Second Keynote speaker – Marilyn Carlson Nelson

I had the privilege of hearing Marilyn Carlson Nelson give her keynote address at the AALSH conference last week. She is proud of being from Minnesota where the MN Historical society is so highly regarded, they are one of the leading societies in the nation. When she went to the MNHS in St. Paul, she saw Oven heart pioneers, how they were preserving that info, she saw the early published cartoons of Charles Schultz. There were archival drawers with a pair of overalls from the late 1800s. It was patched together with mismatched cloth but to her there was a sense of eloquence in the simple everyday material. Marilyn had a sense of gratitude looking at this artifact because of her feeling indebted to the hard work of the early immigrants.

Marilyn is an economist and now a leader of a global CEO group, she has had to answer to many people all over the world. She was familiar with the expression “If you can’t ride two horses at once at the same time, get out of the circus.” The MNHS has a 75 year history. She is reminded of what Carl Sandburg, Swedish poet, said, “It cost to build this nation, took men and women to throw in all they had to shape the future to this present time…civilization perishes when they forget where they came from.”

The role of history, she believes there is the “invisible hand” in Sandburg’s poem. She has a visceral feeling of “We must tell the present where we came from.” She experienced the anniversary of Normandy during D-Day invasion celebration recently. She was on Omaha Beach and she was reminded of the vastness of the soldiers’ sacrifice. The repeated words of “Commitment, courage and sacrifice” kept running through her mind. She heard in her mind, “Do not forget the price of your freedom, do we really appreciate our freedoms?” As she was leaving that ceremony, she heard a young soldier playing taps…it was very emotional for her.

The Walker Art Center has on the side of its building “Bits and pieces making a semblance of a whole.” She has a grandson who is going to Harvard and taking a course titled “Tangible Things” where they discuss history through and stuff around you. People make history through what they gather. She has an example of how her grandmother never made bread, she was afraid to use her yeast. The grandfather wanted to change that so he went to a bake shop and got the recipe. Except it was for a day’s worth of bread that they would sell, not just for a small family. So, they set to work and had yeast and dough rising out of every pan they had in the house. Many years later when they were cleaning out the old house, they found a tiny pan on the very top shelf in the back corner with her grandfather’s writing to explain the dried up old bread in the pan, it read, “Nelly’s first bread.”

They had heard in their family’s oral history about this baking episode but it was made real when they saw the handwriting of grandfather and the bread that her grandmother had made. They were entrusted with stewardship, every person is called upon to be a leader. She has written the book “How We Lead Matters.”

Marilyn was asked another question by her 12 year old grandson one day reflecting on their own history. She asked herself, “Do they REALLY know us?” This spurred Marilyn on to pull together little family anecdotes, find great leaders who had inspired her. She put her life lessons together and gave it to a friend to ask if she should publish this for just her family or if the general public should read this. McGraw Hill contacted her shortly afterwards and it became a book of the core lessons she had learned, there were timeless messages that were very personal in this book that was initially meant to answer her 12 year old grandson.

It wasn’t only about looking in the rearview mirror but also into the present. She wrote about her own grandfather who had come as a Swedish immigrant to the new land, holding his father’s hand with their very few belongings. What that small trunk held told the story of what these immigrants treasured most, clothing, Bible, tools. It also told what they chose to leave behind in the Old Country. Marilyn mentioned about Moberg and the book “The Immigrants”, the Neilson family had a “chest of essentials.” The Moberg trail, 1948 started to do research. He wrote about the “four oak walls of the chest” which was meant to protect, the planks and the ancient clothes chest, new name, all other the “American chest”

Tangible item – sadness and hopefulness 1812 – 1842 brought from Norway, America’s chest 1776, brought to St. Paul in 1876. A replica was made of it in 1998. This became a physical reminded to Marilyn where her ancestors had come from. Her grandfather came to MN in 1938 and started a company with a borrowed $50. Packing trunk leave beind past, about diversity of women and minority, in the early 1960s she was studying intl. economics at Smith College Historical context, BEFORE Title 6, 7 and 9 , she was to stay on the job, started as an analyst, she was living history

Tools to innovate in chest, challenges of public dollar and private funding, other people traffic, history about prohibition, music from 1920s
Collaboration: only way to make into the future. U of M Business – Carlson school of Management, business plan went 200%, they wanted customers to come back to same exhibit. They had interest groups in themes of music and arts, saw it with new eyes. Make old fresh and new again, look at the market conditions.

The Carlson credo was “whatever you do, do with integrity, serve with care, whatever happens, never, ever give up!” That was the guiding principle for their employees and then the chaos of 9/11 happened. They had built that credo into everyone and had to trust the decision making that their company would take care of both employees and customers even when there was no communication. The actions of their employees was to build a common culture and make the right choices.

We need to take out of our trunks the old way of thinking, especially the Civil rights. In the 1940s, Hubert Humphrey was the mayor of Mpls. The Twin Cities was considered the anti-semitism capital of the nation. He said, “If we don’t believe that all men are created equal, we should stop saying it.”

Ideals gap and actions, early copy of the Constitution, it was written in the Dakota language, there is the irony. Carlson credo, wary of beliefs, values are more enduring. History tells us, slavery was an ___ exchange, changed laws and customs. Historians helps to discern what is fact and fiction. We have grand opportunities as part of our journey. Individual history – recounted in family stories. All living link from past and future.

One last story, tangible, a piece of fabric is hanging in Marilyn’s closet, it is more precious than her wedding dress or a designer gown. It is a simple pink and white striped Candy Striper outfit for hospital volunteers with the name tag “Juliet Nelson” on the apron. In the pocket of that dress is the senior speech that Juliet gave as an 18 year old, it was something to the effect, “Life is always fragile, what if something happened to you today, unperformed duties, unsaid words, unfulfilled plans…” She had a strong sense of her own journey. A Greek poet, Caketry (sp) once wrote “When you start on your road to Ithica, pray that it is long.” In other words, don’t hurry the journey along.

Three months after that speech was made Marilyn and her husband brought Juliet to her dorm room at Smith College and met her dorm mates, her roommate, etc. Ten days later she was killed in a car crash. Marilyn yearns for her physical presence. She has her Candy Striper uniform still, she is proud of her 18 years, volunteering her time, that uniform is tangible proof that she existed.

Marilyn ended with “May our journeys be made real, Historians make it happen, Journey all is here, each of us is in the making.”

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