Remarks on Receiving the
Distinguished Alumni Citation
Augsburg College

October 8, 1993
John-Mark Stensvaag

Most of us go through life without thinking much about poetry. That has certainly been true for me. But this morning’s ceremonies—or more precisely, my small part in them—has caused me to think quite a bit about poems. Not just any poems, mind you. The poems I have in mind—the poems that I can’t get out of my mind—are poems to the moon.

Think about it. There must be countless poems about the moon. Curiously, many "moon poems" praise an attribute that does not inhere in the object of their praise: light. The moon, as we know, has no light of its own. At best, it reflects light from another source. Yet poet after poet has heaped praise on the moon, extolling its reflection of another’s light. One wonders how the moon feels about all of this fuss!

This imagery haunts me today, because the citation that you have so kindly given me, Dr. Anderson, and the nice words that you have spoken, Dr. Stenshoel, are—it seems to me—poems to the moon. The light you honor by these acts is not in me and is not from me. The praise is misplaced. My Dad used to say, "Remember who you are." Those familiar words mean something different today. His voice speaks to me this morning, saying "Remember what you are not." Friends, I am not the light that we celebrate here.

But what then, should be the object of our celebration? If our lives are given meaning and give meaning because they reflect light, where does this light come from? For many of us who have had the good fortune to study at Augsburg College, the source of this light has been our college teachers. Those of you who are, yourselves, alumni know that I speak the truth. When this place was our home, Augsburg blazed with the light of its teachers. Today, that light is reflected wherever Augsburg alumni live and serve. It is reflected in the lives of small business owners and workers, large business executives and employees, ministers of the gospel at home and missionaries in far off lands, teachers of parenting skills and teachers of music, counselors of those who are in trouble with the law and counselors of those who have lost their jobs or their loved ones, volunteers on boards of regents and volunteers in the Sunday Schools, pediatric surgeons and coronary care nursing assistants, artisans and artists, electrical engineers and journalists, accountants and mechanics, designers and builders, grandparents, moms, and dads. All of us, when we are at our best, reflect the light of our Augsburg teachers.

It is unfair to name only some teachers, because I did not have the opportunity to study under other wonderful professors. But my remarks today would not be complete if I did not identify the proper objects of this poetry. What a thrill it was to study political science under Professors Norma Noonan and Myles Stenshoel! What a joy to study history with Professors Carl Chrislock, Orloue Gisselquist, Donald Gustafson, Khin Khin Jensen, Magne Olson and—when he graciously came over from Luther Seminary to present a scholarly paper on Martin Luther to some impressionable young students—Dr. Charles Anderson! What a challenge it was to study English under Professors Anne Pederson and Gracia Christensen, and to explore sociology and economics with Professors Joel Torstenson, Leo Vetvick, and Diana Smits! What a pleasure to study religion under Professors Mario Colacci, Orlin Mandsager, Philip Quanbeck, Paul Sonnack and—on those too few occasions when I would visit in his home —Dr. Bernhard Christensen! What a treat to study music under Professors Stephen Gabrielsen, Leland Sateren and Mayo Savold, and to study the sciences under Professors Courtland Agre, John Holum, Erwin Mickelberg, Ralph Sulerud, and Erling Urdahl. Oh yes! The place blazed with the light of these women and men. It blazed! How could a student not reflect such brilliance?! How could one not shine, in the presence of Dr. Oscar Anderson, the gifted leader who headed up the Augsburg College of those days?

The radiance of these teachers was not primarily in the "things" they taught us. No. It was in who they were. It was in how they conducted themselves in exploring the world of ideas. It was in their character. And from everything that I have heard, Augsburg is still a special place today—still a place where students from all over the world can come to bask in the light of its teachers.

So we praise and celebrate today our teachers: the heart and soul of Augsburg past and Augsburg present. Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, for the light that you have shed and continue to shed on us!

But is it possible that these women and men, in turn, would also find our poetry misdirected? Would they insist that the light is not their light and that they, too, are merely reflections of the true light? From what I remember of my teachers, I have to believe that such may be the case. For the light poured out on us in our student days at Augsburg originated from beyond our teachers; that light was conveyed to our teachers by their teachers, after being acquired from their teachers’ teachers and—ultimately— from the source of the light that first dawned on Eden.

But here, of course, the metaphor breaks down. For, when I see my Augsburg teachers at their podiums and at their lecturns, I do not see the monochrome colors of the moon. Oh, no! Our teachers were much more like diamonds—refracting light and scattering a dazzling variety of colors on those of us who were lucky enough to walk in their presence. Moreover, like all gems, each teacher was different. That difference accounted for the richness that was Augsburg; that difference, still, surely accounts for the present richness of this place.

Today, I am almost 25 years away from the Augsburg College experience. Yet, in my mind’s eye, I am still the wide-eyed ten year-old boy of 1957, peering down the polished corridor of Science Hall while his father picks up the office mail. As that child, I think of what my Mom and Dad, the greatest of all my teachers, might give as words to live by—words for me, but maybe also words for other Augsburg alums. Here’s what they might say: "Take your best teachers and reflect them all your lives. Who knows? If you do that, perhaps someone, somewhere, may write poetry about you some day. But, even if that should happen—especially if that should happen—‘remember who you are!’"

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