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Alumnus Essay

By Kai Swanson '86

'We are all, in essence, stories'

Alumni and friends during a 17-day tour following the Augustana choir through Sweden

From the moment I learned I'd be helping lead a group of some 40 alumni and friends on a 17-day tour following the Augustana Choir through Sweden, I couldn't get the image out of my head. It's a picture of Sweden's Bishop K.H. Gezelius von Schéele visiting Augustana's campus in 1893 for the 300th anniversary of the Council of Uppsala.

Dressed in a woolen frock coat and seated on a stool, von Schéele is uncomfortably perched atop Zion Hill-long before the decision to lop off its top and build the Seminary there in 1922, meaning he had to climb 30 feet higher than Founders Hall's present elevation. I'm guessing it was hot that day, since his face-otherwise a study in Scandinavian expressionlessness-is punctuated by bulging eyes that make him look to be on the verge of heatstroke. His attitude toward the camera indicates he is not used to such rough treatment as he has encountered here on the prairie, and combined with his eyes the general message seems to be: What am I doing here?

The signs of similarity were all around: like von Schéele, we would be traveling to take part in a meaningful, though admittedly somewhat obscure, anniversary-in our case, the bicentennial of the birth of Lars Paul Esbjörn, founding president of Augustana. Like von Schéele, our gang might be susceptible to rough treatment. It has been pointed out to me that I tend to walk a bit on the quick side and am often rather oblivious of distances traversed. My abiding fear was that these analogies would result in a parallel photo: 40 alumni and friends of Augustana attending an Esbjörn fiesta, staring bug-eyed at the camera and silently asking: What are we doing here?

Augustana choir performing in SwedenAugustana's heritage-like so much of Swedish-Americana -is proud, but quietly so. We are confident that our legacy is a good one, but we dare not impose it on others for fear of appearing chauvinistic, un-American, or just plain too big for our britches. Would these 40 folks, many of whom had decidedly un-Scandinavian names, be unimpressed by the Hemlandet, the font of our founders? Would 17 days prove to be too long, especially considering the many places we'd be visiting that don't appear on most tour packages? Having led tours to must-see places like London, Prague, Vienna and Budapest, I was skeptical as to whether Rättvik, Östervåla and Årjäng would be attractive (let alone pronounceable) to a group of well-traveled Americans.

I needn't have worried. By way of encouraging you to make your own exploration of Sweden, I'll forego the risk of turning this into a travelogue. Let it suffice to say that any self-respecting "bucket list" should include: watching a rainbow land on a mountaintop at sunset (when sunset is at 11:30 p.m.); standing arm-in-arm with the Augustana Choir outside Esbjörn's old church at Hille to sing By the Mighty Mississippi; sharing a smörgåsbord with students at Augustana's Swedish Summer School in Grebbestad; hearing Howard Eckdahl '08, a choir member and organ student who snuck up to the organ during worship and proceeded to blow the roof off of Uppsala Cathedral.

But not even these adventures made the trip a success. As has been the case every time I've traveled with Augustana alumni, it was the amazing alchemy of interaction that turned this trip to gold. We are all, in essence, stories; and though each story is unique, it never fails to delight me as I watch stories bump into one another over shared experiences. Sometimes these shared experiences are separated by decades: it doesn't matter if you had Dr. Parkander in 1955 or 1995-she still knocked your socks off.

This happens whenever we encounter one another, and it's the reason I always wear Augustana gear when I travel-whether the airport is LAX or Erie Regional, if I'm stuck there long enough I'll run into another Viking. Before you know it, our stories begin to flow together like tributaries into the Mississippi, adding to the Big River story that is Augustana.

Bell tower in Uppsala photo courtesy of Joseph '64 and Nancy Miller '64 CrowtherOn a trip like this, however, you have the chance to dig a little deeper and appreciate just how much our stories are woven together. Whether you majored in econ or music, some general requirement class with Theodore Celms, Ralph Radloff or Ritva Williams made you see things differently; if you were part of an Augustana Band tour under George Opheim or Jim Lambrecht, you feel the kinship of shared achievement. The list goes on, but for this group of alumni a crystallizing moment occurred in Uppsala, when we visited the bell tower on which ours was loosely modeled. Couples puckered up for a smooch under its eaves, and the distance between Uppsala and Rock Island vanished as surely as the years separating them from graduation.

The best thing about stories is that there's not a single one of them that isn't made better by bumping into another one, even though they might come in all shapes and sizes. One of my stories is backpack-shaped: it's an old JanSport daypack that I used on this trip to lug around all of our tour information. It's the same one my dad used when he led the Alumni Tour to Sweden in 2001. But that's another story....

Editor's note: Kai Swanson '86 is executive assistant to President Steve Bahls.