AN AUGUSTANA STORY: MARGARET OLMSTED
Margaret Olmsted; Class of 1915, Photo courtesy of Special Collections
She was quiet, gentle, patient, and rigidly disciplined. She was smaller than most of her students, tidy, unobtrusive, and devoted to her work. Her ambition was directed not toward attaining administrative power but toward succeeding in the classroom. "What I have enjoyed most is just plain teaching," she said at the end of her forty-six-year tenure at Augustana. "I like a regular thing to do-a regular life….I like to feel that what I do is worth doing." And though she conceded that "a person needs a little social life," she added significantly, "but if I gave very much of my time to that, I wouldn't feel my life was very profitable."
This was Margaret Olmsted. She taught Latin and mathematics at Augustana from 1921 until her retirement in 1967. She was herself a graduate of the college, Class of 1915; in fact, she edged out her classmate, future president Conrad Bergendoff, for the valedictory position that year. What Olmsted prized and identified at Augustana suggests the things she cared about, the values she would, by her quiet dignity, transmit to her students: "standards of high scholarship, good character, balance, morality, and goodness in life."
Born February 7, 1894 in Orange County, Iowa, she was the oldest child of Rock Island County and circuit court Judge Robert W. Olmsted. She grew up and lived her century-long life in Rock Island, much of it in the apartment building downtown that bore her family's name. Like her more flamboyant colleague Henriette C. K. Naeseth, she came from a family to whom education mattered. Her father had served as superintendent of schools for small towns in Illinois and Iowa before being admitted to the bar in those states. All four of the Olmsted children attended Augustana: "Since 1911," Olmsted said in 1967, "there has been only one year that some member of my family hasn't been teaching or going to school at Augustana. I think we've set some kind of record." Interestingly, the family didn't fit the then-standard Swedish Lutheran pattern; they were Presbyterians, and Margaret was multilingual in the classical, rather than in the Scandinavian, languages.
As a student Olmsted was already discerning and enacting the "regular life" she would come to lead-a life of studiousness and privacy. ("Where the stream runneth smoothest, the water is deepest," the 1915 Rockety-I
She taught long enough to encounter generations who questioned the "relevance" of classical languages to the practical, immediate claims of the modern world. To that critique her answer was firm and clear: "Latin has never been a dead language. So much of Latin lives in our own English…and in the Romance languages….Knowing Latin would be helpful to anyone, because to live effectively we must know and use our language effectively." Even more, studying Latin, she believed, "improves one's ability to think" as well as to speak clearly. And since "life is becoming more and more complex,…about the only way to simplify it is through careful thinking and planning."
Margaret Olmsted poses while working at desk; Photo courtesy of Special Collections
She didn't say a lot about her own vision for teaching. But in a tribute to another colleague which she helped write, it's possible to trace what shaped her standards. The colleague, art teacher Alma Johnson, is praised for critiques that were both fair and constructive; for "deep and personal interest in each student as an individual"; for refusing to privilege the gifted over the average. Students who sat in Margaret Olmsted's classes certainly experienced such fairness and interest. They remember a calm, serene demeanor, and infinite patience with each of them-from the novice struggler to the prospective grad-school whiz.
Serenity and patience defined her role as a member of the Augustana community as well. She showed no inclination to push limits or change structures to secure more administrative power for women. She chaired the mathematics department, and then watched one of her own (male) students return to assume that role. She took conscientious notes as faculty secretary, a job traditionally assigned to women. She voted Republican.
Trying to capture the strong, delicate essence of Margaret Olmsted nearly a decade after her death, a student researcher wrote: "The strength of character that Margaret Olmsted bestowed upon her students as a professor…lives on in those people; we carry the gifts of such…[teachers]…with us…."
It's an epitaph that would, I think, have pleased her.
1915 grads outside Centennial Hall, Old Main in back. Photo courtesy of Special Collections