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Going to the U.P.

Michigan Technological University Gerrit Lamain played the Wurlitzer Organ for the last time at the Student Development Complex in 2009.

In 1971, I was offered a Professorship in Music, teaching Organ, Theory of Music, Choir, Drama, etc. etc., at Suomi College in Hancock, Michigan. It was a small, two- year, Finnish Lutheran-Junior College in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It sounded exciting, but I immediately realized that I had no idea where it was, and furthermore I had never been in Michigan’s U.P. The college offered to fly me from Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I was living at the time, to Hancock, Michigan on the following Saturday for an interview. I am always ready for a new adventure, and I thought it was well worth spending a Saturday doing a one day, round trip to the U.P. Excitedly I began to look at a map of Michigan’s U.P. I had been up to the Mackinac Bridge once, but the Upper Peninsula was an area I knew nothing about. It looked like it was a long way from what I considered to be “civilization”. Nevertheless, for a Dutchman (frugality is our motto) a free trip is not something to be squandered.

My flight on a North Central D.C. 3 departed early on Saturday morning. The first leg of the trip was to Green bay, Wisconsin. The weather was beautiful and I enjoyed watching Lake Michigan slide under the wing. An occasional ore carrier made ripples in the smooth water. It did look a bit lonely down there. It reminded me of the 11-day Atlantic Ocean crossing, coming to the U.S. when we first traveled to America, in 1947. It was not a very long flight. Lake Michigan is only 90 miles wide, and soon we touched down in Green Bay. There was just enough time to board my next flight. There were not many people going to Hancock that day. I wondered, “why?” So far we had been flying west, now our flight went north. It did not take long before the towns disappeared and all I saw was woods, and lakes, and more woods, and more lakes. Eventually we made our descent and landed at the Houghton County Airport. It was a small airport. How small, you ask? Well the Terminal building was a Quonset hut! The Arrival Hall was a living room size space that served as an arrival/departure/baggage check-in, ticket counter/bus waiting room/etc., etc. One person pretty much handled all of the needed jobs. It was a small airport. Welcome to the U.P.!

I had no idea if anyone was coming to meet me or if I would have to take a bus or taxi to the college. I did not have to wait very long. An elderly, distinguished looking gentleman came over and asked, “Are you Mr. Lamain?”

I said “yes,” and he said I am Ralph, Pastor Ralph Jalkonnen, president of Suomi College”. Wow, I was impressed. The president of the college!

I picked up my travel case that contained my promotional information describing my professional life up to that point, and we walked to his car. (If I remember correctly) it was a Lincoln. “Classy”, I thought. I continued to be impressed. We started down highway U.S. 41, which I later learned, ran all the way from Copper Harbor, the tip of the Upper Peninsula, through Chicago, to Florida. We drove through some wooded areas and then suddenly we were seemingly on a mountain top, overlooking the towns of Hancock and Houghton. Nearby was a high mining building that housed, I learned, the Quincy Mine trolley system that enabled miners, around the turn of the century, to go more than 6,200 feet below the Portage Lake to mine copper. The Portage is part of a natural canal that flows from Lake Superior on the west, to Lake Superior on the east. It cuts the peninsula in half. Hancock is on the North side and Houghton on the south side of the Portage. A drawbridge connects the two. It was truly a breathtaking sight. We parked the car, and it was an opportunity to become acquainted with my chauffeur, my guide for the day, and potentially my future boss! He began by telling me of his Finnish heritage, and he seemed to like the idea that I too was of European heritage, and the son of a pastor. He told me a bit about the area, and it’s copper mining connection. “It was”, he said, “the purest copper in the world”. He told me about Suomi College, and its past fame as a “Finnish Lutheran Seminary.” I continued to be impressed.

He restarted the car and we made our descent into the town of Hancock. The first thing I noticed was that many of the houses looked old and in need of paint. I almost asked my host if Hollywood was shooting a movie about the Depression. I had been to Appalachia once, and this looked very similar. I decided that it would not be a welcomed question. The needle on my “Enthusiasm Scale” began to move in the wrong direction! I asked my host, “Why the double spelling of the street names? Pastor Ralph proudly told me that because this part of the U.P. was mainly inhabited by people who emigrated from Finland and they wanted to maintain some ties to the homeland. I learned that in the Keweenaw Peninsula there were even Lutheran Sunday services in the Finnish language. We pulled into a parking lot, and we had arrived “on campus.” One building looked quite new and modern. I was told it was the gymnasium. The rest of the structures looked like most of the Hancock houses, in need of a paint job. My “Enthusiasm Scale” definitely was beginning to go in the wrong direction.

We went into the “Administration Building” to begin the interview. I was introduced to several staff members and the “interrogation” began. Nice people. Lots of questions! I was truthful and open in my answers. They were very friendly and answered my questions in kind. We had a catered lunch, and then we resumed the interview. I had a late afternoon flight back to Grand Rapids. (There was only one flight in and one flight out of Hancock every day.) The short question session was followed by a guided tour of the campus. I was most anxious to see what organ I would be teaching on. They indicated that private organ instruction was very important in their Music Offerings.

I saw the library, the swimming pool, the gymnasium, various classrooms, etc. etc. I kept asking “When will I see the organ?”

Well, we finally arrived in a dingy room that looked like it may have been converted from a furnace room, and there was the Organ! It was an old, and I mean Old Relic of an instrument. It was a two keyboard, Baldwin 5, with a couple of humongous speaker cabinets. I had hoped for at least a two manual pipe organ.

I almost said, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” But I held my breath and hid my disappointment as well as I could.

Of course they asked me to play a couple of songs, which I did. I improvised on a couple of hymns, but inspiration is hard to come by on a decrepit Baldwin 5 in a converted furnace room! They were much more impressed than I. The ordeal ended, and we went back to the conference room.

They thanked me for coming and said, “We’ll be in touch.”

I said my “goodbyes”, thanked them for their hospitality, and was brought back to the airport.

The flight home was uneventful. I doubted that I would ever hear from them again.

Early Monday morning my phone rang. It was Pastor Ralph telling me that they were very impressed with me and their unanimous vote was in my favor, and could I fly up again, at their cost of course, next Saturday to sign a contract. I said, “Thank You, Yes I Will! Thank you again!

The following Saturday I again flew up to Hancock, signed the contract, and began a new phase of my life.

Later that summer I was in charge of a Driver Education Program for the Reese, Michigan School District near Saginaw, Michigan. Earlier in my career I had picked up a Driver Education Teaching Certificate. It provided me with some much needed additional income during the summer months. I had a long weekend break coming up and decided to drive up to Hancock, and look for an apartment for the coming year.

Reese is right off Interstate 75, so it was an easy shot up 75, cross the Mackinac Bridge, turn left, drive another 250 miles and you are in Hancock. Crossing the big bridge was lovely but a bit scary. You can actually see the water below through the open grate road surface. I was thankful when I reached the other side. Another five hours to my destination. I began to realize that Hancock was somewhere near the end of the earth! As I began driving west I came upon a weird billboard. In huge letters it proclaimed “PASTIES FOR SALE.” In my previous travels I had seen off the highway signs advertising “ADULT BOOK STORE,” but never one that in huge letters advertised “PASTIES FOR SALE.” I really began to wonder about this U.P., my new residence to be!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Gerrit Lamain is a former Copper Country resident who served as a music professor at Suomi College. He was also the organist for the Michigan Tech hockey team before moving on to the Minnesota North Stars.

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