tell me I missed a lot of nice golf days last fall.”

Carolyn Mottley, professor of chemistry
Started at Luther in 1975

For many summers (and sometimes for year-long sabbaticals), Carolyn Mottley has packed up and headed across the country to conduct research. She’s been involved in research at the University of Alabama, Northwestern, the Medical College of Wisconsin, Argonne National Laboratory, and with a branch of the National Institutes of Health. Her specialty is the generation of free radicals in biological systems.

Carolyn Mottley
Carolyn Mottley

Maintaining an active research life, Mottley says, “keeps you thinking about things and looking at different ways to do things, which is why I change my classes all the time. ... Being involved in research does that. Having an area where you really are an authority makes a difference; it touches what I teach all over the place.”

Mottley, who received her Ph.D. at UNC–Chapel Hill, started out during a time when female physical chemists were rare. “After I took general chemistry,” she says, “I don’t believe I was ever in another chemistry class with a woman, and that includes graduate school.”

As an educator, she’s loved teaching conceptual courses that “require students to think very differently about the world. They begin to see that the equations we use are more than just something on the board.”

In addition to teaching, Mottley has served as department head (three times, for a total of 18 years) and as interim dean of the college, but she thinks she’s been most valuable in maintaining top-line instrumentation for Luther students to use.

 “I love to hear back from grad students that their education was just as good or better than anybody else’s in their program, and we hear that regularly,” she says.

An avid women’s basketball fan, Mottley attended Wayland Baptist College as an undergrad because they had a women’s basketball team (luckily, they also had an excellent chemistry professor). She’s kept score for women’s basketball games at Luther for years.

Marjorie Wharton ’66, associate professor of music
Started at Luther in 1979

When asked what her greatest contribution to Luther has been, Marjorie Wharton ’66 replies, “For more than two decades, I was able to provide flexibility in staffing for two departments: French and music. And several times I had a student in both French and piano during the same semester!”

Marjorie Wharton '66
Marjorie Wharton '66

Wharton was hired to teach French part time at Luther in 1979. Already a proficient pianist, she decided to purse a music degree simultaneously, which eventually qualified her to teach in both disciplines, helping the French and Music Departments run smoothly over the past few decades.

Among Wharton’s many positive impacts on campus, she is known for teaching a technique that helps students learn to make choices about how to produce sound and create phrasing. She teaches this to beginners in class piano as well as to advanced students in the private studio. “Some resist it at first but send me thank-you notes later. The technique has been of particular benefit to several advanced students who were in pain due to injury from high-tension techniques,” she explains.

During her retirement, Wharton plans to turn a critical eye on her writing on Francis Poulenc’s song cycle Le Travail de peintre (The Work of the Painter), about which she has traveled widely to present—including to France, England, and the United States. “I need to look at my 32 drafts, ditch most of them, and put fresh words side by side on a computer screen,” she says.

Tex Sordahl ’73, professor of biology
Started at Luther in 1980

“My mantra is that nobody ever regrets learning about birds,” Tex Sordahl ’73 says. “You can approach it at different levels, and it’s complex enough to fuel a lifelong hobby.”

Tex Sordahl '73
Tex Sordahl '73

The veteran bird evangelist and department head should know: he’s racked up 48 publications (“And I don’t really want to stop short of 50,” he admits), including a 32-year study of spring migrations in the Decorah area. A second paper that he just published in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology involves a 25-year study of screech-owls. This kind of long-term research might seem rare in the digital age, but “I’m an old-school naturalist at heart,” he says, “and most of my projects are very low budget,” involving trekking on foot and putting in time behind the binoculars.

Sordahl knew as early as third grade that he wanted to be a zoologist, but it was a summer job at an Audubon Society Camp in northern Wisconsin that focused his interest on ornithology. “The first question of the day that anyone asked was, What species did you see this morning?” he recalls. The budding biologist had found his people.

One of Sordahl’s most important roles at Luther, and one he’s had since he began, has been as director of Luther’s Hoslett Museum of Natural History, which contains thousands of plant and animal specimens, as well as the third-largest eggshell collection in the state of Iowa. Over his decades of stewardship, Sordahl has coached students on how to set up exhibits; taxidermy birds; clean, fumigate, repair, and tag specimens; and keep organized records and databases.

Not only has Sordahl employed lots of students over the years, but he’s also mentored almost two dozen Luther graduates to become zoologists and wildlife biologists, and that includes six true ornithologists.

As for the students who didn’t go into the animal field? “I hope they’ll be lifelong bird watchers,” he says.

