The desire for trivia won’t be doused by a global pandemic.
It might look different. It might feel different. But the Great Midwest Trivia Contest will kick off its 56th annual edition on schedule Friday night, its team of trivia masters balancing a love of tradition with the realities of pandemic protocols that have forced a reimagining of the beloved weekend.
The passion and creativity of Lawrence University’s trivia weekend remains, even if some of the contest’s staples—the WLFM studio, the on-campus phone bank, the shared spaces of sleep-deprived participants—will not be in play.
The contest is being streamed on Twitch beginning at 37 seconds past 10 p.m. Friday and will continue until midnight Sunday. The action questions, a popular slice of the weekend, will continue but virtually—think variations of digital art—and answers through the weekend will be received in a mix of phone calls and a virtual phone line on a Discord server, all facilitated by 11 trivia masters scattered near and far.
“We’re nervous but excited to be trying new things this year,” said Head Master Grace Krueger ’21, charged with bringing all this together amid challenges unseen in the contest’s first five and a half decades.
“I’ve been challenged to maintain 55 years of tradition without access to most of the tools we use to make it happen.”
Much of the weekend will be recognizable, keeping to traditions that have carried forth since the contest was first broadcast on WLFM in 1966—more than 300 rapid-fire and obscure questions over the course of 50 hours; teams organized to seek out answers via digital sleuthing or ingenious snooping; the awarding of weird and mostly useless prizes; the Super Garuda, the impossible finale question that returns as the first question of the following year’s contest.
But other elements have to change due to the COVID-19 restrictions. Trivia masters cannot be huddled together. Teams can’t physically gather as they once would, on or off campus. The campus radio station is off limits.
“We are entirely virtual this year, which means I’ve been challenged to maintain 55 years of tradition without access to most of the tools we use to make it happen,” Krueger said.
But there’s a will to make it work despite the obstacles, and in the process of finding new avenues, some pluses have surfaced. For one, the ability to interact in the moment will be greater.
“Our Discord server allows me to answer questions as soon as I see them, and it gives teams an avenue to connect with each other,” Krueger said. “And we’re excited about the inter-activeness of the Twitch chat because trivia masters on air will be able to read the chat and interact with players directly.”
Trivia players should make a Twitch account if they want to participate in the chat during the contest and a Discord account if they want to be connected with the trivia masters throughout the contest. No account is needed, however, for players who just want to view the stream.
Krueger, a theatre arts major from Branson, Missouri, called the adherence to tradition wherever possible a high priority as she and her team have pulled together the contest over the past few months. Once it became apparent that we’d still be deep in the throes of the pandemic when late January rolled around, it was time to explore what was and was not doable.
“It’s very difficult to balance the needs of the contest with this year’s restrictions, and, in some cases, we have had to make changes to trivia that go against tradition,” Krueger said. “Our main focus is making sure the contest happens this year and that it can be a positive experience for everyone.”
Bringing trivia weekend to life has always been a lot of work. Doing so amid the pandemic, with nearly half of the student body studying remotely and safety protocols forcing most interactions to be virtual, has added to the strain.
“Since the trivia masters and I meet virtually, it’s been hard to build the same sense of community because there are few opportunities to simply hang out and get to know each other,” Krueger said. “Additionally, all of us are under more pressure than usual because of current events. I’ve had several trivia masters drop out of the contest for personal reasons, which puts the pressure on the rest of us even more. However, we’re still super excited about the contest and we hope that everyone will be able to see all the hard work we’ve put into making it happen this year.”
Krueger’s team of trivia masters include Ellie Ensing ’21, El Horner ’21, Cristy Sada ’21, Mikayla Frank-Martin ’22, Riley Newton ’22, Riley Seib ’22, Caroline Rosch ’21, Mary Grace Wagner ’21, Nick Mayerson ’22, and Finn Witt ’22.
Krueger said she’s already heard from a number of long-standing players who have said they’ll play this year even if they can’t get together in person. Others, she said, will surely opt out. The contest typically draws upwards of 100 teams, but hitting that number might be difficult this year.
Tim ’10 and Molly Phelan ’10, die-hard trivia players since their Lawrence days, say they’ll be playing from their Chicago home. They know they’ll need to roll with the changes.
“While our team is often just the two of us, we usually have friends who come by and play on our team for a few hours throughout the weekend, but obviously this year that won’t be the case,” Molly said. “But we’ve had remote players on our team before and usually we just ask other players to text the group the second they get an answer and then everyone on the team tries to call it in, and the second someone picks up, everyone else hangs up to prevent jamming. In a lot of ways this contest will be the same for us as it has been in previous years—just two old alumni, hanging around our house glued to a computer.”
That, Krueger said, is the attitude she hopes other teams will take. She knows they’ll lose some teams, but she remains hopeful many of the veteran teams will still jump in.
“On one hand, a lot of teams who usually gather together for trivia weekend will be playing at a distance for the first time, and I’m not sure that’s a sacrifice they’ll be willing to make,” Krueger said. “On the other hand, the new virtual setup for the contest makes trivia much more discoverable to people on the internet, so we may see some growth in new players this year, especially since there are fewer activities happening generally due to the pandemic.”
Molly Phelan said she’s throwing nothing but love and support to this year’s trivia masters. A former trivia master herself, she has a pretty good idea of what they’re up against.
“As a small team, we come for the chaos, the search, and the comedy,” she said. “I’m a first-year choir teacher in an all-remote district, so I have nothing but respect when new technology works out, and nothing but understanding and sympathy when it implodes.”
Take the fight against structural racism beyond well-meaning committees and studies.
Don’t just speak out against crowded prisons and low-performing schools; commit to the work to end the conditions that result in crowded prisons and low-performing schools.
That is the hard message behind Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream, said Dr. Bettina L. Love, the keynote speaker Monday at the 30th annual Fox Cities Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, co-hosted by African Heritage Inc. and the Lawrence University Diversity and Intercultural Center.
“What structural changes are you willing to make?” said Love, author of We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom and an endowed professor at the University of Georgia. “You got all the reports, you got all the directors of initiatives and all this, and you know racism is in the system, and you know racism is stopping children from living and seeing their full potential, so what structural change are we going to make? Are we just going to keep having policies? Are we going to keep reporting out that the very places we work are racist? What are we going to do about it?”
The MLK Day Celebration is typically held in Lawrence’s Memorial Chapel, but the community event moved online this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Brittany Bell, assistant dean of students and director of the Diversity and Intercultural Center at Lawrence and co-chair of the Fox Cities Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee, helped take the event virtual.
“This is a time for us to come together in unity,” Bell said. “Let us remember Dr. King’s legacy. Together we can be the light that illuminates the darkness in our world and our communities and make a difference.”
At Lawrence, with no classes being held, the event followed a series of MLK Day virtual conversations, including a book talk focused on Heavy: An American Memoir, the powerful and emotional 2018 book by Kiese Laymon, discussions on anti-racist strategies and disability advocacy, and a Music for All concert. The sessions were organized and led by campus volunteers through the Center for Community Engagement and Social Change.
The evening event took the King remembrances beyond campus, with community-focused messages of fighting the very injustices that King gave his life for while also embracing and celebrating Black joy.
The pandemic, Love said, has only exacerbated and magnified the deeply ingrained racism in this country. As did the killing of George Floyd. As did the marches of white supremacists.
“To be a person of color in this country today is a state of exhaustion,” Love said. “To always be trying to figure out ways we can survive this place. I know the Creator did not put me here to survive, to merely survive. I was put here to thrive. So that’s why I wrote the book. We want to do more than survive. That is not living. Living in a world where you are constantly in survival mode is what’s killing us more than anything — white supremacy that puts us in a place where we are constantly just trying to make it, spiritually, physically, mentally, economically. We deserve more.”
Love reminded the audience that at the time of his death in 1968, King was focused on the ills of poverty. He was fighting for workers’ rights, living wages, affordable housing, and economic opportunities for all. He was waging a battle on behalf of the poor that has yet to come to fruition.
“Before Dr. King died, he was building one of the world’s most robust coalitions of poor folks, black folks, white folks, Asian folks, Latino folks, you name it, he was building a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-generational coalition … to think very deeply about how we make sure people living in the United States had a guaranteed income, a living wage, housing,” Love said. “That was what he was on at the end of his life.”
