An Augustana Story: Henriette C.K. Naeseth
Henriette Christiane Koren Naeseth.
Even the name resonates importance. And that’s accurate. Henriette Naeseth was one of Augustana’s most influential professors from the mid-thirties till her retirement at the end of the 1960s.
It’s been two decades since she died, and about six student generations since she sailed majestically across the Augustana campus on long graceful legs. And yet she remains as vivid and unforgettable to her former students and colleagues as if she’d just walked out the door. Or more likely, swept out the door, head high in righteous dudgeon, as she would do to a class when students failed to perform to her exacting standards. Students cowered—and loved her. For they knew too the smile that melted severity to love; the deep voice; the delighted, raspy laugh; the signature “Oh really!” And they knew that she made them better than they imagined they could be.
She did that in many ways for Augustana as well. She came in 1934, a rare woman Ph. D. with degrees from Minnesota and the University of Chicago. And from the first she brought a vision of new possibilities that were neither parochial nor provincial. She was the driving force in securing Augustana’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa as long ago as 1950. She chaired both the English Department and what was then the Humanities Division throughout her long tenure—and that division included the fine and performing arts as well as language (including classics) and literature. She was uniquely qualified to head such a diverse group; her interdisciplinary scholarship considered both literature and the theater. She designed a program to assess upperclass students’ literacy skills—a program adapted by many colleges across the country. And, with students from the 1930s, she created Saga, one of the oldest continuously-published college literary magazines in the nation, and served as its advisor until her retirement. (Saga is going strong at the college to this day.)
She was at home in a world wider than Rock Island. She was the cherished scion of a distinguished Norwegian family who had emigrated to America to establish the Norwegian-American Lutheran Church. Just one year before coming to live in a sod house on the prairies of Iowa, her grandmother had danced at court. Her father had been a long-time professor and librarian at Luther College in Decorah, where she grew up. She had been chosen to translate Sigrid Undset’s last book, the autobiographical Return to the Future. And thanks to her relationship with the University of Chicago, she was able to secure for Augustana students generous graduate fellowships.
She was Junoesque. Early photos show her with upswept hair, with the shrewd, riveting blue eyes all students remember, with scarlet lips and nails. She commanded attention. She was authority. She used both of her middle initials. She occasionally wore hats (state-of-the-fashionable-art!) to class. She was the kind of character around whom legends accrete and lore collects. She was an icon: terrifying, superb, beloved.
She was Henriette C. K. Naeseth.