Mel Soderstrom, Steady Man on Campus

by Bob Bach

It’s a short walk from Mel Soderstrom’s house to his office in Old Main. He has taken that walk for more than 30 years. Although the challenge of crossing Foster Avenue hasn’t changed much over time, other things have. It’s a different North Park today than it was when he first joined the staff in 1964, but it is the same Mel.

Born and raised in Chicago, he grew up on the notorious south side. "9805 Claremont, to be specific," says his childhood buddy, Arnie Almer. "He and I have been friends ever since I can remember, his parents and my parents were friends, we grew up in the same church together (Grand Crossing—then the name was changed to Trinity), and we were baptized together. We played ball together in the driveway, in Hi-League, and in City League. He was pretty slow but had a good jumper and I usually had to do all the running on the fast breaks. Mel’s mother never let him miss Sunday School and he was the only kid in the church who had perfect attendance. The bars on his attendance pin came all the way down to his knees."

Mel and Arnie entered North Park together in the fall of 1956 and, not surprisingly, became roommates. "We roomed together our freshman, sophomore, and junior years," recalls Arnie. "I don’t know if it was because I put the tape down the middle of the room which became our 38th parallel, but in our senior year, he roomed with Bob Blomgren who took things a little more seriously than I did."

Mel and Arnie would graduate together in the class of 1960—the first four-year graduating class at North Park. "Let me say this about the Judge," Arnie says seriously, referring to the nickname pinned on Mel early in his North Park days because of his keen insight, knowledge about everything that was going on, and his ability to render opinions on most matters. "He is extremely loyal, he always keeps in communication and lets you know what is going on, and he never runs anybody down. I love him like a brother—always have and always will."

Following graduation, Mel did a stint with the Army and then went to work for Central Steel and Wire in Chicago. North Park was in his blood, however, and in 1964 he joined the staff in placement. His assignment was to help graduates find jobs. Assisting him in landing this role was Carroll Peterson (C.P.) who was then Dean of Students. "Mel had a wonderful disposition," recalls C.P., "and was a natural fit."

In August of 1965, Mel married Joanne Young, who had also grown up in the Trinity Covenant Church and who had just graduated from North Park. That Fall, a residence counselor for freshman boys was needed at Sohlberg Hall and Mel assumed this responsibility. So, he and Joanne made their first home in the dorm. A year later, Joanne began her career with the Chicago Public Schools and since that time has served as an elementary school teacher, a teacher of handicapped students, and currently as a counselor and case manager.

In 1968, Mel and Joanne purchased a home on the corner of Sawyer and Berwyn where they still reside. Three children were born to them—Kristen in 1968, Karl in 1970, and Ann in 1974. All of their children are North Park graduates. Mel was active in the lives of his children throughout their schools years. He served as a parent representative at Von Steuben High School, continuing as a community representative when his children were out of school.

Mel’s strengths have been with people—not necessarily as a craftsman or fixer-upper. The story has been told about the time in grade school when his daughter, Kristen, was asked to draw a picture of her daddy with some tool. She drew him holding a toothbrush which suggests that there may not have been a lot of tools around the Soderstrom household that Mel put his hands around. From the Placement Office, Mel moved into the Financial Aid Department and for many years served as the director. In 1976, he went on sabbatical and worked in Washington D.C. lobbying and increasing his influence with legislators in the area of federal aid for college students. His work in the Financial Aid Department and his tireless negotiating with powerful consortiums of colleges and universities regarding reciprocal financial aid packages, made it possible for countless men and women to receive an education.

Jim Lundeen, former Director of Admissions at North Park worked closely with Mel for more than 15 years. Today Jim serves the Covenant Ministries of Benevolence in the Compassion and Justice Office. Although he and Mel do not work together professionally today, they remain good friends, tennis buddies, and fellow church members. "Mel has a great love for people," says Jim, "and consistently stays in touch with many retired faculty and staff who have left the city. He sends them articles clipped from the North Park campus newspaper, the New Republic, Wall Street Journal, and just about anything else he can get his hands on. He has a unique way of linking people to one another and to North Park."

He has always been good at returning phone calls and following up on messages. Once, as an April Fool prank, he was given the number to return a call from a Mr. Fisch. He immediately dialed the number. "Shedd Aquarium, may I help you?" came the answer. "Is Mr. Fisch available?" asked Mel. The response came back flippantly, "Mr. Fisch is in the tank." "Well this is Mel Soderstrom from North Park, would you tell him that I am returning his call?"

"There is no doubt," Jim continues, "where Mel stands on almost any issue. He wasn’t called ‘The Judge’ for nothing. But he takes his faith quietly and doesn’t stick his beliefs on bumper stickers. For him, it’s how you live out what’s inside that makes the difference. When I think of Mel, Jesus, and discipleship, I think of the scriptural admonition to ‘not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that your gifts may be in secret…’ (Matthew 6:3, 4). Much of Mel’s reward will be given where it matters; he’s unconcerned that you know his good deeds now. He doesn’t like to discuss his innermost feelings, he’d rather whistle a happy tune and move on."

Currently, Mel serves as Major Gifts Officer in Development. It has been nearly 45 years since he stepped on campus as a student. Over the years he has been a friend, colleague, and helper to hundreds of students and staff members. He has endured the many changes that have occurred over these four decades by remaining loyal, faithful, and maintaining a good sense of humor—and that whistle.

If you give him a call, he’ll answer it or get back to you immediately. If you need a ride to the airport, he’ll either take you himself or get you a ride. If you want his opinion on the presidential election, he’ll give it to you. But, if you try to get some inside scoop on somebody at North Park, forget it—unless it is something positive!