Continuing that fight is what being an Abolitionist is all about, said Love, who titled her talk, Abolitionist Life: Resistance, Creativity, Hip Hop Civics Ed, Intersectionality, & Black Joy.
“More than anything, King understood this,” she said. “The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical distribution of political and economic power. That was his dream. We cannot sanitize it; we cannot water down King’s dream. His dream was to abolish poverty. His dream was to unite black folks and white folks and Latinx folks and indigenous folks, and everybody to create a world that understood if you want racial justice you better want economic justice. And we’re talking about a redistribution of wealth.
“King was about the abolishment of poverty. He was not trying to just give people a dollar here, a dollar there. He was trying to create structure that would ensure that nobody went hungry ever again. That is what abolition is about. It’s not about reform or reimagining. It’s about uprooting oppression.”
Love encouraged all to join that fight, to take it beyond good thoughts and supportive words.
“We do this work not wanting allies but wanting co-conspirators,” she said. “What have you done? What’s your work? That’s what a co-conspirator does. Put something on the line.”
To get there is a journey. Embrace that journey. Have a “radical imagination” and celebrate who you are, Love said.
“We have to do this work with joy,” she said. “We have to want to see Black folks win. It has to be more than just anger. There’s righteous rage, don’t get me wrong. But we also have to find the Black joy in this world. The work that says I want to be well, I want to work to be well.”
While much of the Lawrence University campus has been quiet since Fall Term ended, there has been a bustle of activity happening in and around academic research projects.
In Briggs Hall, you can find Sophia Driessen ’21, Erin Szablewski ’21, and Catherine Wagoner ’22 working daily with Relena Ribbons, assistant professor of geosciences, on new hydroponics research. With work both in the lab and in Briggs’ small greenhouse, the students are getting a chance to do hands-on research that both boosts their resumes for graduate school and gives them insights into possible career paths.
“This work is valuable to me because it allows me to strengthen my independent learning and working skills,” Szablewski said. “Additionally, it is helping me to learn and grow in the research process, helping me in my graduate school application process. I was drawn to it because of its hands-on, interdisciplinary nature.”
They’re not alone. In all, 26 Lawrence University students—15 on campus and 11 remote—are working during December with 18 faculty members on research in disciplines stretching across campus. Each student applied for and received a $1,200 stipend for three weeks of work between the Fall and Winter terms.
“This is the third year for December research, but with a significant innovation,” said Peter Blitstein, associate dean of the faculty and associate professor of history. “For the first time, we are using internal funds to support projects in the social sciences, humanities, and fine arts, in addition to using funds from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation grant for work in the natural sciences.”
The December program began in 2018 with funding from Sherman Fairchild for physics, biology, chemistry, geosciences, and neuroscience research. This year, faculty in economics, the Conservatory of Music, English, mathematics, religious studies, and Mudd Library are participating.
The University is investing more than $37,000 in the expanded program, covering the students’ stipends as well as room and board for those on campus.
“This is the greatest number of students we have supported for December research in the three years we have had this program,” Blitstein said.
Elizabeth Becker, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, and Elsa Hammerdahl ’22 are collaborating with a St. Joseph’s University graduate student in researching mating habits of the monogamous California mouse. This species is notable because it’s believed that fewer than 5% of mammals are exclusive, an affinity known in animal behavior research as “pair-bond,” Becker said.
“While in some species, these pair-bonds are thought to form within 24 hours of cohabitation, other studies indicate that this process may take up to a week,” she said.
This project continues research that Becker started at St. Joseph’s, the Pennsylvania school where she taught and led the Behavioral Neuroscience Program before joining the Lawrence faculty earlier this year.
“By manipulating the cohabitation period and then measuring a range of affiliative and aggressive behaviors in partners, we aim to establish an accurate timeline and create a formal operationalization for pair-bond formation in this species that can be used in future studies,” Becker said.
Ribbons and her three students, meanwhile, are doing hydroponics research that is supported by the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium (WSGC) and the Lawrence University Research Fellows (LURF) program.
“The chief aim is to test out and pilot this new experimental setup with an eye toward future experiments to examine microbial communities that grow in the soil growth media,” Ribbons said of the research. “Students have been experimenting with what types of plants we will grow, starting within the leafy greens category to test out Swiss chard, Russian kale, and buttercrunch lettuce. Currently we are growing about 300 baby leafy greens in three replicates of the hydroponics manifolds.”
Wagoner, a geoscience and environmental studies major, said the work ties in nicely with her interests and career ambitions.
“As an avid science and nature enthusiast, I was naturally drawn to this research project,” she said. “These past few weeks have offered unparalleled experiences and knowledge that might be difficult to obtain in a typical classroom setting.”
An added bonus, she said, is working alongside other women with a shared passion for science.
“Aside from the inherent educational value of our project, it feels very empowering to be working and learning alongside three other women in a field largely dominated by men,” Wagoner said.
Note regarding WSGC: 1) this material is based upon work supported by NASA under Award No. RIP20_11.0 issued through Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium, and 2) any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Lawrence University voice professor John Holiday finished his wild ride on NBC’s The Voice Tuesday night, placing fifth in the 19th season of the popular TV singing competition.
Holiday, an associate professor in the Lawrence Conservatory of Music since 2017, showcased a voice that John Legend called “otherworldly” as he advanced through the blind auditions, the battle rounds, the knockouts, the live playoffs, and the live semifinals, where TV viewers cast votes to move him into the Final 5.
On Tuesday’s finale, he was joined on stage by Legend to sing Bridge Over Troubled Water, his final performance during an inspired run.
“It’s been an incredible dream I could never have imagined,” Holiday said of his time on the show.
But the title for Holiday wasn’t to be. Carter Rubin, a 15-year-old coached by Gwen Stefani, was named the winner, based on viewer votes following Monday night’s live finals performances, earning a recording contract in the process.
Late Tuesday, Holiday tweeted: “America, I love you so much! I appreciate every prayer that helped me and my #TheVoice family soar. Congratulations, @carterjrubin! The world is ready for your fierce talents and beautiful spirit. #HoliBaes forever! I love you and I am excited to be on this ride with you.”
Holiday excelled in a competition that began in the spring with thousands of hopefuls and drew an average TV viewership of more than 7 million people during twice-weekly airings over the past two months. The show was conducted without its usual live audience and with social distancing protocols in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flashing a fun sartorial style to match a vocal talent that has made him a rising star in opera circles, the 35-year-old Holiday drew plenty of applause along the way, earning attention in the Los Angeles Times and USA TODAY, hearing effusive praise from the show’s celebrity coaches—Legend, Stefani, Kelly Clarkson, and Blake Shelton—and growing a fan base he calls his Holibaes.
Holiday’s voice students at Lawrence, who affectionately call him Prof, cheered him every step of the way, including through tonight’s finale.
“From day one, Prof has told us that one of the main reasons he pursues his career is to show us what’s possible,” said David Womack ’21, a senior voice student from Austin, Texas. “Watching him quickly become a household name is direct proof that we can do anything we set our minds to, as he frequently reminds us.”
“I love that you continue to show America more of yourself,” Legend told him. “You put your heart out there every single week. You have an out-of-this-world gift.”
Holiday jumped into the competition after the pandemic shut down his performance schedule in the spring. He continued to teach remotely while quietly taking part in the auditions and the early rounds of the show from Los Angeles. The recorded segments—launched with Holiday delivering a stunning performance of Misty that quickly drew Legend to his corner in the blind auditions—began airing in mid-October. Holiday was sworn to secrecy as he advanced through each round as part of Team Legend. He returned to L.A. as the live rounds and viewer voting began two weeks ago.
Sarah Navy ’22, a junior voice student from Holiday’s hometown region of Houston, Texas, said she and her Lawrence classmates already appreciated Holiday’s immense talents. Seeing other viewers discovering not only that talent but also his joyful heart was part of the fun.
“Even though I have spent so much time with him and have heard him sing so much, sometimes I go back to the first time I met him and I become that girl in tears who knew one day she could be great, too,” Navy said. “He is such a genuine person who works so hard and is being a representative for so many people.”