Donna Kubesh, professor of nursing
Started at Luther in 1982

Donna Kubesh
Donna Kubesh

There’s not one object in Donna Kubesh’s delightfully appointed office that doesn’t tell a part of her life story. There’s the incense burner she picked up in Dubai while visiting a dear friend and former Luther professor. There’s the Nurse Barbie from 1961, an inside joke with a friend that celebrates—subversively—Kubesh’s love of nursing and her feminist bent. There’s the simple computer printout sign that reads: What have I done today to help somebody?

“I have to see it every day,” Kubesh explains. “That is what life is about.”

Kubesh came to Luther after working as a nurse in a small community hospital in Rochester, Minn., and it didn’t take long for her to feel at home. “This is the world that makes me happy,” she enthuses. “You can’t be in this setting without the constant desire to learn more and share ideas with other people. And it’s not just in nursing—it’s in the liberal arts and lectures and the conversations that you have with other professors. It gives me a chance to be a student forever and pay my bills too!”

In addition to chairing many committees over the years, Kubesh served for 15 years as a department head. “I really enjoyed it while I was doing it. You’re on 24/7—it’s an excellent challenge.” As for teaching, she has most enjoyed the first courses in the nursing series. “The students are so enthused and excited about their career choice,” she says.

Given what an engaged, patient, and committed teacher she is, it’s easy to picture a legion of Kubesh’s nurses setting out into the world asking themselves, what have I done today to help somebody?

Chuck Christianson, professor of accounting and management
Started at Luther in 1988

Chuck Christianson
Chuck Christianson

Chuck Christianson redefines the word commitment. Since 1992, when he married his wife, Beverly, he has been commuting from Sioux Falls, S.D., where they have a home (they also have a home in Decorah). “There were weekends when I’d get caught in a snowstorm on the interstate,” he says. “And before cell phones and Internet technology, I would have to guess whether it was wise to continue on to Decorah or not.”

Back in the ’80s, in the days preceding Olin Hall and widespread use of computers, when typewriters ruled the day,
Christianson and his colleagues had offices in Korsrud Annex (now the Ockham House). “Back then,” he recalls, “there wasn’t a night, with the exception of maybe Friday night, when you wouldn’t find someone working in Korsrud Annex. Every night, people would be working there well beyond midnight. It just took that much time to prepare notes, handouts, and exams—we didn’t have the technology that we have today.”

Christianson’s long days didn’t slow much during his time as department head, from 2001 to 2010. “My wife came to the conclusion many years ago that she’s not going to see me anyway,” he jokes.

Christianson says that he’s enjoyed teaching management and accounting courses, but there’s little he’s enjoyed more than working with students in an advising role. “I get to talk one-on-one with every single student I work with and I can help them develop a study and career plan,” he says. “That’s been really fun and rewarding.”

Jim Griesheimer, professor of music
Started at Luther in 1991

“I don’t think I could have found a better balance between a high-powered program and something that used me fully,” Jim Griesheimer says of his tenure in Luther’s Music Department. “It seemed providential, and for that reason I probably taught 10 years longer than I intended to,” the 73-year-old jokes.

Jim Griesheimer
Jim Griesheimer

A former Fulbright scholar and professional oboist, Griesheimer came to Luther from Middlebury College in Vermont. “I couldn’t believe when I got here how sophisticated the program was and the sheer scale of it,” he says. “It’s really on an ancient Egyptian scale of operations.”

At Luther, Griesheimer taught music history courses. By all accounts, he is a fantastic lecturer, and he peppers even casual conversation with historical gems. From his examination of how the transition from Bach to Mozart mirrored the dissolution of the Baroque style and the onset of irony, to his research on amateur musician Edward Finch, about whom he’s presented five times at Oxford, Griesheimer has a talent for animating his material and getting students fired up about it too.

Griesheimer credits his grandfather with influencing his own lecturing style. “He was a natural orator and storyteller,” Griesheimer says. “He used to read stories like the ‘Valley of Dry Bones’ that would make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.”

Griesheimer’s speaking skills are also put to good use during his sermons. Ordained as an Episcopal priest in 2010, he serves parishes in both Decorah and Charles City. He has officiated four weddings of Luther students and will officiate a fifth this year.

John Goodin, associate professor in library and information studies
Started at Luther in 1994

John Goodin
John Goodin

It was a stroke of good timing that landed John Goodin at Luther. He happened to learn of a job opening at the college around the same time that his son had an Odyssey of the Mind competition in Ames, Iowa. On the way back to their Indiana home, the Goodins stopped in Decorah and recognized it as a very special place.

