A Breathing Instrument of Time
How a Lost Ode Helped Inspire an Anniversary and a New Presidency
By Laura Pochodylo '14
Carl Sandburg reading "Youth & Pioneers:
Seventy-four years after being read on the steps of Old Main, Carl Sandburg's "Youth and Pioneers: An Ode" was lost in time, residing in the pages of decades old commemorative books and forgotten file folders. Yet this ode, written for the rededication of Old Main during Knox's centenary year, emerged as a guiding force behind the College's 175th anniversary. How did this ode from Knox's past emerge to inspire a new generation of Knox students, faculty, and staff?
"Well, it started accidentally," President Teresa Amott explains, sitting in her office in Old Main under a portrait of renowned Galesburg poet Carl Sandburg, "this accidental discovery."
Megan Scott '96, associate vice president and chief communications officer, was cleaning her office at the end of June last year. She came across, as her e-mail to President Amott describes, "a file with some interesting Knox history pieces." One of those pieces was a speech, titled "Youth & Pioneers: An Ode" by Sandburg. It was written for the College's centenary year celebration and rededication of Old Main in 1937. Scott passed it along to Amott-"thought this might make an interesting read for you"-as Amott was preparing to begin her tenure as president of Knox College a week later.
"I read it while surrounded by boxes. The movers were coming in three days. It was mayhem," Amott explains. "I opened the e-mail, and I was just blown away by the piece, it's so remarkable. But I was packing and moving, and it went into the back of my head."
It didn't stay there for long. As the new president arrived on campus, saw the worn steps inside Old Main, and absorbed the building's great ethos in person, the speech reemerged. President Amott experienced what Sandburg meant when he described Old Main as a "breathing instrument" of time.
"The piece is powerful, but it has even more resonance now that I'm physically here," Amott said. "From the time I came to campus, to the time I walked into Old Main, to the time I had to write my first comments for the Knox community, the power of this piece just stayed with me."
Her first comments, a letter in the fall 2011 issue of Knox Magazine, revolved around the power of this speech.
"Each day I have the great privilege of walking into my office in Old Main. You can't help but feel the weight of Knox's history as you pass through its beautiful doors and feel the smooth, cool floors under your feet," Amott wrote.
Sam Brownson '12 (center) performing his
Sandburg's ode lingered with Amott as she continued through the fall, looking for ways to celebrate Knox's 175th anniversary. A Homecoming ballad was commissioned, and the singer-songwriter Samuel Brownson '12 was given the speech to read. While the song, "On the Steps of Old Main," is not directly about the speech, Brownson explains that Sandburg's themes and his discussion of Old Main were inspirational springboards for the song, but the folk ballad itself became more "personal and nostalgic."
"I really loved how the whole speech was about Old Main. It is incredible how you could make this one building a symbol that seemed larger than life," Brownson said. "That idea of focusing on Old Main, and what it means to me, and what it might mean to alumni, was what spawned the song, really." Listen to the song by Sam Brownson.
Brownson, also a member of the Knox College Choir, got to experience the next evolution of the speech in Knox's history. Prior to contacting Brownson, Amott approached Laura Lane, director of the Knox College Choir, about commissioning a choral piece to honor Knox's 175th year. Amott passed the speech along to Lane, in hopes she could find a composer who would transform Sandburg's words into music. Composer Daniel Godsil, a music instructor at the College and Galesburg native, turned out to be the man for the job.
While the piece, appropriately titled "Youth & Pioneers: An Ode," was intended to be performed at Commencement in June, both Lane and Godsil hoped to have it ready for Amott's installation.
"It came together because Dan wanted that to happen, and he spent so much time on it," Lane said.
The Knox College Choir performing "Youth & Pioneers: An
Lane, who described the piece as "challenging, strong, inspirational, and moving to the audience," as well as "the most Knox-specific choral work ever written," credits Godsil's dedication to maintaining the integrity of Sandburg's words, down to their poetic value, as an important factor of the piece's success.