That genuineness shined through all levels of the show, whether Holiday was talking to Legend or host Carson Daly about his teaching at Lawrence, being Black and gay, singing opera, his incredibly high falsetto, growing up in his beloved Texas, his relationship with the grandmother he calls Big Momma, and the pain being felt by artists around the world in the midst of the pandemic.
“He is always so authentic to who he is, which is so inspiring to see,” said Jack Murphy ’21, a senior choral student from Neenah. “And just witnessing the outpouring of love for him. Not only for his talent, but what he stands for as well. It’s encouraging and wonderful. I am so immensely proud of him, and so is our entire studio.”
During his run on The Voice, Holiday became the student under the coaching guidance of Legend. In Monday’s episode, he thanked his mentor for instilling in him confidence that he could shed labels and transcend musical boundaries.
“The Voice has been a place that has helped me to stretch myself far beyond what I thought was possible for me,” Holiday said. “Having John as one of my biggest supporters, his belief in me means the world. … I spent so much of my life hiding, and I won’t ever hide again. He’s given me permission to fly.”
While NBC billed Holiday as a native of Rosenberg, Texas, his home the past three years has been in Appleton. He represented Lawrence well throughout the season, speaking not only to the power of music education but also to the need for musicians to live and perform authentically and with empathy, resiliency, and flexibility.
“We couldn’t be prouder of John Holiday and his incredible journey on The Voice,” said Brian Pertl, dean of the Conservatory. “John is the perfect example of the flexible, versatile, virtuoso musician that the 21st century needs and Lawrence strives to produce. He is an opera star who can sing jazz and pop at the highest levels. He is a top-tier performer and a top-tier educator who values his students above all else. What an incredible role model for our students and musicians around the globe.”
With The Voice now finished, Holiday will prepare for Winter Term at Lawrence while getting at least a bit of his performance schedule back. Opera Philadelphia announced last week that Holiday will take the lead in Tyshawn Sorey’s Save the Boys in February, to be streamed on the Opera Philadelphia Channel.
Hannah Jones ’22, a junior voice student from Houston, will be among the Conservatory students excited to welcome their professor home, even if it has to be via Zoom for a bit longer.
“Prof always tells us, ‘I want to show you that it is possible,’” Jones said. “Well, he was doing that well before The Voice, but this is another level. Words cannot describe my excitement for Prof’s success.”
One of the great joys in the Communications office is being able to catch up with Lawrence alumni who are shining their light brightly along whatever paths their journeys have taken them.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have canceled our 2020 Reunion weekend, but over the course of the year we had the chance to talk with and write about many amazing Lawrentians, graduating as far back as 1954 and as recently as 2019.
Here are eight who caught our attention in our second annual Eight Alumni, Eight Stories end-of-year feature.
If you haven’t read these stories, we invite you to do so now. See story links below.
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Jack Nilles ’54
Living amidst Los Angeles’ traffic congestion, Nilles floated the wild idea that employees could be productive working from home or in neighborhood offices instead of commuting to corporate headquarters. This was in the early 1970s. He studied it. He wrote books about it. He was called the father of telecommuting. But corporate America mostly shrugged. Then, in 2020, when the pandemic sent employees en masse to home offices, people started paying attention. “I keep saying lately, ‘after 48 years, I’m an overnight success,’” Nilles said.
Like many in the arts world, Hopkins found her livelihood at a standstill when the pandemic hit in the spring. The operator of Yahara River Woodwinds, an instrument-repair shop in Stoughton, Wisconsin, Hopkins quickly learned that musicians don’t need instruments repaired when much of the music world has shut down. She quickly pivoted and began making masks, which led to requests for specially made masks that music students could wear while practicing and performing. When her alma mater reached out, Hopkins, already overwhelmed with orders from around the country, agreed to teach students in the Theater Department Costume Shop to create the masks. Those masks are now being worn by students across the Conservatory.
A biology major while at Lawrence, Weston credits his work in the classroom and as a leader in Student Life with preparing him for the lead role he’s taken in battling the COVID-19 pandemic. Besides teaching at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, working two shifts a week in the emergency department at Froedtert Hospital, and serving as the Office of Emergency Management’s director of medical services for Milwaukee County, Weston has taken on the temporary role of medical director of the Milwaukee area’s COVID-19 Unified Emergency Operations Center. To say the least, he’s had a busy year.
Even before he graduated from Lawrence in June 2019, Fam had himself a job offer as a software engineer at Disney+. The streaming service hadn’t yet launched, but the buzz was huge. It’s not often you step from the stage at Commencement and immediately land in the midst of one of the most talked about media developments in the world. When it launched, Disney+ had 10 million sign-ups the first day, 29 million in the first three months, and a new bankable star in Baby Yoda. Fam was part of the team that made it all happen.
See 2019 edition of Eight Alumni, Eight Stories here.
Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: email@example.com
It’s been a different sort of year. The COVID-19 pandemic certainly altered life on the Lawrence campus.
But one thing proved true. Lawrentians (and future Lawrentians and friends of Lawrence) are hungry to read about Lawrence and their fellow Lawrentians. We’ve dived into the analytics to share today the most viewed stories of 2020 on the Lawrence news site. (A few of the stories that placed in the top 20 are partnered here because they are so closely related.)
Eight alumni, eight stories: See 2020 edition here.
From voice professor John Holiday’s success on NBC’s The Voice to Lawrence again being hailed as a world-class school to adjustments made to campus life in the midst of a pandemic, there was no shortage of Lawrence news that drew a lot of interest. We provide here links to those most popular stories. Check out what you missed or take another look at stories that remind us of what makes Lawrence shine.
1. John Holiday hits big on NBC’s The Voice.
“There are people who dare to dream bigger than themselves; they never stop learning, never stop growing. I wanted to show my students what that looked like.” See stories here and here.
2. Princeton Review names Lawrence one of nation’s Best Impact schools.
“I see it and hear it when I meet with our alumni around the world. They point back to their time at Lawrence as unlocking something for them, discovering an interest or talent they didn’t know they had until they started working with professors here who helped guide them in that discovery.” See story here.
3. We say farewell to beloved Lawrentians.
“I will always remember Lifongo as the warmest, kindest, and most generous, joyful, and magnanimous of colleagues and friends.” … “I know many Lawrentians join me in remembering moments when Terry’s advice provided exactly what you needed to hear to be the best version of yourself.” See stories here and here.
4. Campus life changes amid COVID-19 pandemic.
“All of us living, learning, and working on campus this fall need to understand and to honor the responsibilities outlined by the Pledge.” See storieshereandhere.
5. A professor’s guide offers look at Freshman Studies.
“The entire list shows a remarkable range and an admirable ambition.” See story here.
6. New trestle trail adds to trails, parks near campus.
“The abandoned railroad trestle has been transformed into a 10-foot-wide trail that spans the Fox River at the southern edge of campus.” See story here.
7. Bidding good-bye for now to retiring faculty.
“You have served as a steadying force, stepping into a host of academic leadership positions that have lent stability in moments of uncertainty and grace in times of worry.” See story here.
8. Six faculty earn tenure.
“I’m absolutely delighted that their contributions are being recognized through the awarding of tenure and promotion, and look forward to continuing together our rich, rewarding work for years to come.” See story here.
9. Jake Woodford ’13 elected mayor of Appleton.
“It has been a pleasure to watch Jake’s energy turn toward the city he loves.” See story here.
10. Princeton Review names Lawrence to Best Colleges list.
“As we head into another academic year, albeit one that looks different from any other in history, it’s reassuring to see that some things have remained the same.” See story here.
11. President Mark Burstein announces plans to leave Lawrence.
“During Mark’s tenure, our curricular offerings became deeper and broader, applications and the endowment increased dramatically, and our community became more diverse, inclusive, and equity-minded.” See story here.
12. Lawrence offers assistance during pandemic.
“We have always risen to the challenges that face us with resilience and ingenuity.” See story here.
13. Conservatory named ‘hidden gem,’ adapts to life in pandemic.
“It’s beautiful, creative flexibility. We’re working with our students all the time to say, ‘This is what you’re going to need out there in the world, and this is what’s going to be exciting about being a musician in the world today.’” See story here.
