Emma’s tragic story

It’s really, really cold out there. Here in Morris, we’re deep in the deep freeze, in a place where exposed flesh only stings for a little while before the skin goes novocaine numb and you begin to worry that ice crystals are killing your dermis; where I live across the street from my office and I look out at the dead grey white world in the morning and wonder whether it’s worth it to hazard the walk. The only thing that gets me moving is that I’ve programmed our furnace to drop the temperature in the house during the day, when supposedly none of us are here anyway, as a cost-cutting measure — so I scuttle from a cold house through a brief bit of deadly freezing frigidity to reach a little oasis of warmth. And then I don’t want to come home again.

The house takes a while to warm up, usually not until it’s time for me to go to bed…and then my poor suffering wife has to deal with a body verging on hypothermia.

So anyway, to put it all in perspective, this morning I had to run some errands around town, and no way was I walking in this cold. I drove. Five blocks downtown, another five blocks to the edge of town and the local pharmacy, something I’d normally take care of on foot. While I was out, I happened to see our local free weekly for senior citizens (no, I don’t normally read it!) and I saw a front page story on a little local history that caught my eye: Emma’s tragic story. It’s about the only black person living in the area, over 140 years ago, a 12-year-old girl named Emma.

In its infancy, Glenwood was a village of homely wooden buildings scattered between mud paths near the east end of Lake Whipple (now called Lake Minnewaska) in the newly organized county of Pope. Census data reveals barely 200 people living in town when two men arrived from the south in 1870 – the affluent Mr. James B. Peabody and his associate, Mr. Robinson. They built a hotel called the Fountain House Hotel. By running a pipe from the town spring, Peabody and Robinson were able to erect a fountain in the front yard (thus the name Fountain House).

More interesting than the fountain, perhaps, was the fact that Peabody and his wife brought with them a child of about 12, referred to in documents at the Pope County Historical Society as “the little slave girl.” She was, the census declares, the only “colored” person in the county. Known as Emma Ferris (or Ross or Peabody), the youngster was “require to work very hard” for only room and board.

Very hard, and with little reward, only punishment: there was something called a “blacksnake whip” and stabbings in the palm with needles. Her only friend was another servant at the hotel, Ingeborg, who went home for Christmas in 1871.

Then, after a severe beating, Emma decided to run away and find Ingebord at her family farm, 5 miles away, on December 23, 1871.

Did I tell you how cold it gets around here in December? Like knives in the wind, with the ground sucking all the heat of your body and snow in wicked drifts.

Read the whole thing. But the word “tragic” in the title tells you it’s not going to have a happy ending.

Race-baiting is alive and well at UMM

The University of Minnesota Morris is a liberal arts university — that means that we teach a wide curriculum in which students are expected to graduate with a broad background. Our science students are expected to also get at least an introduction to the humanities and social sciences, and even within biology, we expect that our graduates will get training in both molecular biology and ecology (which is, of course, not as much of a reach as you might think). Our student body also tends to be rather more politically liberal and progressive than the community we’re imbedded within, although that is not a prerequisite for the liberal arts. We do have conservative students here — I expect that the majority are more conservative than I am — but they also trend towards being more the reasonable, rational, educated sort of conservative. Not the kind you’ll see on Fox News, and most unfortunately, not the kind who are likely to get elected to the Republican party.

This is not a story about any of those students. This is about our wingnutty embarrassments. We do have a few of them.

The embarrassments have a weekly student paper of their own, The North Star. We also have a regular campus weekly, the University Register. The Register is the paper we groan over; it’s student run, it’s sometimes terrible, but at least it is representative and sometimes does a good job. The North Star is a disgrace — its one virtue is that it makes the Register look professional. We’ve tolerated the North Star despite its inanity because hey, at least it’s sucking in money from external conservative organizations, and it does a fabulous job of demonstrating the ethical bankruptcy of movement conservativism. But now they’ve stepped way over the line. Their latest crusade is basically promoting racial hatred and discrimination, and I’m ashamed to see their drivel distributed on campus.

Their “new” game — it’s actually old and tired, so add total lack of originality to their sins — is “satirizing” racism. You’d think students at a liberal arts university would understand the actual meaning of satire, but they don’t, despite writing a sloppy disclaimer in their latest issue pronouncing everything they do as satire.

Here’s their most recent exercise in creativity: selling “Affirmative Action cookies,” that old game. White people are offered cookies for $5, while minority students get a discount or are even given money to take a cookie. One incident with John Geiger, the right-wing genius in charge of this demonstration, was described in today’s Register.

