In the drawing of lots in 1949, Marian and Chet picked Lot #6. It sits diagonally across Valley View Road from the Martinson’s. Marian wrote “At that time we were in no position (I assume financially) to embark on a building program, but we could farm.” So, in the spring of 1950 they had the back of their lot plowed. They then planted potatoes and strawberries. Marian wrote that “they had a bumper crop which was never surpassed in our later gardening efforts.” And did they garden. Every year for over 50 years they planted a garden, raising not only potatoes and strawberries but a variety of lettuces, green beans, beets, carrots, and every other vegetable including their favorite, bok choy. Marian was also famous for her herb garden. I remember one morning, I think in the spring of 2003, Chet complained to me that he was getting stiff (he was over 90) and asked me to take over the vegetable garden. I told him that most folks his age were stiff six feet under, but if he wanted me to do it, I would. Yes, he said, but he insisted that I save one raised bed for him to use. Chet still liked his home grown potatoes from that sand prairie soil. He said that “store “potatoes just didn’t have the same flavor. He was right. I still plant potatoes. Sure, they still taste very good, but they also let me stay connected with Chet and Marian.
Chet was born in 1913 and raised in Moline, Illinois. He went to Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, graduating in 1935. He later went on to do graduate study in geology at the University of Chicago, earning a Master’s Degree. After a year teaching at his undergraduate alma mater, he came to teach at Gustavus in 1940. He founded the Geology Department. Over the years, he taught a variety of geology courses. One that I admired was his January Term class on the Geology of America’s National Parks. It was what today would be called, a “virtual” Geology class. That is, Chet taught the varying geology of the country from the Appalachians to the Rockies with maps and slides. The parks were the vehicle to not only learn about the contrasting geological features across the continent but to also have students gain an appreciation for the National Parks themselves. Chet was the chair of a faculty committee in the early 1960s that conceived of the idea of having a January Term. They essentially developed the now famous 4-1-4 (a four month semester in the fall and a four month semester in the spring, separated by a month-long January Term). During this month students and professors did only one course, but in an often creative and intense way. It was innovative at the time and many other colleges adopted it. It is still part of the Gustavus academic year.
Chet could very often appear dour and grumpy in class, and out of class as well. He enjoyed teaching for the most part but could become frustrated with students who were not prepared. He did not have a “huggy-feely” personality. That is putting it mildly. However, Mark Palmquist who was in one of Chet’s first geology classes, had this to say about his teacher: “We were discussing how mountains were formed. He asked the class if someone could say a bit about how the Rockies were formed. In the silence that followed his question, I whispered to the student next to me, ‘Perhaps God made them.’ Professor Johnson must have overheard my remark because he said with great emphasis (italics mine), ‘I didn’t ask who made them, I asked how.’”
On the other hand, Chet had a wry sense of humor and when he recognized the interests and capabilities of a student, there was no one who could’ve been more supportive. For some reason I have in my possession a letter that Chet wrote to a former student. Evidently, the student had written Chet for some advice on whether he should pursue graduate study. Chet wrote that “Your situation reminds me somewhat of mine about 40 years ago. I had a job after college and while accumulating a little capital, I took some more classes. And I must’ve been quite content doing that. Sit tight and maybe in the months ahead you can do some of this too on your own.”
Chet retired from full-time teaching in 1978, but he didn’t really retire at all. He assumed a new career at Gustavus, one he loved as much or more than teaching geology. He became the Church Archivist for the Minnesota Synod of the Lutheran Church in America (LCA). He was a born archivist. Let me tell you how I know this. Chet’s garage was a thing of orderliness. His garden and other tools were always hung on the same hook for each tool. His storage boxes in the garage were labeled; even his kindling wood box had a label. This is what an archivist does and Chet held forth in that post on the third floor of the Folke Bernadotte Library on campus from 1978 to 2001. In 2002, he was presented the Covenant Award from the Gustavus Adolphus College Association of Congregations. It commemorated his “outstanding contributions in building and maintaining the relationship of Gustavus with the Lutheran Church.” (GAC Quarterly, Fall 2002).