14. Natasha Tretheway named 2020 Commencement speaker.
“Our journeys have been intertwined since I visited Lawrence four years ago, and I am delighted and honored to be able to reconnect with this class in such a meaningful way.” See story here.
“One of the really, really cool things about my time at Lawrence was that the boundary between the Conservatory and the college is pretty permeable.” See story here.
16. Lawrence adds major in Creative Writing, minor in Statistics and Data Science.
“We’ve seen more prospective students articulating their desire to focus directly on creative writing.” … “Data scientists are working with bioinformatics, genetics; it’s huge in economics, and it’s become a huge thing in political science.” See story here.
17. Four alumni added to Board of Trustees.
“At this critical moment for higher education, I couldn’t be more appreciative for the diverse group of individuals who are giving so much of their time and talent as trustees to ensure that the college continues to distinguish and differentiate itself.” See story here.
18. Alexander Gym court gets a redesign.
“While resurfacing was certainly a maintenance requirement, the fresh new design work is an added bonus.” See story here.
19. Our 2020 Alumni Awards are announced.
“While the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down the annual Reunion celebration, this year’s recipients are still being celebrated for their contributions to both the Lawrence community and the world.” See story here.
20. Alex Damisch ’16 cherishes her Jeopardy experience.
“After I taped the shows, I thought to myself, ‘Man, it went by so fast, and I was always so focused on my next move, I hope I remembered to smile.’ Spoiler alert: I did not.” See story here.
Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The words read like heartfelt letters to an old friend.
For 50 years, Lawrence University students have been trekking to the London Centre for a term or two of study in one of the world’s most iconic cities. Launched in 1970, it has stood as part of the Lawrence experience for five decades, an extension of the Appleton campus that continues to make London the No. 1 destination for the university’s study abroad program. Lawrentians have studied at London Centre with British and visiting professors, soaked in London’s rich history, forged new friendships, and explored Europe in a myriad of ways.
So, we wondered aloud if that London experience — 50 years ago or as recently as last year or any of the years between — continues to impact and inform the lives of our alumni. Does the love endure? Spoiler alert: It does.
“I fell in love with everything — the museums, the people, and the classes that introduced me to famous monuments and hidden gems,” said Nicole Witmer ’19, who spent the spring terms of 2018 and 2019 in London. “I loved it so much that I decided to spend my last term at Lawrence at the London Centre, this time pursuing an internship at a publishing house. That internship led me to my first career out of school, and now I’m back in London pursuing my master’s.”
Sounds familiar, say those who came before. Digging through memories from five decades earlier, the first of the Lawrentians to study at London Centre, now in their 70s and mostly retired, speak with similar reverence.
It was, they said, love at first sight.
“Was not sure what to expect,” said Doug Kohrt ’71, who studied in Arden Hotel with the first cadre of London Centre students in the summer and fall of 1970. “It was hotel living with a shared bath down the hall and no eating facilities in the room. We were furnished breakfast but we were otherwise on our own. This was the time before computers and we had to rent typewriters to write term papers. But travel was inexpensive and student airline tickets were used for weekend trips throughout Europe. Many of our group spent nights taking in West End plays, musicals, concerts and days studying or exploring London. … My London experience was a life-changing event.”
Same for Kevin Fenner ’72, who went a year later, spending the summer and fall of 1971 at the London Centre, the first time he had left the United States. “It was the best experience of my young life,” he said. “It was an experience that could never be repeated. The London Centre changed my life.”
Photo flashback: Clockwise from top left: Professor F. Theodore Cloak is seen in the Fall of 1970 at Arden Hotel, the first home of London Centre (photo courtesy of Dave Mitchell ’71); Julie Panke ‘71 and Virginia Danielson ’71, among the first students at London Centre in 1970, settle in on a ferry from Harwich en route to Amsterdam. (Photo courtesy of Julie Panke ’71); Jim Bode ’71, Jim Geiser ’71, and Dave Mitchell ’71 were among the first Lawrentians to study at London Centre in 1970. (Photo courtesy of Dave Mitchell); a picnic is enjoyed in Kensington Gardens in spring of 1980 (photo courtesy of Alison Ames Galstad ’82).
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Sense a theme?
The dozens of alumni who responded to our effort to mark the 50th anniversary of London Centre spoke of following the trails of literary heroes and theater icons, of visiting grand museums and historic halls, of studying European history on the very streets where it all happened, of exploring British cuisine and taste, of chasing adventures across Europe, and of redirecting in so many ways their global focus.
Many spoke of their London memories, no matter how distant, as being among the fondest of their lifetimes, whether their London home was in Arden Hotel (1970-80) or 7 Brechin Place (1994-2009) or the current location on Great Russell Street in the heart of Bloomsbury (2018 to present) or any of a number of other locations that housed the London Centre through the years.
Find more information on Lawrence’s London Centre here.
Lezlie Weber, director of off-campus programs at Lawrence, said reaching the 50-year milestone is no small thing. It speaks to Lawrence’s commitment to international study.
“Study abroad tends to be a transformative part of a student’s experience at Lawrence,” she said. “Alumni mention the London Centre as a defining part of their undergraduate years, building their confidence and contributing to their career paths. The London Centre allows students to use London itself as a classroom for experiential learning and academic coursework.”
On average, the London Centre draws between 30 and 50 Lawrence students per year spread over three terms, some spending one term there and others two terms. It operates as a closed academic program for Lawrence, much of it focused on the history and culture of England. Lawrence students in their second year and beyond are eligible for the London program, and in recent years internship opportunities have become plentiful.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put in-person studies at London Centre temporarily on pause, although five courses were offered virtually during Fall Term. The most recent group of students were there in Winter Term, when concerns about the spread of the virus in Europe resulted in hectic exits in early March.
London Centre instructor Christine Hoenigs taught two virtual theater courses, Diversity on the London Stage and Shakespeare in London. While theater students would normally visit a theater and see a production each week, she used high quality recordings of shows in London and Stratford-upon-Avon, as well as Q&As and interviews, to bring students closer to the vibrant London theater scene.
“I thoroughly enjoy working with students in smaller groups this term,” Hoenigs said. “Although, like all of my colleagues, we miss having students in London and wish we could work with them here. But I am hopeful that students will be returning to the London Centre next year and we can show them what this beautiful, indestructible city has to offer.”
FRIENDSHIP AND COMMUNITY
The current London Centre location encompasses several buildings in the Bloomsbury neighborhood, with easy access to Covent Garden, the West End, and Soho. The living quarters, equipped with modern amenities and shared spaces, may be a bit more spacious then some early London Centre students recall, but the communal nature of the experience remains the same — friendships and adventures will happen here.
“I grew very close to the other Lawrence students at the Centre as all seven of us lived in one flat,” said Sarah Wells ’20, who spent the spring of 2019 in London. “Some days we would be teaching each other how to cook. Other days we would go exploring for food together in the Bloomsbury neighborhood or at a street market.”
“The faculty and staff at the London Centre really encouraged a strong sense of community in the house, and living in London with its diverse history and culture was a positive way to get a new perspective on life,” said Katie Brown ’04, who arrived in London in need of a new outlook and found it at 7 Brechin Place. “This experience really helped me through a difficult time and was very influential on who I have become.”
Lawrence announced in late 1969 the coming launch of London Centre. A news release hailed it as an expansion of the Lawrence experience. Lawrence students were all in from the get-go, and the momentum quickly grew.
No matter which location housed London Centre at the time, the alumni spoke of the value that comes with experiencing the surroundings. The original location was literally in a hotel. Located in the Earls Court neighborhood, Arden Hotel included a private classroom but residential spaces had students mingled amid the hotel guests. Despite its limitations, it proved to be a worthy home for the program’s first 10 years.
“A terrific group of students, many of whom are among my closest friends today,” recalled Dave Mitchell ’71, who was part of the first wave in the summer and fall of 1970. “Vivid memories of our group huddled in front of the black and white TV on Sunday evenings watching ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus.’ … Shepherd’s pie and warm ale for lunch at the Devonshire Arms.”
