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As Betsey would have said, 'Carry on, friends!'

(Editor's note: This essay was written by Dr. Ann Boaden '67 and presented by her at the campus memorial service for Dean Emeritus Betsey Brodahl on May 19, 2012. Dr. Boaden is an adjunct professor of English at Augustana.)

Dean Emerita Betsey Brodahl '44

After Betsey Brodahl suffered a stroke in 2003, she went back to her home in Wahoo, Nebraska, to live in Haven House. This care facility provided a beauty shop, as many such places do, and Betsey of course appeared regularly for her shampoo-set. Sitting under one of the bubble driers, looking across at the row of women similarly occupied, Betsey wrote this:

The unadorned or softened faces I see carry their own congenital experiences of mother and grandmother, pioneer wives and mothers. Women who walked down the trail west with their men behind wagons and team that carried all that was left of home, knitting together East and West to shape farm and range with their step, to create homes, raise children, bury their dead. They were creating America and Americans. Their faces already were sculpted from granite. Theirs should have been the faces on Mt. Rushmore.

Now, many of us knew her as Dean Betsey, and the image we have of her is almost diametrically opposed to this view of the women she speaks of with such admiration. I see her seated on the stage of Centennial Hall, on some sort of important occasion. She is wand-straight and taller than any of the other dignitaries ranged beside her. Memory dresses her in something pastel and flowing. Her hands are folded in her lap; her feet, in elegant shoes we'd later gasp at the cost of, are placed side by side. She gives complete attention to whoever is speaking; she does not move, except to smile or laugh at what is said. The light comes from above and shines directly on her, as if by her very presence she's summoned it. She is, eternally and ineffably, Dean Betsey. 

What different views of women! The first, pared to essentials of bone and stone; the second, shaped in elegance, in all that is flowing, airy, luminous. How could one woman join within herself such disparate images of what is quintessentially important about womanhood, about humanity?

Well, Betsey was many things, not least of which was enigmatic. But I think the paradox here can be resolved in one word: refined. Refined. In both cases the unimportant, the trivial, the baggage that detracts from a central effect, is gone. What's left is a core of being. And that, I believe, is what Betsey so admired. And what she achieved in her own person. How did she manage it? 

Looking at her long, rich life, it's seemed to me that she has lived consistently both with and against definitions. Definitions stabilize and secure, make precise what may be shifting or open-ended. But also, definitions limit. Security may turn into confinement. Betsey saw this, and was able to dance at the edge of limitation. That involved some risk. To do so successfully, you have to discard what's unnecessary, discern what's essential, know where to place your steps. One of her central beliefs about a liberal education was that it should teach students to live with ambiguity, reject too-rigid formulas. Betsey did that. And more. She lived with it gladly, gracefully, generously, playfully—and sometimes outrageously.

From a conservative small town in eastern Nebraska, Betsey moved into wider worlds of academic and global sophistication. She taught, traveled, rubbed shoulders with celebrities. But the early values of her home—the love of family, the regard for land and the communities forged by care of the land, the bend of wheat in wind, the importance of rain, the yearly return of the sandhill cranes, the sacred moment of sunset—those values never left her. They shaped her. Everything she did spoke of them, incarnated them: her love for beauty in all offices of life, for wildflowers on a perfectly set dinner table, for artwork in her home, for music, for grace of language and gesture, for clothes carefully selected and elegantly worn—but now and then purchased frugally at the downtown Moline Thrift Shop run by the King's Daughters. Her intelligence, her loyalty, her strength of mind. And in the end, her courage in the face of unthinkable limitation, when, as she told a friend, "I am imprisoned in my body." 

And yet she was able to push beyond some of the ways in which traditions can confine as well as define. Maybe the best evidence of this is the fact that, as she used to love to say, when she began her career as Dean she was the youngest in the nation; when she retired she was the oldest. No easy feat to hold her own in a culture that pretty much up-ended itself in the 40 years between 1948 and 1987. Her job responsibilities changed radically, seismically. From pouring at sorority tea parties and instructing girls when to wear hats, she moved to dealing with women who were challenging conventional roles and cultural expectations, women of color, international students navigating the tricky waters of visas, green cards and slim budgets. Students—male and female—who were pushing boundaries, balancing definition and confinement, confronting ambiguity, as she herself was doing continually. To such students her interest and help were both theoretical and practical. She listened, she respected, she fed. That's why she could say, at the end of her career, "I loved Augustana, I loved the students, and I was never afraid of them. It was a privileged life."

It was a fun life, too. Nobody enjoyed mischief, the sly and not so sly flouting of convention, the ironic take on a world she loved, more than Betsey. You each have your own Betsey story. I remember her interrupting a self-proclaimed expert on college history who was getting the facts wrong. "Oh, I was so bad!" she said later. Doing devastatingly accurate imitations of campus personalities. Producing just the right double-entendre that her wit saved from wickedness. (Most of the time!) I will always see her clapping her hands, leaning back in laughter, and saying, "Oh, friends, does anyone have more fun than we do?" 

She danced on the edge of limits, and in dancing, made stable the world around her. In the moment. For the future. 

Betsey's signature valediction, accompanied by a royal wave of the hand, was: "Carry on, friends!" You can interpret that in two ways. Carry on, with your work, with the vision and values that drive your work. But when Betsey used "carry on," it also meant "be outrageous." As in "we laughed and carried on." Those two meanings, I think, coalesce to capture the essence of her. 

And so, because of Betsey, for Betsey: Carry on, friends!

 

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