Goodin got the job, and since then he’s been instrumental in shaping library services at Luther. He has managed three separate library systems, bringing two of them to Luther, and he was a member of the task force that led to the formation of LIS, which merged the library and information technology into one organization. Goodin has also been deeply involved in budgetary concerns, and, as a faculty member, he has advised dozens of first-year students.

But Goodin is equally known around campus and Decorah for his musical talent. A skilled mandolin player, he often performs during chapel and for student and faculty recitals, theatrical productions, and other events. A composer with about 20 published pieces circulating around the world, Goodin writes on his own and for his contra dance band, Contratopia.

While it was difficult to choose between music and library science earlier in life, he says, “I have never had second thoughts about my profession. Librarians know that, day after day, our work is a positive contribution to the common good.” 

Odette Bruneau, professor of education
Started at Luther in 1995

Odette Bruneau
Odette Bruneau

Odette Bruneau doesn’t like fanfare, though she deserves it. During her two decades at Luther, she’s been responsible for the special education courses within Luther’s Education Department. She’s helped craft a special-ed program that’s comprehensive and well regarded throughout the region. “There are districts that come looking for Luther-prepared students,” she says.

“Students don’t pick special ed unless they have a real mission,” she continues, “and so I get the students who really want to be doing it. Sometimes we’re able to go out and supervise these student teachers, and when I’m able to see a student fly, that’s really special.”

In a previous life, Bruneau was a flight attendant. In fact, she earned her master’s, completed her doctoral work, and spent the first six months of her first teaching job all while flying the friendly skies.

After leaving Luther, Bruneau, who spent two sabbaticals teaching English in China, where her three adopted daughters were born, will likely return to China to teach for a third time.

Mary Lewis, instructor in biology
Started at Luther in 1995

After studying limnology (freshwater science) at the University of Minnesota, Mary Lewis moved to Fillmore County, Minn., to start a research farm that practices woody agriculture, a sustainable form of farming—in Lewis’s case, hazelnuts and chestnuts. During this time, she taught piano and dance.

Mary Lewis
Mary Lewis

When she decided to leave the farm, Lewis “knocked on doors and made it known that I was around and had these skills. Luther hired me, and it turned into an instructor position,” she says.

For the past two decades, Lewis has lectured and taught and prepared labs for three of Luther’s largest biology courses—Microbiology, Anatomy, and Principles of Biology—and to do this, she’s engaged about 30 students per year. “I employ student assistants not just to set up the labs but to make sure they’re well tested beforehand,” she says. “They learn the labs so well that they can help the other students have a good experience. To get all the pieces of it in good shape has taken years to do well, but it’s resulted in some very smooth-running labs.”

Lewis, a lifelong dancer, has often thought of teaching as a performance, and students don’t soon forget her mnemonic story of checker-playing Ole and Cranon that teaches the elbow bone, or her impression of a breech-birth baby coming out. “I found out that I like to ham it up, and students seem to like it,” she says.

Lewis also writes fiction and essays. She’ll spend part of her retirement completing an MFA program at Augsburg College and completing her second novel—as well as skating, dancing, swimming, doing yoga, playing piano, and combating invasive garlic mustard in Decorah city parks.

Nick Preus ’69, professor of English and education
Started at Luther in 2000

Nick Preus '69
Nick Preus '69

What Nick Preus ’69 loves most about teaching is “being in a room talking with young people about books,” he says. “They bring to it a freshness, eagerness, and a great sense of fun. It’s like we’re entering a virtual world of literature and stories and poems. It’s coming to them new, and it’s wonderful to watch how texts open up to them and how they open up to texts.”

Preus, former head of Luther’s Education Department, once taught at the high school level and, as a graduate student, worked in UW–Madison’s Writing Center, where he learned to engage in conversations about academic writing. He explains that this “altered my perception of ‘delivering’ an education to entering a shared conversation” when he teaches.

An avid sailor, Preus developed a January Term course called Tales of the Sea that allows 30 people to spend a week and a half on a 130-foot wooden schooner while they read maritime literature and participate in crewing. But while the January course is adventurous and exciting, Preus sees his role on the Luther faculty as “being present for the students. The good work is doing the daily work,” he says, “being prepared for class and being encouraging and inspiring and being there in a conversational way.”

“I’m always impressed by the care with which my colleagues undertake their tasks here, and that’s a great strength of the place.”

In retirement, Preus plans to help colleague Kari Gronningsaeter translate and research a memoir written by her Norwegian grandmother, who also undertook a maritime adventure. Also, he and his wife will reassemble a Norwegian log cabin as their summer home in Door County, Wis.