Becoming a Yooper
It was about the middle of August when I returned to Hancock, Michigan, and Suomi College. It was a couple of weeks before my first year of teaching at the college would begin, but I needed time to settle in, to learn about the area and to become acquainted with the teaching staff. I needed to prepare lesson plans, become familiar with the various buildings of the school and learn about Hancock and Houghton. In addition, I needed to introduce myself to the local clergy and learn about the stores and restaurants in the area.
Suomi (which I learned was the Finnish word for Finland) was a two-year junior college, affiliated with the Finnish Lutheran Church. (Since my time at the college, they have grown into Finlandia University. I’d like to think that I had a small part in making that happen, but it seems that I am the only one that knows that fact.)
On the other hand, I just couldn’t see myself walking around with a cap that said F(inlandia) U(niversity) . The student body was quite diverse. Some were from the local U.P. area; others came from various parts of the U.S. Another contingent came by way of a U.S. government contract from the Micronesian Islands in the Pacific, and a small number came from overseas.
In the first week at the college I was contacted by a Lutheran Church in Houghton. They offered me an organist position for their Sunday morning services. Their previous organist, a Michigan Tech. graduate, had left the area. It was a paid job. I, of course, accepted.
I drove to the church to meet the pastor and to see the organ. It was about the same vintage as the one at Suomi. So much for planning some future organ recitals. I then drove around the area a bit and took in the scenery.
It was spectacular. The Lake Superior shoreline was truly spectacular.
Abandoned copper mining structures dotted the landscape. There were endless woods and small towns that reminded me that people actually do live there. It was all fascinating and I anxiously looked forward to exploring the area in depth.
The folks at the school were very helpful in getting me settled in, and I was ready to teach. I had also made an arrangement with Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, close to the school ,to use their pipe organ for lessons and practice for my organ students.
The time flew by, and then it was Monday morning; I was about to begin my career as Professor Lamain. I asked for divine guidance and it helped settle my nerves. My students filed into the classroom and began to look me over. I could almost read their minds. Was he a nice guy? Would he be tough? Homework?
I had eight years of high school teaching under my belt. I had worked with small groups; and, in my previous job, I was in charge of a mixed choir of over 130 voices, a Girls Glee Club of a 100 voices and several smaller groups. But somehow, this was different. This was college.
I introduced myself and decided that it would be a nice way to start by learning my students’ names. I looked at the class list and looked at the first three names: 1) Aino Heikkinen; 2) Toivo Kolehmainen and 3) Veikko Hamalainen.
I read the first name on my class list. Silence greeted me and then a bit of giggling. I tried again, more giggling. What was wrong? I was beginning to be a bit uncomfortable! The first student whose name I was trying to pronounce raised her hand and said, “That’s me, I am Aino.” I bravely went on to the next names. More giggling. I said, “Please let me in on the joke so that I can enjoy it with you.” Aino apologized for laughing and then asked me, “Mr. Lamain, you are not from around here, are you? I said no, I came from Grand Rapids, in the Lower Peninsula.”
She then explained that many of the students at Suomi were from the U.P. area and because of their backgrounds had Finnish names, which for a non-Yooper (not from the Upper Peninsula) are really difficult. I knew that it was useless for me to continue, so I apologized to the class and asked Aino to help me by pronouncing each student’s name. It was my first lesson in Finnish.
Fortunately, the class size was small, so my agony did not last too long. We spent the rest of the period just getting acquainted. I introduced my teaching objectives, grading system, and I talked about reading assignments and possible research projects. (Never a favorite subject). I gave them an opportunity to ask questions. Time flew by and when the period came to an end I thanked everyone. I felt that my first attempt at being a professor had gone quite well.
The fall in the U.P. is a spectacular time. The colors are breathtaking. It reminded me of a poem that I had read a few years earlier, where the poet said that “the Creator gives us just a few days each Fall where we can catch glimpses of the eternal heavens.” I took advantage of whatever free time I had to explore the area and to soak up the colors.
The poet was right. My classes were going well, the choir, although small, contained some lovely voices. The few organ students offered a variety of talents and on Sunday morning I played my first Finnish Lutheran service.
It was Monday morning, and I was in my office. There was a knock on the door, and before I even had a chance to answer, the door opened and in walked a big man. I was around 5-foot-11, but my visitor towered over me. He reached out his hand and said “GERRIT! I am Father Gerdau, Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Houghton, and we need an organist; and I am here to offer you the job. I did some checking on you and you are the right person for the position. Let’s talk about your salary.”
After I composed myself I said, “Nice to meet you. Have a chair.”
It gave me an opportunity to evaluate this person who had just barged into my life. To say the least, he was a bit overwhelming. Probably not a man who would take “no” for an answer. I had been in the teaching field for the past eight years and had literally dealt with hundreds of students. I had worked with numerous groups of adults. In addition, my graduate work at Western Michigan University was in psychology which had qualified me to counsel students. I felt that I was quite able to evaluate strangers. However, Father Gerdau did not fall into the usual categories of individuals. He was truly a unique character. Unique, but instantly likeable.
I asked him about the church, the expectations he had for an organist/choir director, and, most importantly, I questioned him about the organ. He answered all my questions; and it certainly was a job for which I was well qualified. I became very interested in the position when he told me about the organ. It was a three-manual Austin pipe organ. It was the only three -manual pipe organ in the U.P. (at that time).
He said, “How about lunch?” The way to a potential organist/choir director and frugal Dutchman’s happiness is, in this case, through his stomach. I had some free time, and dwindling savings, so off we went. We had a lovely lunch, and it seemed that everybody knew Father Gerdau. That was a good sign, I thought.
Next, we went to the church and I was sold. It was a typical Episcopal Church, very English. I sat down at the organ and fell in love. The strings were lush, the flutes, warm, the diapasons, very English, and the reeds nicely filled out the ensemble.
I said, “Yes”, when do I start? In his Gerdau style he said, “How about this coming Sunday?”
I explained that I had an organist job, as he well knew, and I needed to give that church at least a couple weeks’ notice, so that they could look for a replacement, again. He agreed, and two Sundays from that day I became organist/choir director for Trinity Episcopal Church. It was a job I would hold until the day that I moved from the U. P. to Minnesota!
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.