Mr Geiger assured me ever so sweetly that an undisclosed portion of all proceeds would go to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Mr Geiger pointed to my Native/female/LGBT friend and roommate standing next to me, she’s probably struggled so much, she could really use a cookie. He then proceeded to giver the cookie, and pay her $2.50, stating, though you’re taking proceeds from the NAACP, you probably struggled $2.50 more than them. How benevolent.

Nauseatingly patronizing, more like.

We are a university in the middle of a very white, very rural part of the country. We have been working hard to open the doors to a more diverse student body; we waive tuition to American Indian students, we want a more representative sampling of what America actually looks like, so we actively recruit students from underserved populations, so we have a large proportion of first generation college students and students on financial aid. We have had disgraceful racial incidents in the past — the Halloween practical “joke” in 1993 by our former wrestling coach Frank Pelegri is still a mark of shame — and we struggle to make this a more inclusive place. Having a group of young Republican assholes-in-training mocking our minority students is not a step forward.

Worse, they have a “satirical” series in their paper in which they call out various faculty and administrators for not doing enough to promote equality and combat racism. These are known progressive workers at our university, and are actually already working hard to create a more inclusive space — so apparently, if this is satire, they’re trying to mock leaders of our non-discriminatory policies, and are apparently opposing the encouragement and acceptance of minority students on campus. And this has taken a particularly vile turn.

On page 9 of the latest issue, they have…

Jesus, it disgusts me to even say it.

…a crime scene photo of Trayvon Martin’s dead face, with the caption Trayvon Martin, victim of racism and fascism, and what does [administrator] have to say about it? Nothing. Not a single thing.

And with that, they have crossed a line. Free speech is one thing, making light of murder and claiming that our chancellor of student affairs excuses it is another. Using dead black boys to “satirize” equality is contemptible. I would advocate the disposal of their flyers if the Ku Klux Klan started papering our campus, and likewise, the North Star has worn out its welcome and must go. Treat their scattered papers as hate-filled trash and dispose of it appropriately.

Not that it will help much. I’ve been told by one of our students that they’ve made arrangements with our town newspaper, the Sun Tribune, to have their evil rag distributed with that paper every week. I guess I won’t be reading that paper anymore, either, if they’re endorsing this kind of racism. And I guess the community will now get the idea that our university endorses racism, thanks to the racist idiots publishing the North Star.

This is currently our university’s shame. The measure of our commitment to equality will be determined by how we deal with it.

Right on schedule

In a typical year around here, we get our first snow some time around Halloween, which will melt away, and then round about Thanksgiving we enter the deep freeze after which nothing thaws until March or April. It looks like a typical start of winter around here this morning.


Good news?

The Washington Monthly has ranked UMM as a ‘standout school’.


Predicted grad rate: 60%

Actual grad rate: 60%

Net price: $9,255

Reason it made the cut: One of the only public liberal arts schools in the nation, UMM ranks just behind cash-rich Amherst and Williams for bang for the buck among schools of its type.

Morris students, a third of whom are first-generation college-goers, shoulder the lowest debt burden in the University of Minnesota system, and among the lowest in the Midwest. The public school price tag, in tandem with a low student-to-faculty ratio of 15 to 1 and other private/liberal arts school attributes, makes Morris a unique value proposition. And if a liberal arts degree may not seem like the most efficient ticket to social mobility in a depressed economy, consider this: 94 percent of recent Morris grads either went on to pursue advanced degrees or found employment within a year of leaving school, which they attribute to the resources, reputation, and connections that the campus enjoys as part of the University of Minnesota system. In addition to being able to choose from thirty-five different liberal arts majors, Morris’s 1,900 students can select from eight preprofessional programs like engineering and nursing, as well as an online learning program—reminders of that public school status and network despite the school’s small size and capacity.

I’m tempted to say, though, that you shouldn’t come here. We’re really, really good, but we’re also full up with students. All the faculty in biology are stretched thinly to keep up with everything — I don’t know that we could handle any more workload.

So unless you’re absolutely brilliant, ambitious, and enthusiastic about getting an amazingly good broad education in the liberal arts, you shouldn’t apply here. Maybe you can go to the University of Minnesota Twin Cities instead? It’s a perfectly nice second choice.

If you can’t get in here, I’m sure you’ve got some acceptable safety schools, like Harvard or something.

