Betty White’s May 1992 Visit to St. Olaf College Revisited

Originally Published in the May 2015 Entertainment Guide

Betty White joined the St. Olaf Choir for a rendition of Um Ya Ya in the Choir’s annual concert during her May 1992 visit to St. Olaf College. Courtesy St. Olaf College Archives

On April 26, 2015, Betty White received a lifetime achievement award at the 42nd Annual Daytime Emmy Awards. The 93-year-old actress has a career which spans more than 70 years. She has now collected seven Emmy Awards, created many memorable roles on TV and film, authored eight books and is known for her work for animal welfare. She has 1.18 million Twitter followers. And she has also helped to make the name “St. Olaf” famous.

On July 20, 2008, I wrote to her in Los Angeles to ask about her May 3-4, 1992, visit to St. Olaf College because I was planning to write a Historic Happenings column about it.

Much to my surprise, Betty White responded immediately with a handwritten note dated July 29 and a picture inscribed to her friends at the Northfield Entertainment Guide. Since we have expanded beyond Northfield with the name The Entertainment Guide and since this May 2015 column marks my 100th Historic Happenings column in the Guide, I decided to adapt my October 2008 column about Betty White with some additional material for this issue, including a postscript. So here is a look back at what happened 23 years ago this month, when Betty White came to Northfield.

* * *

When I lived in New York and told anyone that my alma mater was St. Olaf, more often than not the response was, “Oh, St. Olaf. Like in The Golden Girls!” Perhaps you, too, have had that experience while traveling. Say the words “St. Olaf” and many outsiders think of the fictional town of St. Olaf, Minnesota, made famous by Betty White as the hometown of the naïve, childlike character, Rose Nylund, that she portrayed in the popular TV series, The Golden Girls.

A very historic happening took place May 3-4, 1992, when
Betty White came to the St. Olaf campus. In July of 2008, I wrote to Betty White in Los Angeles, requesting a photograph to use with a story about her visit. She responded in a very short time with a picture dedicated to the Northfield Entertainment Guide and a handwritten letter in which she recounted her memories of that time. Here is the text of that letter:

July 29, 2008
Dear Susan,

Thanks so much for your nice letter. I remember my visit to St. Olaf very well. I was a little apprehensive as I was afraid they would resent the fact that Rose wasn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but they couldn’t have been warmer and more welcoming. To this day I have my Uff Da cup and shirt.

I remember meeting an exchange student from Germany who told me a story that made me laugh. He said that when he told friends that he was going to go to school in America at St. Olaf College they would say, “Oh – Golden Girls!” He would say no and explain that St. Olaf was a school famous for its magnificent choir! And then they’d say “Oh – we didn’t know the Golden Girls sang!!”

Please give my regards to all on your beautiful campus – and keep up that wonderful singing.

Warmest regards,
Betty

Accounts from the St. Olaf alumni magazine of July/August 1992, the Northfield News and Dan Jorgensen (who was then public relations director at St. Olaf) bring back other memories of those two days. Jorgensen picked up White and her assistant in Minneapolis and, as they neared Northfield, they came upon a farm dog sitting on the road. White, fearing the dog would get hit, insisted on stopping the car in order to shepherd the dog into a ditch. She told the dog, “Stay!” and returned to the car.

“There! I feel better!” said White, a well-known dog lover and animal welfare activist. (When Jorgensen looked through the rear view mirror, he saw that the dog had already resumed his position on the road.) When they got to the Archer House, White immediately bonded with another dog lover, the hotel’s owner, Dallas Haas.

During Betty White’s 1992 visit to Northfield, Myrna Johnson (center) struck up an instant rapport with White due to their mutual support of community theater. Johnson has been a driving force at the Northfield Arts Guild. This picture of White, Johnson and White’s assistant, Gail Clark, was taken after breakfast at the Ole Store. Courtesy Dan Jorgensen

The visit itself was a whirlwind of activity for the five-time Emmy award-winning actress. White created a flurry of excitement when she showed up at a St. Olaf women’s softball game. She attended both a rehearsal and the spring concert of the St. Olaf Choir, joining the Choir in singing the college fight song, Um Ya Ya. The next morning, she had breakfast at the Ole Store and a tour of the Northfield Historical Society museum. Seeing a photo of the outlaw Jesse James, she said, “Look at his eyes. Is it any wonder Fonda played him?”

Jorgensen took her on a driving tour of Northfield and then they returned to the campus for a chapel service. St. Olaf President Melvin George spoke on the topic “Becoming like children…” and concluded his talk by thanking the Rose Nylund character “for reminding all Americans, even as they giggle nervously at some of the things you do, that being open, humble, dependent, and vulnerable like a child is something to be admired, that naïveté is not all bad, and that happy endings are, in fact, what God had in mind all along when he made the world.”