“The semester was packed with things to do,” said George Stalle ’75, who studied in London in Fall Term of 1974. “Concerts at the South Bank Concert Halls, a Proms concert at Royal Albert Hall and singing ‘God Save the Queen.’ … Not enough time in the day to enjoy everything.”
CHASING HISTORY, DROPPING NAMES
For many Lawrentians, the London experience means crossing paths with historical figures in a way that can’t be replicated in books or in Google searches. It’s being immersed in a theater scene that brings you inside historic performance spaces and lets you soak in the wonder and power of the arts in Europe. It’s seeing and touching traditions that date back centuries.
Lawrence faculty come to London as visiting professors, providing a chance to teach in a new locale, immerse themselves in the London experience, and forge bonds with students that resonate well beyond the classroom. Alumni decades removed from their London studies still speak glowingly of those relationships.
“One of our assignments in Professor (William) Chaney’s London class was to pick a town and try to write up the history of it, but without going to a library,” said Christopher Lynch ’89, who studied in London in fall 1986. “Chaney said if one really wanted to learn the history of a place, then talk with the ladies that put the flowers on the altar of the local church. Of course, he was right. … Chaney’s genius was to get students out into the community, meeting English people and experiencing their society.”
With legendary performance spaces aplenty, name dropping is not out of the question. Alumni recalling special moments referenced performers they saw live in London who either were or would go on to become household names — Anthony Hopkins, Elton John, Geraldine James, Aaron Copland, and Dustin Hoffman, among them.
It’s the opportunity to experience it all in a very sensory way that resonates, the alumni said.
“I encountered my literary heroes both in London and on super cheap Ryanair weekend excursions,” said Melody Moberg ’10, an English and religious studies major who studied at the London Centre in the fall of 2009. “Sometimes I sought out sacred English literature sights, such as the Keats-Shelley house in Rome, which brims with the looping script of Romantic poets, first editions, and creepy relics. More often, I stumbled upon sacred sites. For example, the church in London where my internship’s fundraiser was held happened to be William Blake’s congregation. In London, deep history is woven into the fabric of the city. I loved wandering through the city and discovering treasures everywhere.”
Susan Carter Ruskell ’91 studied in London in spring 1989 and came away awed by what was so close and available. “Twenty-one theatrical productions in 10 weeks, including performances by Geraldine James, Alec Guiness, Anthony Hopkins, Dustin Hoffman, and many others,” she said.
“Fringe Theatre of London was a highlight for me,” said Chuck Demler ’11, who spent Winter Term 2009 at London Centre. “It was just two of us, Emily May ’10 and me in the class with Ginny Schiele. We would attend a play each week and then review it. Ginny would give us free tickets or tell us about other performances in the city. I think I ended up seeing 25 plays during that term. It really changed the way that I think about theater and art of all kinds.”
For Charlie Seraphin ’72, it was the show he missed during Winter Term 1970 that still haunts. He passed on joining his fellow students at a small venue near London Centre. “After the show, they raved about the small venue — less than 200 people — and the awesome performance by a soon-to-be-superstar — Elton John. Oops!”
Cheryl Wilson Kopecky ’72 still looks at the journal she kept during a Summer Term in 1971. “I’m amazed at the number music and theater ‘starts’ we saw in just one term. Traveling around Great Britain and other countries, finding a B&B when arriving in a new village or city, and researching a history topic where it happened (Battle of Stamford Bridge, 1066) were all new accomplishments. I recall thinking at the time, ‘This is one of the highpoints of my life,’ and that sentiment still remains true.”
A TASTE FOR LONDON AND THE WORLD
Food and drink also land on the front burner when alumni talk of their London Centre adventures. As does travel. No surprise there. Exploring not only England but elsewhere in Europe has long been part of the draw.
Richard Zimman ’73 took a liking to London in the winter and spring of 1971 and never looked back. “Life at the London Centre changed my life by introducing me to three passions that continue to this day — international travel, live theater, and British beer,” he said.
“My London term was one of my best memories from college and the experiences I had there have helped fuel a lifetime of travel, curiosity, and adventure,” said Kurtiss Wolf ’93, who studied in London in Winter Term 1993. “… Having that sort of immersive international experience early in life has definitely made me a better global citizen.”
“I can vividly remember the Earls Court tube stop, the Hot Pot restaurant, Kensington Gardens, the double-decker buses, and exploring the streets and shops,” said Rick Chandler ’74. “I loved the opportunities to travel. I met lots of interesting people and learned that markets, pubs, youth hostels, footpaths, trains, and bicycle trips are more memorable than castles and cathedrals.”
“Still remember studying in the round pond at Hyde Park, as our residence was very close,” said K K (Brian) Tse ’81, a London Centre student in Fall Term 1980. “Watching many plays and going to so many good museums, hitchhiking by myself to Ireland; what a memorable term at the age of 20.”
Chris Porter ’74, who spent the Winter and Spring terms of 1972 at London Centre, continues to return time and again. “Many years after the fact, I told my dad that my six months in London had been life-changing due to the exposure we had to other peoples and cultures and the travel opportunities it provided,” he said. “… I’ve been back to London at least 60 times since 1972; every time I go, I go in search of the London of 1972, which has largely disappeared, mostly for the better, but some for the worse.”
Alison Ames Galstad ’82 was there in Spring Term 1980. “Where to start? The iconic Arden Hotel, favorite pub Devonshire Arms, travels to Germany and a trip down the Rhine with my dear friend and roommate Elizabeth Carter Wills, hitchhiking to Dover and camping on the White Cliffs with my friend Greg Zlevor, travels through Wales and a hike up Mt. Snowdon with my dear and forever friend Catherine Biggs Dempsey, seeing Yul Brynner not once but twice in ‘The King and I’ at the London Palladium and getting his autograph backstage. … And there was the hostage crisis, the Iranian Embassy siege in London, and the failed hostage rescue in Iran — tensions were high, and there were a few days through which we all were certain we’d be sent home given the political climate. Living and studying abroad was an immensely enriching experience for all of us.”
For 50 years, London Centre has been home to academic adventures and life-defining experiences for Lawrence students. Here’s to 50 more.
Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: email@example.com
About this series: Lighting the Way With … is a periodic series in which we shine a light on Lawrence University alumni. Today we catch up with Dr. Ben Weston ’05, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Medical College of Wisconsin who has been a leader in the Milwaukee area in the COVID-19 pandemic battle.
Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications
When Dr. Ben Weston ’05 tells you “it’s been an interesting year,” know that is his understated way of saying it’s been an emotionally draining, frustrating, holy-cow-I-can’t-believe-that-just-happened, gut-wrenching, exhausting, pants-on-fire sort of a year.
So, yes, interesting.
The Lawrence University alumnus is among the army of front-line health care workers who have been living the COVID-19 pandemic up close and personal on a daily basis, and he’s done it wearing three important but vastly different hats.
For two shifts a week, Weston works as an emergency department physician at Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee, part of his role as associate professor of emergency medicine at Medical College of Wisconsin. It’s here where he sees COVID patients fighting for their lives, where the latest surge threatens to overwhelm staff and space, where he and colleagues have to wear the same protective masks for multiple days for fear of resources running short.
He also lives it in his role as director of medical services for Milwaukee County, working through the Office of Emergency Management to coordinate 14 fire departments, ambulances, and other first responders in providing emergency medical care for a region with a population of nearly 1 million people.
And he lives it in his role as medical director of the Milwaukee area’s COVID-19 Unified Emergency Operations Center, working with the city of Milwaukee, the county, and a bevy of municipalities to coordinate responses to the pandemic and provide consistent messaging to residents.
Three hats, three perspectives of a pandemic that has shown no signs of abating, and a day-to-day schedule that has been dominated by the coronavirus since the earliest days of 2020.
And when Weston’s work day is over and he settles in with his wife and three young kids, can he move away from the brutal realities of the health care crisis? Well, not completely. His wife, Dr. Michelle Buelow, is a physician with Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers on the south side of Milwaukee, treating a heavily Hispanic population that has been hit hard by COVID-19.
“She’s been right in the thick of it as well,” Weston said. “So, the evenings usually start with a little pandemic conversation, and then we try purposely to shift to other things.”
