Leaving Old Main

Posted on September 1st, 2009 by

Professor Al Pearson takes a last look from his old office in Old Main.

Professor Al Pearson takes a last look from his old office in Old Main.

Graffiti adorn the hallway and stairwell walls of Old Main these days. But they’re not just any graffiti; the scrawling betrays the education of its writers: Latin phrases, Wittgenstein quotations, and the jargon and autographs of education students share the formerly undecorated, off-white walls of the landmark, which was built in 1876 and has served every generation of students at Gustavus Adolphus College. Now the building has been vacated in preparation for renovation, and construction crews are the only ones who read the walls as they work to gut and then rebuild the interior for future generations.

But relocating is not so easy, especially for professors who have spent careers in Old Main. When the remodeling is completed in mid-August 2005, faculty members of four of the academic departments that had been housed there—classics, philosophy, political science, and religion—will move back from temporary office spaces to newly appointed homes in the grand building. But the education and nursing departments will not be returning. Relocated to the “semi-temporary” Mattson Hall, a modular unit erected on the southwest side of the campus, they will await a new social science facility projected to be built several years from now.

Education professor Al Pearson, currently the senior member in terms of service among his colleagues in Old Main, had looked out the same windows throughout his entire teaching career. Now in his 32nd year on the Gustavus faculty, Pearson was assigned an office in the northeast corner of the second floor when he joined the Department of Education in 1973 and had never been uprooted in the intervening years.

Old Main has housed a succession of academic departments during its nearly 130 years of use, and second floor was home for the Department of Education and its students dating back to 10 years before Pearson arrived. School districts were crying for elementary and secondary school teachers when he joined the faculty, and the department did not limit the number of majors in its program as it tried to meet demand. “In the spring of my first year,” Pearson recalls, “there were more that 120 interns and student teachers assigned through the department, and I supervised 35 of them.” He logged more miles than he cares to remember criss-crossing the state to observe and assess his assigned students at their clinical sites. Today, with the department practicing selective admission to its major program, supervision loads are a saner four to six per semester.

Pearson joined a faculty that included some campus legends. Behind the frosted glass of the center office was placement director Filip Vikner (taught 1958—1978). Dorothy “D.M.” Anderson (1955—1976) directed the elementary education curriculum, and Gerald Brekke (1962—1987) was department chair when Pearson arrived. Two other instructors rounded out the department. With all of its students and staff concentrated on the second floor of Old Main, the department became its own special community.

“It was hard to leave,” Pearson admits. “In a selfish way, I was hoping the renovation wouldn’t happen.” Particularly difficult was giving up the “best seat in the house,” as he refers to the high view he had from his office windows of the Minnesota River Valley and its striking seasonal changes. He also liked Old Main’s “centrality,” although he only appreciates that now as he prepares to trek to the administration building or the campus center from Mattson.

But he’s already seeing positives in the relocation. “Visitors from accrediting agencies would comment about the department’s lack of handicapped access,” he says. Now the department enjoys increased space, including a computer lab, resource library, and two large classrooms, on the ground floor—actually, the only floor—of Mattson. “And I now have a pretty good view of the arboretum to the west.”

Pearson has his share of Old Main stories to tell, starting with a “ghost story” of sorts that occurred in his first month on campus. One early evening in late August 1973, he and colleague Gerald Brekke were in their offices preparing for the upcoming semester’s classes. As he worked at his desk, Pearson recalls, “My chair crept backwards and to the right about two feet as if it had been pushed.” Thinking it mildly curious, he walked out into the department’s common area in time to see Brekke stumble from his office yelling that his chair had just moved on its own. As word got out about the incident, Dale Haack, the physical plant director at the time, went so far as to contact seismologists and meteorologists about any unusual readings in the area on that evening and even brought in a structural engineer to inspect for a sudden shift in the foundation. “We never did get any plausible explanation,” says Pearson, “but it never happened again either.”

Most of the legends of Old Main are retired and gone now and didn’t have to endure the upheaval of their libraries and memories. Al Pearson too will have retired by the time his department moves out of its transitional space in Mattson Hall and into a new social science building. But his experiences and memories in Old Main—and those of the many students who learned from him—may be added to the rich legacy that will remain part of a renovated facility serving future Gusties.


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