Life in Little Sweden U.S.A.

It is July 4, 2016 and I am sitting in an air conditioned coffeehouse in my hometown of Lindsborg, Kansas.

On this Independence Day I am thankful for Lindsborg, Kansas and her people, what they mean to me and my family, and what they have done to help shape my life.

This afternoon I am at The White Peacock Tea and Coffeehouse.  But, it could just as easily be The Old Grind or The Courtyard Bakery.  You see, Little Sweden, U.S.A., with a population of 3,458 supports three such places, each with its own enjoyable qualities.  In the summertime I tend to work at my “downtown offices” more often than not.  Usually it’s The White Peacock in the morning for meetings, return email, and generally take care of school business, Courtyard Bakery for fika at 10 am (although not as often as I would like) and then The Old Grind in the afternoon for some fun work like blog posting, score study, or working on my website.

Lindsborg is a special place.  I was born here 45 years ago and consider myself lucky to have grown up in an environment in which the arts are often held in as high a regard as athletics, which is saying a lot because we love our sports around here. It is also where young and old alike still have many opportunities to experience both sports and the arts. These are some of the reasons I moved back to Lindsborg with my family after spending nearly twenty years working and living in other places.

In 1997, after three wonderful years teaching 6-12 grade vocal music in Marion, KS I embarked on a journey to The University of Oklahoma to study Choral Conducting with Dr. Dennis Shrock. It was during summer conducting and score study courses at OU that I met the love of my life, Jeanne (Williams) Lucas, who was getting an M.M. in Choral Conducting like me.  After graduation I took on a position as Director of Choral Activities and Assistant Professor at Kansas Wesleyan University in Salina, KS for four years before returning to Oklahoma to study for a Ph.D. in Choral Music Education with Dr. Nancy Barry and Dr.  Steven Curtis.  After completing coursework for the Ph.D., a position opened at OU and, after a national search, I was blessed to be chosen to fill the tenure-track position in Choral Music Education.  Stories from the various stops in my life and career could each fill a blog post but, to make a long story short, I spent seven incredible years teaching at The University of Oklahoma after which I received tenure and promotion to Associate Professor of Music.  That was when a job opened up at my alma mater, Bethany College.

When I attended Bethany College as an undergraduate music education major from 1989-1994 I was quite sure I knew just about everything there was to know about music, conducting, and pretty much everything else.  I sometimes regret my immaturity from that time in my life.  But I realize in retrospect that without that confidence (cockiness?) I may not have had the courage to make some of the career decisions I have made throughout the years.  Decisions that brought me home to one of the most unique small towns you will ever experience.

If you haven’t spent time in Lindsborg you may not understand.  We have our problems like any other place.  And yet this place is simply special.  If Astrid Lindgren and Jenny Lind met Norman Rockwell and Mark Twain for fika and the quartet decided to create a little village in Central Kansas, Lindsborg could easily have been the result.

Instead, Lindsborg was settled in the late 1800s by immigrants from the Värmland province in Sweden.  In 1881 Carl Aaron Swensson helped to found Bethany College in the Lutheran church on Main Street.  It was also at that time that the Bethany Oratorio Society was first organized.  Swensson’s wife, Alma, was instrumental in organizing the BOS in performing Handel’s Messiah.  Alma painstakingly taught the Swedish immigrants the words and music from the great oratorio.  For many it must have been some of the first English they learned.  Messiah has remained a tradition in Lindsborg ever since.

So when a job opened up at Bethany College in 2013, Jeanne and I talked to our boys about the possibility of applying.  I had been wanting to move from my position at OU and have more opportunities to conduct and perhaps experience administration.  We felt that Bethany was a perfect fit for our family.  Luckily, the search committee agreed.  This year I have the honor of conducting the 300 member chorus and orchestra in the 135th consecutive season of the Messiah Festival.  Now, of course, it is a 7-10 day festival of the arts that features Bach’s Passion according to St. Matthew as well as many other concerts, lectures, art shows, theatre productions and so much more.

The past three academic years have been filled with ups and downs as the Department of Music at Bethany and the college itself have experienced changes and growing pains.  And yet I have never once thought twice about our family’s return home.  Our boys can play three sports in school while also being in the choir, the band, and the orchestra.  They can ride their bikes anywhere in town pretty much anytime they like without fear for their safety.  Jeanne can work at a job she loves and act in a dinner theatre production put on by a local theatre company.  I can study Bach, Handel, Bernstein, Haydn, and so many others and conduct their music with some of the most dedicated and talented volunteer musicians you will EVER find.  I can have students over to the house for a cookout, go on tour, spend time working with outstanding colleagues, and walk home from work only a block, though the park.  Yes, I am thankful for Lindsborg and Bethany College today, and every day.

I would write more but then I would be late to a rehearsal.  You see, it’s July 4 so that means there is an evening full of entertainment at the bandshell in Swensson park.  I’m joining a couple other tenors to sing a couple of fun songs, after which I will play French Horn in the July 4 band alongside both of my boys and then go with the rest of the town to watch the fireworks show at the football field.  Norman Rockwell eat your heart out.


1 thought on “Life in Little Sweden U.S.A.”

  1. Mark, this is such a great piece! I recommend it be on Bethany’s as well as Lindsborg’s websites. You are an awesome ambassador for both.
    Glad I ran across this.

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