In Her Own Words... Dr. Sandra Looney ‘62 looks back over 54 years at Augustana

Dr. Sandra Looney in India

Grab some coffee, settle in and prepare to enjoy some of the most beautiful sentences ever spoken as the always-inspiring and always-poetic Dr. Sandra Looney ‘62, professor of English, looks back over 54 years at Augustana.

Q. How did you end up choosing to come to Augustana as a student?
A. I came to Augustana (as a student) at the last moment. It was the most fortuitous decision I ever made. I was actually going somewhere else and I probably would’ve been happy there but I looked in the school catalog and it had the Fryxells and Herb Krause and a list of other people. I looked at the breadth and depth of it and I thought, ‘it’s a place I have to be at.’

On my campus tour, I looked at this place and I thought, ‘I can be here.’

There’s a spirit here. It’s been here since the first day I walked the campus and it has not changed. It is a spirit that I honor and I love.

So I visited campus and I met with Earl Mundt and I visited with the Fryxells. And the rest is history.

Q. Did you always know you wanted to teach?
A. I knew that I was going to teach out of the womb. That’s what I think. I’ve always known. It’s just been a straight shot.

I come from a teacher’s family. My mother was an elementary school teacher. My father was a teacher who eventually was a community college president. My brother’s a historian. It comes with the family.

I often say, ‘it was in the air I breathed.’

I think a lot of things are just in the air. I don’t have a conscious time of decision. It just seemed that it was what I was going to do. 

Q. Favorite memory from your time as a student?
A. I took Shakespeare from ‘Doc’ Fryxell. The final was all quotes — nothing else, just quotes — and they all ran into each other and I couldn’t tell one from the other. I had studied, but obviously I had studied the wrong way. I think I got a low C.

Doc called me that night at home and he asked, ‘What happened? I read all these quotes to Lucy over the dinner table and she knew the answer to every one.’

That’s a Doc story.

Q. Talk about your early days at Augustana. What are some of your memories?

A. I’m the very luckiest of people. I’ve never applied for a job. I’ve never written an application. Ever. Dr. Fryxell wrote me a hand-written letter on a piece of stationary saying there was an opening in the English department and asked if I would want it.

I thought about it. I was honored and surprised. And then I wrote back and said I didn’t know. I didn’t really know.

Then he wrote back and said, ‘You’re going to have to give an answer.’

So I did and I said ‘yes.’ And I came back.

I was married the weekend before I started teaching. So what I had to contend with in my very first day of teaching at Augustana was not English. It was not anything else. It was saying that my name was Sandra Looney. That bothered me more than anything else. My standard joke is ‘to turn from an Olsen to a Looney was daunting.’ I dressed up in heels, I wrote my name on the board, and I just let them look at it. It was a hard thing for me to get used to.

Of course, I can’t even envision that now because it’s just part of who I am.

So I taught on the third floor of the Administration Building. I had my office up there with Herb Krause, Ted Hong and Joanne Bowman.

I taught Monday, Wednesday, Friday, then Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. And I taught at 7:30 every morning, every Saturday. I can still feel myself running up those steps, using the ditto machine — can you imagine, the ditto machine — running off what I was going to run off and having it blur all over the page.

When I first came, Dr. Fryxell told me what I was going to teach, and what books I was going to use. He did that with everybody. That almost seems impossible now, but it was probably the right course of action. Because how would I know what textbooks to use?

Now, of course, I tell it like it was a misfortune. But, I really think it was fortunate because I didn’t have to make any choices. I could just teach the books Dr. Fryxell told me to at the time he told me to.

And, in a way, that’s how he ran the department. Lovingly, but forcefully.

I’d say, ‘Well, I’m not going to teach summer school.’

And he’d say, ‘Well, go home and think about it.’

I’d go home, think about it, come back and say, ‘Okay, what do you want me to teach?’

That was the day.

Soon enough Jerry (my husband) and I were head residents in Bergsaker Hall first, then Solberg. And we had five glorious years as head residents there. So I had people in class and I had them in the dormitory. So I knew everyone. Those were my early days at Augie.

Q. What inspires you?

A. What has characterized Augie for me is vitality.

I think there’s so much good teaching going on, certainly in the Humanities, but throughout the entire campus.

Students always inspire me, not necessarily because they do the best work; it’s their goals. That’s never changed. Their yearning and seeking to live a worthy life. And how to go about it. That comes in the classrooms, in travels, and outside the classrooms in these office conversations that happen on a daily basis with so many of the professors here.

The students have continued to inspire me and I forgot that I was growing old.

