by Laura Van Valkenburgh
After 43 years of teaching at Heidelberg University, Dr. Ruth Wahlstrom, professor of English, has decided to retire after this academic year. The English students will no longer study for hours on end for the “Wahlstrom exam” they experience every few weeks in a semester. It might sound like a relief to the average college student, but truth be told – they will miss it.
Wahlstrom’s students will also miss walking into her office in Pfleiderer 205, where her piles of books are stacked on bookshelves and on tables. All of these books and her stacks of papers are echoed by the fact that she says she “avoids cleaning her house” when she’s not at Heidelberg. The piles are only a reminder of how much work she has put into her teaching and how much she enjoys English.
Growing up in southwest Minnesota on a farm homesteaded by her grandfather, Wahlstrom led a life that she called “primitive.” “We had no electricity and no heat other than the wood-burning stoves,” she said. “I remember the coming of electricity to our farm when I was 8.”
She did have a telephone with a party line, however. Wahlstrom recalled when a friend would call her every school night to discuss senior trigonometry: “While discussing the math problems, we would hear the other phones [on the party line] hanging up, since no one would want to hear that sort of thing.”
Despite her discussions of mathematics on the phone, Wahlstrom was always interested in English. With mock surprise, she asked, “Doesn’t everyone want to be an English professor?”
She found English subject matter to be the most rewarding, exciting, and fun out of any subject. Her interest in English intensified beginning in her freshman year in high school when she was no longer the only student her age in a one-room schoolhouse.
All of her English teachers were “excellent,” so she knew going into college at Augustana in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, that she wanted to teach English. It wasn’t until she was actually in college that she decided she wanted to go to grad school and become a professor instead – she received her doctorate at the University of Kentucky.
“If any of my family members were to be asked why I became a professor, they’d say ‘She was always reading,’ ‘It doesn’t surprise us’ or that ‘She has the gift of gab,’” Wahlstrom said.
Before she was a professor at Heidelberg, Wahlstrom was a student assistant to a professor at Augustana. But when she decided to interview at Heidelberg, she knew she wouldn’t leave: “I was interviewed here, I was offered the job, I accepted it, and then I never went away,” she said.
She immediately liked teaching at Heidelberg because of the students. “You always know the majors, even if they’re not taking [classes] from you,” Wahlstrom said. She noted that being at a small school helps professors to grow and develop classes, and it keeps a closer relationship between professors and students.
The small classes also allow her to give those long tests – she’s actually able to thoroughly read through them all.
Sophomore Alyssa Myerly mused, “I feel sorry for the people who will never experience a Wahlstrom exam. After taking one of those, every other test seems easy!”
She’s not alone. Even Heidelberg alumni remember these tests. Diana LoConti, class of 2012, recalls, “Though we all feared the infamous ‘Wahlstrom Exam’ each quarter, those who were lucky enough to study under the mind of Dr. Wahlstrom can honestly say they were enlightened.”
In addition to being a great professor, Wahlstrom has also been a diligent advisor. Bill Reyer, her fellow English colleague, commented, “In the thirty years during which I have observed Ruth serve as an academic advisor, she has ‘saved many a million’ through her astonishing trouble-shooting approach to academic advising. She is by far the most accurate and tenacious advisor of students at the institution.”
When she’s not teaching at Heidelberg, Wahlstrom said, “I [frequently] think about what I should be using in my classes.” She reads plays and frequently attends theater productions. She also enjoys traveling, and she has always looked forward to trips she was able to take with groups on campus.
The most rewarding aspect about teaching, she said, is “Staying alive… they should write a song!” There is so much to learn, and she said she doesn’t know how she’ll stay involved when she retires. As she recounted from a 1984 interview, “If I stay with people who are young, it gives assurance that I haven’t aged either.”
Alumni have asked her how she manages to stay looking so young – perhaps even younger than themselves. She stated that the energy from students has given her energy as well. And even though she sometimes feels left out in terms of pop culture, she has still been kept young by the students in her classes.
The English department will also not be the same without her. Reyer said, “We won’t hear on a daily basis Ruth’s delightful laugh – either in Pfleiderer 103 or in the Pfleiderer office suite. We won’t ascend the stairs late afternoons to seek counsel or grouse about a student. We won’t bear witness to Ruth pulling out a plastic bag to squirrel away treats so they won’t go to waste.”
The students will miss writing the multitude of essays due on the day of a Shakespeare test. But they will miss Wahlstrom and her, as Reyer explains it, “trademark sarcasm” even more.
And what will Dr. Wahlstrom miss the most? “Why, the people, of course, both my colleagues and the students, both old and new. I'll miss adding to the drawers-full of names stored in the memory portion of my brain.”