"Because I'm a really huge fan of Sandburg's poetry, when I was writing the piece I had to really extract the lines that were more poetic. I had my copy of Sandburg's Cornhuskers and the Chicago Poems out just getting used to his language again," Godsil explained. "It was a matter of reading his speech over and over, reading his poetry over and over, and getting a sense of how he worked with the language."
Once the date for the installation was set for May, Lane and Godsil pushed to have the piece ready. And sure enough, on the day of her installation, May 5, "Youth & Pioneers: An Ode" by Daniel Godsil was premiered immediately before President Amott's forward-looking speech about what Sandburg's words mean to students in a global community. Watch the Knox College Choir sing "Youth & Pioneers: An Ode."
Martina Pezzino '15 described how emotional it was to sing such a "Knox-y" piece at a pivotal moment in the school's history.
"There's a part in the speech where Sandburg is quoting what Old Main would be saying if it could speak. We, as a choir, talked about that a lot, what sort of things that building has seen. You walk up the stairs, and you see the indentations. You can see the marks where feet were," Pezzino said. "It was that kind of feeling, when we were standing up there singing in the same spot that Sandburg spoke. You could almost see those indentations. That's what it felt like."
Pezzino was not the only Choir member to be moved by the piece. Jmaw Moses '13 remarked how exciting it was to be "a part of Knox's history at such a close level."
"It was just breathtaking to sing it at the installation," Moses said.
Knox was -- and remains -- a college deeply rooted in its historic traditions, which Sandburg understood 75 years ago. His understanding of the tenuous distinction between past and present in a personal and institutional sense was something Amott recognized as a strength of the ode.
"I love the way it pointed us to the future . . . Sandburg was standing in 1937, looking into a future that is for us the past," Amott explains. "That constant reframing of where the future becomes the past, where the present is fleeting-it was, for me, a very defining piece of writing."
When Sandburg wrote his "Youth & Pioneers: An Ode," he likely didn't expect for his words to make a resurgence with poignant relevance in the celebration of the school's 175th year. And when Scott unearthed the text of the speech and decided to send it to Amott, she likely didn't expect Sandburg's found words to blossom into an impromptu theme for this pivotal year in the College's history. These were possibilities too abstract to imagine, yet they happened.
In each of those moments, there was hope. Sandburg eloquently penned the hope he had for the generations of youth that have passed and will pass through the doors of Old Main and the promise of the future found in "the strange and baffling eyes of youth." And Scott, an alumna herself, hoped President Amott would find inspiration in these historic words about a deeply symbolic structure that represents the power and durability of Knox's values.
It began with an accidental discovery, but was this whole chain of events a series of exciting accidents? The pieces all fell together in a way that celebrated Sandburg's words, Knox's 175th year, and the installation of Knox's 19th president, ending with a choral piece that serves as a grand flourish to the festivities-all with the speech, found accidentally, behind each step.
"It's remarkable how it surfaced to guide us," Amott said.
Connecting Past to Future
By Laura Pochodylo '14
Laura Pochodylo's grandfather while at
On May 5, I attended the installation of President Teresa Amott, and, as I was reading the event's program, was taken aback to see the date listed alongside the reprint of Carl Sandburg's speech, "Youth and Pioneers: An Ode"-June 15, 1937. At that moment, I realized that my grandfather, Charles "Honey" Glaub '39, would have been a Knox sophomore like myself when Sandburg originally delivered the speech.
Both 19 years old when we heard Sandburg's words, we looked toward our uncertain futures. His future has since turned to the past and made way for me. He came to Knox in the school's great tradition of educational access and inclusion: a child of the Depression, he grew up in poverty and likely wouldn't have been able to pursue higher education and a better life without the opportunity Knox gave him.
My grandfather likely didn't expect to have a granddaughter sitting on Old Main's lawn hearing Sandburg's words about the potential of youth at the same hopeful age three quarters of a century after he did. And maybe somewhere, deep down, as he listened to Sandburg speak to the power of generations of "youth now living and youth as yet unborn," he hoped the opportunity of a Knox education would make a better life for his descendants.