Beyond the imaginable
Weston knew his world was about to change in January as the virus began its spread. What he didn’t know was that nearly a year later we would be staring into what could be a very dark winter as cases surge across the United States, hospitals are stretched to capacity and beyond, and the death toll nears 275,000.
“I don’t think anybody anticipated the longevity or the extreme impact that COVID would have,” Weston said of those early days before the virus landed in the U.S. “We would talk through scenarios about if long-term care facilities were hit or if there were outbreaks in regions of the community. I think it was certainly hard to imagine back then that we would be having this widespread outbreak everywhere like we have now. Every county in Wisconsin, every state in the United States, every country in the world is having these surges in cases right now, along with hospitalizations and deaths. We would have been naïve to think it wasn’t going to affect us at all, but I don’t think anyone anticipated this.”
Weston has been front and center in messaging to the public about the spread of the virus, the significance of the threat, and the need for personal responsibility. He’s spoken at news conferences and done dozens of interviews with media, locally and nationally. He’s done so while fighting conflicting messages coming from the national level.
“There have been a lot of novel aspects to the virus that makes it very challenging to control,” Weston said. “Biologic aspects of the virus, the incubation period, the asymptomatic spread. Things like that make it very hard to control, and difficult to message from a disease perspective. And then you compound that with messaging at the highest level and the national response that a lot of times is contradictory to the local response and the local messaging and you have a pretty difficult situation.”
There are consequences that come with that lack of a unified national response. One, of course, is the accelerated spread of the virus when segments of the population refuse to take it seriously, continuing to gather in confined spaces and refusing to wear masks. Another is the emotional toll it’s taking on health care workers. They not only face burnout because of the workload, but they also have to deal with backlash from people who see the pandemic as politics, Weston said.
“Everyone is really strained from a work standpoint,” he said. “Our public health infrastructure is not designed for this, nor is it funded, nor is it staffed in a way to manage something like this.”
To then receive hateful messages from someone taking exception to the daily news cycle adds to an already overwhelming burden, Weston said.
“It’s disheartening for public health practitioners when they are working these 60-, 70-, 80-, 100-hour weeks, and then at the end of the week when they feel like they’ve done something positive, they open up their email or listen to their voice mail and that’s what they hear.”
Through it all, though, there are opportunities to smile, Weston said. Health care workers need to cling to those moments. For him, it’s a kind email from a woman who opted to skip an indoor Thanksgiving gathering after hearing him speak on the dangers of such behavior. Or seeing multiple health care organizations across the state come together to share data and strategies, something that would have been unheard of a year ago.
“They come in somewhat small victories,” Weston said.
A path forged at Lawrence
Before Weston earned his medical and Master of Public Health degrees at the University of Wisconsin, he was a biology major at Lawrence. The classroom instruction prepared him well for medical school. But he points to campus experiences outside of the classroom that helped him develop the leadership and collaboration skills that are in play now. He worked his final three years at Lawrence in residence hall leadership positions, first in Plantz Hall and then in Hiett Hall, and chaired the Lawrence University Community Council’s Judicial Board.
“I loved my Lawrence experience,” Weston said. “I had the privilege of having leadership opportunities at Lawrence that I think helped to develop and hone my ability to be in these positions I’m in now.”
He cites then-Dean of Students Nancy Truesdell and current Dean of Students Curt Lauderdale as mentors who helped guide his journey.
“They were great mentors, and I saw great examples of principled leadership and steadfast collaboration from both of them that have certainly carried forward to my career,” Weston said. “Those were critical building blocks for me.”
Those lessons, he said, will be close at hand as the calendar flips to 2021 and he looks to help colleagues weather at least a few more months of distress before a vaccine hopefully brings some relief.
“It’s been hard the last few weeks to see the surges going up, knowing that no hospital can keep up with those sorts of numbers,” Weston said.
But the recent news of a vaccine that could be coming soon has buoyed spirits among health care workers, even though they know things will be difficult between now and spring.
“What changes is the perspective,” Weston said. “If we had talked back in July, August, September, we didn’t know when the end point was. We hoped it would be maybe in the spring, but we didn’t know. We had no evidence to point to, to say there’s an end to this, it’s coming. There was talk that this could go on for years.
“And now we see promising signs that there is an end point. We see the vaccine trials and we see this news and we start talking about how we’re going to distribute it. And I think that’s great news and we should celebrate it. But we also should recognize that the vaccination campaign isn’t going to take off and get everyone vaccinated this winter. We have to get through what’s going to be a really hard winter. So, the message has to be that we can celebrate the vaccine, but for the next few months we really need to buckle down. We have winter coming. It’s going to be a challenging time. But we know an end is in sight.”
Natural and unnatural disasters. World-altering disasters.
He doesn’t wish for them or the pain and destruction they bring. But the Lawrence University professor of history is unapologetically fascinated by them, struck by the physical, cultural, and emotional recalibration that comes in their wake.
By the nature of his chosen profession, Frederick is usually focused on disasters from long ago, exploring how they altered life in the years, decades, even centuries, that followed, how they exposed inequities, and how they reshaped cultural norms. But right now, as we’re living through a global pandemic unlike anything seen in 100 years, it’s tough for even a history scholar like Frederick to keep the focus squarely on the past. When he was teaching his Disasters That Made the Americas class during the last Winter Term, he found conversations quickly shifting to the present as the spread of COVID-19 arrived in the Americas and the panicked hoarding of toilet paper signaled that life as we know it was about to change.
“I think in any class, whether it’s history or English lit or physics, when students see what they’re studying unfolding in the world they’re living in, they always find that very stimulating,” Frederick said.
“At the moment, this group of students is living through a more dramatic historic moment than I think students have in 100 years. There hasn’t been anything like this since the Spanish influenza outbreak in 1919 and 1920. Even the second World War, there was a home front, so you could always be away from where the disaster was happening. But in the case of the pandemic, it’s everywhere.”
It’s not just the pandemic, of course. The wildfires that burned through large chunks of the western United States in recent months, fueled by climate change that is rapidly altering the planet, provide even more fodder for the intersection of historical disasters and modern times.
Disasters That Made the Americas, a 400-level history course that is focused mostly on Latin America, is being offered again in the upcoming Winter Term, and Frederick said the pandemic and the wildfires will certainly be incorporated into the class discussions. How could they not? The current disasters can help inform the study of past disasters, whether illness, climate, war, or otherwise, and perhaps provide some insight into what lies ahead.
“History is interesting in and of itself,” Frederick said. “But I think we can learn a great deal from the modern moment. I wouldn’t dare say what will be the effect of COVID, because historians get very freaked out by the present tense. We need a good 10, 20 years to figure out what the impact will be. But as we look backwards and look at cholera outbreaks, the Spanish influenza outbreak, there is always something contemporary you can refer to in helping them understand the historical point you are talking about.”
Ricardo Jimenez, a senior biology and music performance double major from Barrington, Illinois, was in Frederick’s Winter Term class. He remembers Frederick talking about COVID-19 on one of the first days of class, in early January, two months before it would be declared a global pandemic. There were reports of a few thousand cases in Wuhan, China, and Frederick talked to his students about keeping a close eye on its spread.
In nearly every classroom session to follow, Frederick would start the discussion by giving an update on the virus as more news came out. He tried to contextualize the gravity of the moment and what might lie ahead based on lessons from history.
“We saw it go from a few thousand to tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, and then eventually to other countries,” Jimenez said. … “I will never forget the day in which it arrived in the Americas and we had class the next day. Professor Frederick sat us down and said, ‘I don’t think we will be seeing each other next term.’ By this time, Europe was already on lockdowns.
“It was a very sobering moment to hear from a professor of disasters of human civilizations that this event that we were experiencing was a historical moment.”
Up close and personal
Frederick, a member of the History Department faculty since 2006 and co-director for Latin American Studies, comes by his fascination with disasters via experience. He fought forest fires in the 1990s before going to graduate school. The firefighting he did in Mexico piqued his interest in the history of that region, leading him to a Ph.D. from Penn State University with a focus on colonial Latin America.