Betty White provided a flurry of excitement when she attended a St. Olaf women’s softball game on May 3, 1992, during her visit to the campus. Courtesy St. Olaf College Archives

White met with student government leaders, was interviewed on WCAL and was made an honorary member of the drama society, Theta Alpha Phi. She spoke to theater majors about her long and distinguished career, including her famous role as Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. A “Betty White type” was needed for the role (which she described as someone “icky, sweet, yucky”) and when they couldn’t find anybody “sickening enough,” in White’s words, they gave her the role, which became a recurring part on the last four years of the show. Contrasting the roles of Sue Ann and Rose, White said Sue Ann was this “brassy, sure-of-herself, rotten person, and yet the writers let you peek through once in a while.” Rose, however, was “wholly honest,” and would “believe anything anybody tells her, because it makes logical, good old ‘St. Olaf sense’ to her. If you told Rose, ‘Boy, I could eat a horse,’ she’d call the SPCA.”

White told the thespians, “I feel like I’ve been seeing St. Olaf from the inside. It will make a whole difference in my Rose characterization, I can assure you. I won’t be as tentative. I will be surer-footed, because you really understand where Rose is coming from and she really is coming from your values.”
The song goes, “We come from St. Olaf, we sure are the real stuff…” and the same can be said of Betty White: She sure is the real stuff! And we will treasure the picture she inscribed to us here at the Northfield Entertainment Guide.

~ ~ ~

Postscript: I sent copies to Betty White of the October 2008 Northfield Entertainment Guide on Oct. 3, thanking her for her contribution to the story. The Office of Advancement and College Relations at St. Olaf asked me to also send her a St. Olaf alumni magazine and several gifts from the college store, including a toy bone with the St. Olaf insignia on it for her dog. On Oct. 21, she wrote back: “What a lovely surprise to receive your package of St. Olaf goodies. Thank you so much. I appreciate the DVD, the cap, flag, um ya ya tags, cup and knit cap. And my golden, Pontiac, says a big thank you for his bone! I have such happy memories of my visit to your beautiful school and please give everyone my best. Thanks again for your thoughtfulness. Warmest, Betty White.”

I had told her in my letter of Oct. 3 that we felt honored to have a special connection to her in Northfield and concluded with words every Ole knows: Fram! Fram! (Forward! Forward!)

That sounds like the motto Betty White lives by every day.

Why St. Olaf?

It is not known exactly how the show happened to use the name St. Olaf for Rose’s quirky hometown. It has been rumored that a Carleton graduate who was a scriptwriter on The Golden Girls introduced it, but Carleton archivist Eric Hillemann has discounted this story. Dan Jorgensen, then public relations director at St. Olaf, got a phone call from the producers prior to the show’s debut in 1985, asking if the college would mind having a character from “St. Olaf, Minnesota” on the show. The character, Rose, would be “ditzy but fun.” Jorgensen thought it could be “to our benefit to be supportive and cooperative,” especially with such a talented person as Betty White portraying Rose, and he saw opportunities here to publicize the college. When anyone would ask about the connection, the college could say that “Rose was just a fictional character from a fictional St. Olaf,” but “the real place has a rich and storied history of its own,” said Jorgensen. So there were no objections. St. Olaf College then sent T-shirts, mugs and other items with the college name on them for use in the television series, which ran from 1985-1992 on NBC. (White continued the role of Rose on a spin-off called The Golden Palace for one more season.)

The St. Olaf Choir Visits The Golden Girls in 1989

Betty White received a St. Olaf sweatshirt and tapes of the St. Olaf Choir from Choir officers, Kevin Bailey of Northfield and Solveig Nilsen of Iowa City, after the Choir attended a taping of her show, The Golden Girls, prior to their concert in Los Angeles held on Feb. 9, 1989. Photo by Dan Jorgensen, courtesy St. Olaf College Archives

The St. Olaf Choir visited the Hollywood set of The Golden Girls while on its Southwest and west coast tour in January and February of 1989. Dan Jorgensen, who had helped arrange the visit as St. Olaf’s public relations director, said that the Oles took up about half of the 150 seats in the studio, and all were wearing blue shirts with the “St. Olaf” insignia. Later, White was given a St. Olaf sweatshirt by the Choir, along with tapes of the Choir.

Prior to the show, Betty White and Rue McClanahan (who played Blanche) surprised the audience by coming out and singing the St. Olaf College fight song, Um Ya Ya, which Jorgensen had taught them earlier, at their request.

“Don’t any of you know this song?” White asked, and the St. Olaf Choir joined in. White said that after hearing those glorious voices, “Rue and I crawled off the stage. It was such fun.”
Bob Hope was a guest star that day and, along with the cast, talked with the Choir after the taping. Entertainment Tonight covered the event, calling it “Life Imitates Art.”

The next day, Mayor Tom Bradley proclaimed February 9, 1989, to be “St. Olaf Choir Day” in Los Angeles. That night, the Choir performed in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Jorgensen told me that White, her assistant Gail Clark, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty of The Golden Girls cast came to the concert: “They created quite a stir when they arrived, but none of them tried to get in the limelight and they joined the rest of the audience in the standing ovation for the Choir at the end of the show.” It was after the concert that White said she would love to come to St. Olaf sometime and, said Jorgensen, “that’s how we got the ball rolling for getting her to the campus.”

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