I kept thinking, ‘I think I missed a decade or two.’

"If truth be told, if I could just subtract maybe 20 years from my life and continue teaching well, that would be heaven on earth."

— Dr. Sandra Looney ’62

Q. Talk about the importance of the liberal arts in the world today. As important as they were 40 years ago?

A. The answer can be really simple in a way because, no matter how specialized we get, we’re still human beings.

And, the humanities address that.

(The poet) John Ciardi once said, ‘You may be a nuclear physicist, but we’re all the same when we stand at the grave of our parents.’

Our education is an education for life. It’s an education for the kind of person we want to be. And for how we want to proceed on this very short journey that we have.

To be fully human, one has to open up to all the different disciplines in the humanities, particularly, because they give you a way to live during difficult times. They celebrate and they mourn. That is the human predicament. There’s no way into that, except through your own personal experience.

Somehow, one has to be open to the fact that tragedy happens. It’s not just, ‘here are people in literature who have dealt with tragedy in this particular way.’  We see glimpses of life in all of its manifestations in all of the literature we read. We see it in how we learn to put our feelings on a page. So the humanities speak to something so deep and so personal. In spite of the fact that we can each do technical things, nevertheless, at the bottom is how to live.

Learning how to be human is learned in all the disciplines, but the written word, the spoken word, the created music — they’re all ways in which our life becomes enriched.

Life can be daunting, and very isolating. When you read, when you listen to music, the isolation lessens.

In a sense, there’s so much of us that can’t be fulfilled in what we do day-to-day. The humanities teach us about life.

Q. Do you have a favorite work by Shakespeare?

A. I can probe ‘Hamlet’ again and again — and every time I do, I see something different. They say you should take a Shakespeare class every 10 years, and that’s right. Because, although Shakespeare hasn’t moved, you have. And you look at it differently.

That’s the marvel of this man Shakespeare, who created all of these individuals and who gave us the beauty of the blank verse and the prose.

I used a quote from ‘Hamlet’ when I spoke at Dr. Fryxell’s memorial service: “Now cracks a noble heart.”

It just ran over and over again in my head.

Q. You’ve traveled extensively and have led a number of study abroad courses. How and when did the ‘travel bug’ hit you?

A. I took my first trip abroad in 1973 when I was 33 years old. I went to India. The program called for you to spend a summer in India to study the modernization process.

Interim had just been introduced at Augie and I was teaching ‘The Literature of India.’

That was my defining trip.

I promised India before I came home that I would come back. But it took me 35 years.

Some time later, Dr. Murray Haar (religion) who taught ‘World Religions’ talked about going to India. So we wrote a grant and it was funded. That was our first UMAIE trip.

Then Dr. John Pennington (music) came to Augustana and we started this wonderful co-journey to India teaching music and literature and culture and religion.

On one sabbatical I decided to go to England. I took my son with me and I decided to study Shakespeare in performance.

On my next sabbatical I decided that I must go to Ireland and fulfill something from my student days at Augie and that’s the Irish literary theatre — the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. I really wanted to know more, too, about Lady Gregory, William Butler Yates, James Joyce and so I spent that sabbatical there.

The whole impetus (of leading a study abroad course) is so simple — the head of UMAIE said it once — the impetus is to say to a student, ‘Come on over here, I want to show you something.’

And that is it.

And then I think, ‘well really, that’s what I do in the classroom, too.’

‘Come over here, I want to show you something,’ I say, whether that’s a story or a poem or whatever — and the rest happens.

Q. Looking back on 54 years of teaching, what has changed and what has stayed the same?

A. Augie is the same in many ways. It just is. It’s the atmosphere on the campus. It’s the students, it’s the faculty. You know, every campus has its own atmosphere. I’ve always loved Augie’s atmosphere – its casualness, its friendliness. The real truth is that it’s genuine. Those things haven’t changed at all.

“Every generation of students has a professor in the Humanities who  made a difference in how they see the world and how they lived in — no matter their major. Every student has their stories about the remarkable people they met and they are alive differently because of those people.”
— Dr. Sandra Looney ’62

Q. Are you sure you want to retire? We’re going to miss you.

A.  There’s a journey. There are beginnings, there are middles, there are ends. And, it is now the time when I won’t be on Augie’s campus as a full-time person.

But I’m not ashamed to say I like teaching today as much as I did when I first started.

You know, I’ve stayed longer than I thought I would. I used to tell people it was a moral obligation to retire at 65. Then 65 came and I thought, ‘the heck with that.’