E. Gus

by Bob Bach

While rummaging through a box of old North Park memorabilia on a recent quiet afternoon, I came across a Swedish exam I had taken in the Fall of 1957. My test result was pathetic and along with the many red marks that appeared was a little note from my instructor, E. Gustav Johnson. It read: “Learning the Swedish language requires regular class attendance. You don’t occasionally go to football practice do you?”

I pin a lot of the blame for my predicament on Phil Johnson. For it was he who suggested that we celebrate my 18th birthday with a vicious ping-pong tournament in the basement of Burgh Hall at the exact time that I should have been in the basement of Nyvall Hall with E. Gus. To make matters worse, the tournament stretched on for days. Phil was cocky–he had a padded paddle that he had used to mow down everyone each summer at Koochiching Bible Camp in Minnesota and, I was determined not to be one of his victims at North Park. Although I was holding my own with Phil, I was rapidly sliding downhill in Swedish class. I was in deep need of life support and it would be E. Gus, himself, who would administer it.

Professor E. Gus Johnson

He was seated alone in a booth at Loree’s Coffee Shop. For me it was now or never. I slid in across from him, plagued with a feeling of insecurity along with the slight discomfort of ping-pong elbow. Little did I realize at the time that I was alone with a Covenant heavyweight–one who had come from Sweden in 1903 as a ten year old boy, had learned a printer’s trade, and hadn’t even gone to college until he was thirty years old. But he had earned degrees at North Park in the Academy, College, and Seminary and had graduate degrees from Duke and the University of Chicago. He had translated several books and hundreds of hymns, edited several Swedish-American periodicals, and had been knighted by the King of Sweden in 1951 for his continuing interest in Swedish culture and its promotion in the United States. He was a personal friend of Carl Sandburg for crying out loud, and here I was trying to shine him on and wiggle out of some deep trouble.

“Mr. Johnson, I want to apologize for my lousy attendance and poor work in class.” I had a bad case of cotton mouth and needed water–my lips stuck together.

He looked at me over the top of his glasses. I couldn’t help but notice his ruddy face and sly grin. He leaned forward; a faint odor of cigar wafted my way. He put his hand with the missing two fingers to his chin.

“Work?” he said softly.

I knew what he was saying as I unstuck my lips and whimpered, “Uh, well, I just want to catch up and do better.”

“I’m not sure you can really catch up,” he replied softly. How are you doing in your other classes?”

“Well, uh, English, Social Studies, Bible, fair. Biology, tough. P.E., fine.”

“I thought so,” he said. “Why did you take Swedish?”

“Thought it would be easy,” I stammered.

“It’s not easy,” he replied. “The first step is to master the sounds, and a good way to do that is by memorization and repetition and, of course, you need to be in class.”

“I will attend class regularly from now on,” I promised, “and I’ll do whatever extra work you want to assign me.” By now my face was redder than his–we had a big game with Thornton coming up and I needed to be eligible. His little grin reappeared, and I began to sense a ray of hope.

“You come to class regularly and on time and bring me next week the definition of this word and we’ll see what happens,” he said. He scribbled the word, stehho, on a napkin and handed it to me. I bolted out of Loree’s with a whole new outlook on life and headed straight to Burgh Hall to find Phil. As I expected, he was in the basement showing off with that padded paddle.

“Phil,” I said breathlessly, “I think I can pass E. Gus’ class–no more ping-pong, and I need to find the meaning of this word.” I unfolded the napkin and held it up just as he was delivering an overhead smash to the reeling Willie Pearson.

“Hey, I don’t know Swedish, and I’ve never seen that before,” he said.

“Come on, you’re always getting those sickening straight A’s,” I hollered. “You know Greek. Why don’t you know this?”

“See Uncle Louie,” he muttered.

I headed quickly to the office of Vice-President Louis J. Person–Uncle Louie to some of us. He loved sports and was a safe haven for athletes in need. I was in need.