The picture shows Chet in 2002 at the roll top desk he first had in the Geology Department for many years. He reclaimed it when he started his work as archivist. It symbolizes for me the dual careers that Chet had at the college. On one occasion, he remarked that it was not his desk, but was given to the College Archives because it was a presidential desk having been used by three Gustavus presidents: Matthias Wahlstrom, as early as 1902; P. A.Mattson, 1904-1911; and O. J. Johnson, 1913-1942. Cumulatively, however, these former presidents did not sit at this desk longer than Chet Johnson. In total, his two careers spanned 61 years at Gustavus. No one has served the college for any longer, and there will likely be no one to surpass Chet in the future.
If Chet was a born archivist, Marian was a born historian. Not only did she have that inquisitiveness to find out and record about things past, but she was blessed by tremendous energy to complete the task. She was a multi-tasker before the word was invented. I’m almost afraid to try to note all of her accomplishments, as I know I will overlook far too many. But, let’s give it a go.
She graduated from Sherburn (Minnesota) High School as Salutatorian in 1937. While in high school, she was a correspondent for the Fairmont Daily News, the Sherburn Advance-Standard, and the Estherville (Iowa) Daily News. At these newspapers, she honed her writing skills as well as while a student at Gustavus. She graduated magna cum laude in 1941. She then began her career as an English teacher and librarian at Balaton, Luverne, and St. Peter High Schools. After her marriage to Chet in 1944, she joined him at Gustavus as an Instructor in English and Library Science. Her graduate work was at the School of Library Science at the University of Chicago. For many years she was an active member of the Gustavus Faculty Women’s Club, serving both as President and Historian. She wrote a history of the club. Her organizational skills were also at work for over 40 years as the 1941 Class Agent. She was Class Agent of the Year in 1966, 1981, and 1991. She was also the historian of the St. Lucia Day ceremony in the Gustavus College Chapel and a very active member of the Gustavus Library Associates and Linnaeus Arboretum. She and Chet commissioned a cluster of boulders overlooking the Arboretum’s Prairie. It offers a sample of the rocks of the southern part of the state as well as a place to contemplate these geological wonders.
What Chet and Marian contributed over the years to the well-being of Gustavus is difficult to measure. This picture shows them at a banquet at the 2002 Commencement Weekend where they were awarded the Alumni Association’s Greater Gustavus Award for their collective twelve decades of service to the college. To quote, “the award honors those individuals who by deed have significantly advanced and aided Gustavus Adolphus College.” Each in their own right deserved the award, but in so many ways they were always working together; quite an inseparable pair.
Once while I was walking home, Chet came out of his house and out of the blue, said, “You know, there is nothing like being with a red-haired woman who wears red dresses and loves chocolates.” Marian had red hair. She wore fine clothes, looking vibrant in red dresses. And, she had a deep love for all kinds of chocolates. She and Chet did many things together. They took trips abroad, especially to England and continental Europe.
They admired the Cotswolds and Oxford and delighted in the tulip gardens and festivals of Holland. They took high tea together at their Valley View home for many years, especially on their porch in the summer and fall. I often thought Chet fancied himself as the well-mannered English gentleman and Marian, the doting hostess at the manor house. Often on my way home from school in the afternoon, they would invite me over for tea and biscuits. I would generally decline, preferring martinis at my house. I think Chet understood, but I thought Marian was always a bit miffed. She was like Hyacinth Bucket of the BBC sit-com “Keeping Up Appearances.” How could I refuse high tea at the Johnsons? I don’t think she ever forgave me. Looking back on it, I think I should’ve had more tea and fewer martinis. They also loved to watch other BBC programs on television, such as “Last of the Summer Wine” and “Rumpole.” Sunday nights would find them glued to their television watching Masterpiece Theatre.
When Marian took ill later in life and was confined to the Benedictine Health Care Center in St.Peter, Chet at first visited her every day. Later, he moved into Benedictine to be with her. I remember a time when I came to visit them, I opened the door to their room and Chet was reading to Marian. It was from a book that detailed all the travels abroad they had made during their life together.He read to her for days on end, until he could no longer do it. Chet passed away on December 8, 2009 at 96 years of age. Marian died on January 1, 2010, less than a month apart. Almost inseparable til the end.