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Brodahl helped ‘young people be best they could be’

April  20, 2012

Betsey Brodahl (see more images)

Dr. Ann Boaden's memorial essay: "Carry on, friends!"

The campus community will hold memorial service to remember Betsey Brodahl at 10:30 a.m. May 19 in Wallenberg Hall, Denkmann Memorial Hall.

Betsey A. Brodahl '44, dean of women and later associate dean of students at Augustana College, 1948-1987, died in her sleep at home in Wahoo, Neb., today. She was 89.

"Few persons have had the kind of impact Betsey Brodahl had on Augustana during her long association with the college," said Augustana President Steve Bahls. "Her legendary grace and confidence inspired generations of students, including alumni now in their 80s, not to mention innumerable colleagues."

Betsey Brodahl was born and grew up in Wahoo, where she attended Luther College for one year. Upon the urging of two instructors, she completed her undergraduate education at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., and graduated with a bachelor's degree in history in 1944.

Brodahl completed a master's at Syracuse University, and continued graduate studies at Stanford University. But just as WWII interrupted so many lives, her studies were halted when Augustana's president, Dr. Conrad Bergendoff, asked whether she might return to teach in 1947.

With the passing of the GI bill, the college was experiencing a great influx in enrollment. And so Brodahl took the position of history instructor. In 1948 she was appointed dean of women and assistant professor of history, though from that point on her duties were largely administrative. She did continue to teach one course in ancient history, focusing on Greece and Rome, every other year.

A sense of balance

As dean of women, Brodahl had an influence on students — especially female students — that conveyed unwavering respect, belief and a strong sense of balance during the rocky changes of the 50s through the 70s. In the second volume of his book, Coming of Age: A History of Augustana College, 1935-1975, President Emeritus Thomas Tredway writes, "She understood that the college's role in loco parentis was the matter that would be in question in the coming years."

In a meeting with the college's board of directors in January 1965, "She stated that a question troubling her is what business of hers is the student's personal life, what she does, where she goes, how she looks, and with whom she goes," Dr. Tredway writes. At that meeting, she also observed "There is a rebellion in the present student generation against existing structures and forms."

'An incredibly gifted woman who could have succeeded at any number of professional pursuits, but chose to answer a calling to help young people be the best that they could be.'

— President Steve Bahls

And yet, whether or not it was her intention, Dean Brodahl served as a model of behavior — concerning the intellect, civility and even fashion — for women students at Augustana. Kai Swanson '86, executive assistant to the president, recalled a story about Dean Betsey's declaration that women certainly should wear slacks, if they so wished, on campus.

"However," Swanson pointed out, "as those were the days before Twitter, students would wait and watch for her to step out the door of House on the Hill in the morning. If she was wearing slacks, the news would spread quickly: all was well with the choice to wear slacks that day."

There are many stories about Dean Brodahl, who was as witty as she was wise.

"Virtually every alum I have met who attended Augustana in the second half of the 20th century has a 'Betsey story,'" President Bahls noted. "Many are light-hearted, some are very touching. All of them, however, describe an incredibly gifted woman who could have succeeded at any number of professional pursuits, but chose to answer a calling to help young people be the best that they could be."  

A violinist, Brodahl performed with or actively supported the Quad-City Symphony Orchestra for 25 years. She received many awards and honors, including the Vasa Medal in Gold from the King of Sweden in 1976, "for a long career of participation in the activities of organizations dedicated to the development of international relationships on the Augustana campus." In 1997, the college dedicated the newly constructed Betsey Brodahl Building for student services in her honor. This building now houses the college's Center for Speech, Language, and Hearing.

In her book, Light and Leaven: Women Who Shaped Augustana's First Century, Dr. Ann Boaden captured well Dean Brodahl's approach to life. Dr. Boaden quotes her as once saying, "'I have always considered the place and the moment I'm in the best.'"

Boaden continues, "For her the moments are gifts. But they also reflect the artistry of her own creating, the things she has cherished and given her life to make real and beautiful."

The House on the Hill, where she lived for nearly 50 years until moving back to Wahoo in 2003, was such a place to "reflect the artistry of her own creating." With her impeccable style and knowledge of art, architecture and period furnishings, Dean Brodahl made sure the grand house would remain a testament to the storied history of the college, and a gracious abode for students and college visitors.

A letter home

In 2004, Dean Brodahl came back to Augustana for a visit, stopping last at her beloved House on the Hill. Later, in a letter to President Bahls, who had met her at the house before she returned to Nebraska, she wrote,

What a privilege it has been to live at the House on the Hill and to spend my life at Augustana, my second family. I feared it would be heartbreaking to go back. Your visit gave it a perfect closure.

When I moved in in 1954 I was with Dr. Conrad Bergendoff and Chief Financial Officer Knute Erickson. Now, what splendid representatives of this place to help me out.

I don't feel I have said goodbye to Augustana but will return as I am. Please don't hesitate to call on me if there is any way I can help. I leave with a happy and grateful heart. Godspeed and blessings to you all.

Love, Betsey

June 12, 2004

Funeral arrangements for Betsey Brodahl are pending. A campus memorial will be held, possibly on commencement weekend in May. Details will be announced.


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