Carolyn Wedin, Beloved Friend and Mentor, 1940-2021

I wrote these comments for the funeral of my aunt Carolyn, which took place two days ago. I share them here with a few hyperlinks and some light edits to clarify things that were clearer in the immediate context. Carolyn died suddenly a week ago at 81. Her enormous and gracious spirit, and her powerful mind, were strong to the end. But her heart gave out in the immediate context of fighting a badly infected gall bladder, on top of various medical problems that have weakened her body over the past few years.

My mother is Carolyn’s big sister Harriet [Hulsether, known to many at the funeral], and I’ve spent summers next door to Carolyn and Tony [Rolloff] for the last 17 years, starting shortly after she retired in 1998 and they moved up here. But I’m speaking now because I’m the person here closest to Carolyn in my scholarly interests and career path: we both taught and wrote about US cultural history, with quite a bit of overlap although she focused more on literature. 

I could talk as Heather [Penney, my cousin] did about Carolyn as a glue for our family and as Lisa [Doerr, our friend] did about her as a mentor.  [They spoke just before I stood up.] She was a role model for me, starting very young. I remember liking her cornet when I was four and visiting her when I was eight, right after the KKK burned a cross on her lawn—at the time I didn’t even know what the KKK was, much less the seriousness of being a young white person in the Civil Rights movement. When I was a teen she gave me a copy of Vine Deloria’s God is Red because she could see that I needed it. When I finally read it much later it became foundational for me, but at the time this was like giving a monkey a copy of the U.S. Constitution. This sort of thing kept on for my entire life, with Carolyn ahead of me: lobbying me to apply for Fulbrights before I finished my Ph.D., being a cheerleader and sounding board throughout my career, and then a role model for retiring well.  

Mentoring my sister and me on cornet ca. 1960

In this context I also want to shout out both to Tony and to Carolyn’s first partner, Stefan [Sylvander]. It surely was not always easy to live in Carolyn’s long shadow, but both were her full partners in adventure and intellectual exploration: travel, music, and all kinds of discussions of books and films. They kept each other sharp and interesting with a sort of teamwork that I always learned from. They too were important role models for me. But luckily we aren’t eulogizing them today.

You can read about Carolyn’s awards in her obituary. Many are things that people in the very best universities would brag on. She won them as part of the first generation of women breaking the glass ceiling in academia. And unlike many others in the sisterhood doing this, she did not come up via the Ivy League with family connections, but as a poor farm kid. [People present knew well of their family’s traumatic poverty in the Great Depression; she once won a sort of competition for working “the most terrible job ever,” as I wrote about here.] She carried a heavy teaching load and cared for three babies. Her most important scholarly book is about a white woman named Mary White Ovington who was one of the two most important people, along with the exceedingly more famous W.E.B. DuBois, who built the NAACP. But Carolyn had to write this book twice—the first time, she lost years’ worth of notes when her computer was stolen during a research trip. So here’s another part of her legacy for us: don’t forget to back up your files!

Carolyn was among a small handful of people who knew the most about white allies who were close to major black literary-political figures like DuBois and James Baldwin. She is one among the dozens of people who wrote books on Baldwin. But the “white allies” part has not been a top interest of cool kids in the academic fast lane, so her Ovington book is underappreciated. However, by coincidence the one person who knows the most about this topic, George Hutchison, is my friend from the University of Tennessee. His response when I mentioned her was “Wow, you know Carolyn Wedin!; can you put me in touch?” The serious scholars know that it is a big deal to write a standard biography of Ovington. 

Reciting Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad” to me and my cousins a month ago

Carolyn knew more about local history than anyone else, period. She published a lot about this, much of it after she “retired.” My favorite is her book called Teacher: Step Outside, which I would recommend to almost anyone. No doubt many people have written down stories about their grandmas, but Carolyn’s A Story of Immigration is among the best-written of them, ever. Turning back toward the academic cool kids, here she might win a “least cool” award for studying a white guy who led a subdivision of a subdivision of Lutheranism. But the book she edited and co-translated about Louis Ahlstrom is not solely important for its local angle: Ahlstrom was at the heart of the very first wave of immigrants who founded Trade Lake and West Sweden—and I’m sorry to report here [in Zion Lutheran Church of Trade Lake], they were in rebellion against Lutherans and fighting with a religious dissenters team. This book also fills a gap in the historical record that scholars will appreciate for years to come. 

But Carolyn didn’t much care if she wasn’t among the “cool kids.” She followed her own path. She walked ahead me of all my life, and with her passing there are immense holes to fill—and not solely the scholarly ones I’ve focused on here. There is also an exemplary life to celebrate today.  

MBE standard notice: The time I spend on this blog is not in addition to a Twitter and FaceBook presence, but an alternative to it.  If you think anything here merits wider circulation, this will probably only happen if you circulate it. 

2 thoughts on “Carolyn Wedin, Beloved Friend and Mentor, 1940-2021

  1. A wonderful memorial to your aunt Mark. She was such a dynamo. She did so much and was so talented it is impossible to summarize or define the relevance of her life with any one summary. John P.


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