Wincing…and applauding

Oh, man, I can’t endorse this action by Lakota and Dakota women. I think people have a right to do as they please (as long as it doesn’t harm others) on their private property — that goes for worshipping Jesus or Thor, desecrating Bibles, or even flying Nazi flags. (All bets are off if the Nazi sympathizers in Leith, ND, who were trying to stage a takeover of the local government, were flying that flag as representative of the city.)

So I can’t support seizing the Nazi flag and burning it, if it were someone else’s private property. But I still look at this picture and think…whoa, but they are badass.

Lakota and Dakota grandmothers captured the Nazi flag hanging in Leith, ND and burned it. Warriors!

Lakota and Dakota grandmothers captured the Nazi flag hanging in Leith, ND and burned it. Warriors!

A blissful silence falls over the town

The Curse of Morris is no more. Last month, someone cut the wires to the cheesy carillon located in the cemetery just north of me, and the chimes no longer ring out every goddamn quarter hour. The obnoxious ass, Ted Storck, who is responsible for these horrible things wrote a letter to our local paper and also mailed me a note in which he accused me or my amoral atheist buddies of having done it.

Cutting cemetery chimes was a savage act

I hope the person(s) who used a hatchet to chop the wires going to the chimes at Summit Cemetery is happy with himself or herself. Those chimes brought comfort to many folks at burials, as well as those visiting the cemeteries at other times. The chimes are maintained by the veterans posts of Morris, and the repair cost will mean less money to assist those in need, both veterans and others. The chimes were placed there to honor those who served our nation. You dishonored their service by your savage act. You even cut the wires we use to turn off one speaker to the northeast when there are no burials in that area, so if we can’t afford to repair that wire, all four speakers will be left on even when there are no burials in that area, but burials in Calvary and areas to the south. When there are burials, as the hearse enters the cemetery, the bells toll and then after the service, hymns are played.

Be proud of yourself; I’m sure your mother and father would be proud of how they raised you.

The mortality rate in Morris must be tremendous, because those hymns were played every quarter hour, starting in the early hours of the morning, so there must have been 50 funerals a day. Maybe the reason they’ve gone silent is that everyone is dead now?

Storck is such a dishonest fraud. No, I and the other residents of this neighborhood would have no objection at all if the chimes were played for funerals, or for the special ceremonies the local veterans have there; that would be entirely reasonable. The constant din is not. And for Storck, that arrogant carpet-bagging out-of-towner, to insist on subjecting others to a level of noise he can’t hear is unconscionable.

As for the claim that I’m responsible: no. I admit, I have fantasized about seeing them shut off, but usually those daydreams involve a squadron of A-10s howling overhead and turning them into a smoking, flaming crater with Hellfire missiles, not a few chops of an axe. And of course, I have two good reasons for not doing it: as a moral person with an opposition to vandalism, I’d prefer it were handled more ethically, and also as the village atheist of Morris, Minnesota, getting caught vandalizing a Catholic cemetery would have wider repercussions than the merely personal.

But then, Ted Storck can’t comprehend that, as his moral sense has apparently atrophied and replaced with religious dogma and a large dollop of sanctimony.

I’m just going to enjoy the peace and quiet before they repair the damage, after which, knowing Storck’s attitude, they’ll probably redouble the rate or volume of the curse he’s bestowed on this town.

Cafe Scientifique resumes!

I’m giving you plenty of advanced warning, because I know it’ll take you a bit to arrange air flights and all that. Our first Cafe Scientifique of the new school year will be on 24 September, at the Common Cup Coffeehouse in downtown Morris. Biologist Pete Wyckoff will be telling us about


Wait, what forests of Western Minnesota? I guess we’ll find out what happened to them.

As a special inducement, we have charismatic and cheerful students doing all the introductions — no more bearded old guy being boring. And also…door prizes! And a trivia contest! With prizes! Brush up on your tree lore before coming around, because you’ll be getting quizzed on trees and forests.

Wait, this is Western Minnesota. These will have to be really simple questions, like “what is a tree?” and “is it a plant or an animal?” and “what do you call a herd of trees?” Maybe Pete will show photographs of forests so the locals will learn to recognize them.

Don’t you wish you’d chosen UMM?

Now that the academic year is starting, the Star-Tribune puts out a short summary of success at Minnesota colleges. We’ll use it next year to recruit more students.

The University of Minnesota, Morris stands out among the state’s public four-year institutions for generating more grads than expected at a good price. UM-Morris Chancellor Jacquie Johnson attributes that result to a tight-knit, supportive campus culture that allows the nearly 1,800 students to build strong relationships with faculty. One of every three students at Morris is either minority or international in origin. The school’s success with that diverse student population warrants examination and imitation.

Yay, us!