“Dr. Person, I’m doing a little project for my Swedish class, and I’m stuck on a word, and I wonder if perhaps you could help me.” I showed him the word that I had now written neatly on a piece of paper.

“Hmm, I’m not at all familiar with that,” he said. “Have you checked with E. Gustav Johnson?”

“I’m hoping to surprise him with it,” I whispered.

For the next few days, I floundered. Oh, I faithfully went to class but was constantly haunted by this word. No one had heard of it. I asked Albin Erickson; I asked P. J. Larson; I asked J. Irving Erickson–I even mustered up enough guts to ask J. Frederick Burgh.

It may have been Phil or Denny Jones who said, “Hey, you oughta call the Swedish Consulate downtown.” What the heck. I had nothing to lose, so I did. I can’t remember exactly how I presented my problem to the Swedes down there, but they were very nice and promised to check into it. I gave them the dorm number at Burgh Hall. A day or so later, I received a call from a gentleman from their office. “Mr. Bach, this word presented quite a challenge here for several of us. What you gave us isn’t a Swedish word–It’s an old German word and refers, we believe, to a printing process. That’s the best we can do for you and we wish you good luck on your project.”

It was one fine day when the next Swedish class rolled around. I slid into the hard desk seat; the overhead heating pipes that knocked and growled were music to my ears. Actually it was a music day in class as we all joined in to sing, “I sommarens soliga dagar vi sjunga var vi ga. Hallå! Hallå!” I could have made the North Park choir that day.

When class was over, I carefully approached E. Gus. “I’ve got the meaning of the word,” I said brightly, but it’s not even a Swedish word.” He looked at me with a little grin. “I didn’t tell you that it was a Swedish word,” he chuckled. “I understand you’ve been asking around a lot about it. How did you find it?” I proudly gave him my story.

“Very good,” he said as we walked together up the steps. “And you’re doing a little better in class.” He seemed amused. We parted in front of Nyvall and I watched him walk slowly down the sidewalk toward Foster.

E. Gus ended his teaching career at North Park in 1959 but stayed around for some more years as Covenant Archivist. He was known as a friend to students and because of that was dubbed “Mr. North Park.” I recently ran into Rev. Phil Danielson (C’48) (S’51). This veteran Covenant pastor and tough lineman for the NP Vikings was also a student of E. Gus. He recalled a day spent with him at Yosemite. One can only imagine what went through E. Gus’ mind when he experienced the rugged grandeur of the towering granite peaks and majestic waterfalls. For it was he who in 1925 translated Carl Boberg’s song “O Store Gud” which gave birth to our English version of “How Great Thou Art.” The lines from the original Swedish, “O Mighty God, when I behold the wonder, of nature’s beauty, wrought by words of Thine,” no doubt came alive in a new way to him. Here’s how Phil Danielson remembers the day:

It was 1953 and the Covenant Annual Meeting was being held in Turlock and E. Gus was there. Two of my buddies, Paul and Harry Johnson, and I took him to Yosemite on the Saturday of the Annual Meeting. He was overwhelmed by the spectacular scenery, but after treating us to dinner at the Wawona Hotel, he told us that the big thrill for him was spending a day with the fellas.

E. Gus spent his retirement years at Covenant Palms in Florida. A few years before his death in 1974, his friend Karl Olsson, President of North Park presented E. Gus with an honorary doctoral degree. As part of the ceremony, the audience joined together to sing an old Swedish hymn, “Savior in Thy Love Abiding,” which E. Gus had translated. In that hymn are these words: “Should I faint and fall, restore me, through all perils help me stand.” E. Gus, too, helped many students regain their footing.

Oh, by the way. Phil Johnson continued to wreak havoc with that blasted paddle while graduating magna cum laude. As for me, by the grace of God and a key downfield block from E. Gus, I passed Swedish by the skin of my teeth. “Loven Gud med glädjesång.”

Bob Bach, from Angels Camp, California, is Pietisten’s roving reporter

See all articles by Bob Bach