“I’ve always found the history of fires really interesting and thought I could marry these things together,” Frederick said.
He’s on sabbatical during Fall Term as he works on a book about fires in 18th century Mexico. When the Disasters class returns in January, the students will, among other things, draw parallels between today’s ongoing disasters and those that dot the history of the Americas.
“Human beings care about the same things now that they cared about a thousand years ago,” Frederick said. “But it’s sometimes difficult for students to put themselves in that mindset. But with the kind of things they’re encountering right now, and with us looking at disaster as the focus of the course, we are going to have a lot of good conversations.”
Much of Frederick’s focus is on what comes next. What happens after a disaster alters life in a particular region? What inequities have been exposed? And what responses come from leaders and from the populace?
“To a certain extent, the disasters are the sexy hook that makes it very interesting to engage these moments, but the disasters themselves are isolated moments,” Frederick said. “What really is most compelling about them is the impact that they have.”
History suggests some of that impact is communal, at least in the short term. People—today’s anti-maskers notwithstanding—tend to rally together in times of disaster, trending away from the popular mythology that disasters cause societal breakdowns and lead to anarchy.
“In the wake of disasters, particularly very acute disasters, people tend to come together,” Frederick said. “In a big disaster, the first responders are always the neighbors, the nearest community. The rescue forces are there immediately. So, what you often see, after a big disaster, there is a big moment of community-building. And these things can do a lot, at least in the short term, to bring people together. Even if that’s not a lesson for the future, it debunks every disaster movie out there. In reality, people really do tend to provide a lot of help to their neighbors.”
The lessons of history
For all of our advanced medical technology, our radar systems, our smart phones, and the like, the disasters of 2020 provide a reminder that we are as subject to epic natural threats as humans were in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries—pandemics, wildfires, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes.
“When these things happen, there are very, very familiar consequences that tend to unfold,” Frederick said. “You find that certain parts of society will suffer the most. … What they tend to expose are pre-existing stresses that are in society, the pre-existing shortcomings of a society.”
The United States, for all its advancements, is no different, and the news cycle that is 2020 is making that clear.
“The responses (to disasters) tend to show the same thing,” Frederick said. “Wow, we have this disease coming, and it turns out that in the United States and across the world, health care is really unequally distributed. You might think that can be tolerated up to a point, but disasters tend to push those systems to the fracturing point.”
Lessons can be drawn, for example, from the cholera outbreak in Peru in the 1960s, which led to a reimagining of the country’s medical infrastructure.
“It was not necessarily, how are we going to prepare for the next cholera outbreak, but rather, how does this show us what is wrong with the system that exists now?” Frederick said. “And what it shows is that, disproportionately, poor people, people on the bottom of the socio-economic scale, were getting crushed by this disease. And there was a racial disparity. Indigenous people were getting disproportionately harmed by this disease.”
For Jimenez, learning how that has played out over and over again through history has given him perspective as he and his fellow students navigate the pandemic.
“I think studying past catastrophes helps you learn how events like these tend to unfold, who is really affected by them, and what the aftermath tends to look like,” Jimenez said. “I think the biggest takeaway from the course is really learning that the poorest in our society are those who suffer the most during any catastrophe. They are the most vulnerable but also the ones who are forgotten.”
These lessons from the past can inform the present. And vice versa. It’s what drew Frederick, the one-time firefighter, to the classroom in the first place.
“You can get a sense of relief and comfort from history,” Frederick said. “When you look at a disaster like COVID, you see that the world has gone through things like this before and we got out to the other side. It can be an awful process, and I promise this is going to get much worse before it gets better, but people have managed to get through this sort of thing and worse. Every single time, humanity has come out on the other side.”
Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Interested is readings from the Disasters class?
If Jake Frederick’s Disasters in the Americas class has piqued your interest and you want to read more, try these books that are part of the class:
The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, by Jonathan Katz; New York: St. Martins Griffin, 2013. This book is about the 2010 earthquake.
A Paradise Built in Hell, by Rebecca Solnit; New York: Viking, 2009. The thesis of the book is that in times of urgent disaster people have a greater tendency to pull together than to turn on each other.
Floods, Famines, and Emperors: El Niño and the Fate of Civilizations, by Brian Fagan; New York: Basic Books, 1999. See chapters on the classic Maya collapse and the destruction of the Moche civilization.
John Holiday found a home three years ago with the Lawrence Conservatory of Music in Appleton. (Photo by Danny Damiani)
Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications
As contestants on NBC’s The Voice scrambled to pull together family and friends for virtual watch parties on the show’s opening night, John Holiday had other ideas.
The voice professor in Lawrence University’s Conservatory of Music knew he was about to catch lightning in a bottle. He knew the coaches’ response to his performance of Misty was off the charts, and he knew there was a pretty good chance his world was about to explode. He also knew with whom he wanted to share that moment—his students.
So, as Holiday watched from his Appleton home as John Legend, Kelly Clarkson, and Gwen Stefani all turned their chairs and showered his performance with such overwhelming praise that he became the show’s immediate favorite, 10 of his students, connected by Zoom, hooted and hollered along with him and his husband, Paul, and their two house guests, Brian Pertl and Leila Ramagopal Pertl. They screamed when Legend called Holiday’s voice “otherworldly,” and again when a surprised Clarkson dropped the “I didn’t know you were a dude” line.
“One of the things I wanted to do in doing this show is to show my students what’s possible when you stretch yourself beyond what you think is possible,” said Holiday, an associate professor of music who has been on the Lawrence faculty since 2017. “There are people who dare to dream bigger than themselves; they never stop learning, never stop growing. I wanted to show my students what that looked like.”
In the more than two weeks since his audition aired, much has changed in Holiday’s universe, even though he, like most of us, remains mostly homebound in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. He continues to teach during Lawrence’s Fall Term, but he’s doing so while juggling multiple media requests and a growing social media presence. His path as part of Team Legend, under the guidance of the iconic singer, is still very much a secret, but viewers will begin to see it unfold as the battle rounds begin in the coming days. The show airs Mondays and Tuesdays.
On campus, Holiday has become the frequent focus of conversation, a welcome respite amid the frustrations of a year dominated by COVID-19. In the Conservatory offices and halls, faculty and students have been leading the cheers. Alumni have been reaching out. Even other music schools have been calling with congratulations.
“There is a definite buzz around John’s performance,” said Brian Pertl, dean of the Conservatory. “Everyone is so excited that the rest of the world is hearing this remarkable voice.”
Holiday, a countertenor with the ability to hit the highest notes, made it to the televised blind auditions in front of the coaches—Clarkson, Legend, Stefani, and Blake Shelton—after being selected from among thousands of hopefuls who went through the open-call audition process. He said he opted to enter the TV fray in part because his busy performance schedule, mostly on opera stages, came to an abrupt stop when the pandemic shut down performances around the world.
The reaction was immediate
Holiday’s phone blew up as soon as his audition aired on Oct. 19. A clip from the show featuring his performance quickly drew more than 500,000 views, and posts on various media sites piled on the praise and dubbed him the favorite to win it all.
Success isn’t necessarily new to Holiday. He has performed on some of the biggest stages in the world, and in 2017 received the Marian Anderson Vocal Award from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Washington National Opera, given to a rising star in the area of opera, oratorio, or recital repertory. He knows his way around applause. But this reaction was different.
“My social media has gone kind of bonkers,” Holiday said. “And that is absolutely something I was not expecting. I didn’t know people were going to receive it that way. In general, I’m a person who doesn’t read reviews. I think even if they’re great, sometimes it can get to a person’s head, and if the reviews are bad, they can make you feel bad. So, I tend to be a person who, generally, if I feel good about what I’ve done, I won’t read anything. I just kind of sit in the moment and reflect on what I felt was good and what I felt needed some work. But from the moment this came on, it was kind of hard to not see the things that were going on.”
Hannah Jones ’22, a voice student from Houston who came to Lawrence in large part because she wanted to work with Holiday, was on that Zoom call, watching with classmates through the two-hour episode in hopes of seeing the man they affectionately call Prof. For an hour and 50 minutes, there was nothing. Until they saw the boots.
“As soon as we heard and saw Prof’s heeled boots, every single square erupted,” Jones said.
The only shriek that was louder came from Holiday himself.
“The one thing that truly made this moment special is the fact that Prof shared this huge moment in his journey with us,” Jones said. “He could have easily shared this unforgettable moment with his close family and friends, but he chose us.”
Building to this moment
That journey Jones speaks of is one that’s been building for Holiday. What heights he reaches via The Voice, and what doors they open, have yet to be revealed. But the transition from rising opera star to a performer who lives in a more mainstream music world is one that’s very much deliberate. Holiday has frequently dabbled in jazz and gospel genres, and he said he’s long felt the urge to wade into more pop-focused opportunities. The pandemic shut-down and the arrival of a new season of The Voice provided the perfect storm.
“There are a lot of people who feel like opera is elitist,” Holiday said. “As an opera singer, I can understand that. But I also believe that it is not elitist. Opera is music that makes you feel things, the same way that Nicki Minaj might make people feel, the same way Smokey Robinson might make someone feel, the same way that Coldplay might make someone feel. Opera has that same ability. So, for me, the reason I also want to cross over is because I’ve always longed to be the bridge between opera and jazz and pop and gospel music.”
The 35-year-old Holiday grew up in Rosenberg, Texas, learning to play the piano and singing in his church choir, all with enthusiastic encouragement from his beloved grandmother, who he calls Big Momma. He would later join the Fort Bend Boys Choir of Texas, giving him his first introduction to classical music.
He held tight to family as he grew up amid frequent bullying. His high voice, now embraced, was often the source of ridicule from others, he said. He was harassed for being gay long before he knew in his heart that he is gay.
“I’m lucky to have my grandmother, Big Momma, in my life,” Holiday said. “She has been my biggest cheerleader.”
She was among the first to tell him that his voice was a gift, not a curse.
He went on to earn a Bachelor of Music degree in vocal performance from Southern Methodist University, a Master of Music in vocal performance from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and an artist diploma in opera studies from Juilliard School.
He has since performed in operas—in four languages—at some of the most iconic venues in the world, from the Glimmerglass Festival to Carnegie Hall to the Kennedy Center. He’s performed with the Los Angeles Opera, Dallas Opera, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and Phoenix Symphony, among others.
About the time he was awarded the coveted Marian Anderson Vocal Award three years ago, the Washington Post called him “an impressive figure on an opera stage” and the New York Times hailed him as “an exceptional singer with a strong voice, even in its highest range.”
His left turn onto The Voice stage and into more mainstream circles isn’t out of character. He’s not running away from opera, he said. He’s simply drawing new fans to his journey.
“For me, I want to be able to change the narrative across the board and make opera more accessible,” he said. “Also make jazz more accessible because there are people who think jazz is far from opera, but it’s actually not. It’s very close to it.”
Holiday grew up singing gospel music and “hearing all the oldies and goodies.” Opera wasn’t something his family was initially drawn to. It wasn’t until he joined the boys’ choir that he gave much thought to classical music.
“It’s not something that was part of our fabric growing up,” he said.
Now, as he reaches his mid-30s and ponders new challenges, Holiday is looking toward those other musical influences. He understands that the ability to excel across the musical spectrum is a challenge with a high bar. He doesn’t want to shy away from it.
“I know that I am more than one-dimensional,” he said. “I feel like boxes are the death of art. … I want to go outside of the boxes in how people perceive the way I should sing. … For me, just singing opera, it would be inauthentic to who I am. I love opera in every fiber of my being. But I am also more than an opera singer. I am more than jazz. I am more than gospel. I am more than pop. Music is just a part of me. And I want to be able to give that in every single way that I can.”
Landing at Lawrence
When Lawrence’s Conservatory had an opening in its voice department in 2017, Holiday was immediately intrigued. He had worked a number of times with Lawrence alumni in his opera and symphonic performances. He knew the school’s strong reputation was legit. And he had gotten a taste of teaching while working with the Ithaca College School of Music.
A chance to teach at Lawrence while still juggling a busy performance schedule was the dream, Holiday said.
It didn’t take long, Pertl said, for that interest to be mutual.
“John’s material immediately stood out,” he said. “The video samples he submitted were stunning, so we were very excited about his application. When he came to campus, he sealed the deal. His live recital was so moving that most of us in the audience were in tears, and the wisdom, connection, and compassion he demonstrated in his teaching made him the perfect fit.”
Three years later, Holiday continues to mesh seamlessly within the talent-filled Conservatory. From the start, he was often on the road due to his performance schedule, but he quickly grew adept at doing voice lessons remotely, connecting with students from back stages or studio locations or hotel rooms. It’s a skill set that other faculty members tapped into in the spring when the pandemic sent students home for Spring Term and all classes and lessons went remote.
Holiday also serves as a de facto recruiter for the Conservatory while on the road, visiting high schools, particularly those that cater to the arts, whenever he can.
Jones, the third-year Lawrence student from Houston, said she first considered Lawrence after meeting Holiday her senior year when he visited her Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.
“He came to my school to do a masterclass with some of the students,” Jones said. “At the end of the masterclass, Prof sat down at the piano and sang a Negro spiritual, Over My Head, I Hear Music in the Air. I went up to him after the masterclass ended to express how amazed I was, and then he started speaking life into me and dismantling the unspoken doubts I had in my mind at the time. I remember bawling in the restroom and making the decision to go wherever Prof was. Prof is the reason why I am at Lawrence.”
Holiday doesn’t take those words lightly. It’s building that connection with students, making them understand what’s possible, making them believe in themselves, that gives him his greatest joy, he said. Allowing them to now see him being coached while competing on The Voice is one more piece to that puzzle. The teacher has become the student.
“I am not a coach, I am a teacher,” Holiday said. “And a teacher is someone who is teaching the science of the vocal anatomy. … How to breathe, how to stand, what it means to have good posture, what it means to have good vocal health, and how to navigate the complexities of the vocal apparatus. It is the most amazing gift to be a teacher and to inspire others to be the best of themselves and discover who they are meant to be in the world.
“And what is really beautiful to me is now being able to be in a position to show my students what it looks like for me to be taught and coached on the biggest of levels.”
Jones said she and other students are well aware that they have to share Holiday with the world. That’s always been the case, his performance demands being what they are. It may be even more so now that The Voice is introducing him to a wider audience.
“There have been a few times where we have had to remind Prof to not spread himself too thin,” Jones said. “But Prof’s ability to teach never wavers. We were having Zoom lessons long before the pandemic. … He pushes us to be better versions of ourselves. ‘You are your own competition’ is one of Prof’s signature quotes, and it’s a quote that has changed my life.”
Embracing what’s ahead
Now comes the next step on The Voice, a show that in its 19th season still draws an audience of nearly 8 million viewers. The coaches have established their teams. The battle rounds are set to begin.
For obvious reasons, Holiday can’t reveal what’s ahead. But he can say the experience of working with Legend was spectacular, and the opportunity to get to know and work with the other contestants was a beautiful experience.
He was in Hollywood filming the show earlier this fall, connecting with his students for lessons but unable to reveal where he was or what he was doing.
“I haven’t missed a step,” Holiday said. “All of my students have gotten all of their lessons, and I’ve just enjoyed it. They didn’t know what was going on, and, of course, I couldn’t tell them. I couldn’t tell anyone. My students are used to it. They’re used to me being on the road and teaching from the hotel or teaching from the studio where I’m at. I was teaching from the hotel room where I was staying in Los Angeles. That was an experience in itself, to be experiencing all these wonderful things and then also be teaching my students.”
Now, as the show progresses, he hopes his students will enjoy what they’re seeing—his commitment to the work and the music, even amid obstacles and challenges, his enduring love for Texas and his family, his attachment to Lawrence and his adopted home in Wisconsin, and his never-compromising eye for fashion. And he hopes other viewers looking on, 8 million strong, will share in the joy. After all, this is supposed to be fun.
“We’re living in such a time that can be devoid of hope and joy and peace, and I want to be able to give that with my music in every way,” Holiday said. “I don’t know if I succeed with that but I think that people who really connected with me can feel that. That’s my biggest hope and my biggest prayer.”
Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: email@example.com