A tribute to Ivar Wistrom 1920-2005

The King is Dead—Long Live the King

by Ralph Sturdy

On Sunday June 12, Mel Soderstrom informed me that one of the giants of my life had fallen! Ivar Wistrom a character who seemed to me as old as North Park University and Seminary itself, finally, in the words of my grandfather, “checked out.” The guys who worked for and with Ivar through the years feel his loss keenly! He and Harriet, who died last year, lived their last years at Northbrook Village. Strange, it seems to me, that this man so attuned to the humming traffic of the city and who lived so many years over the North Park boiler room, this man who knew every inch of the campus better than anyone else should “retire” to a suburb. Strange, I say, because every time I visit the North Park campus, Ivar is there walking the familiar routes known to those who walked with him.

I met Ivar in the fall of 1956. As a freshman. I got a job in the old gym/chapel. Though not my boss, I spent a fair amount of time with Ivar. I played with his children, Susie (Cookie) and Carl, and became acquainted with his wife, Harriet. He’d often ask me to take the College truck to pick up Susie and Carl from school.

My senior year Ivar invited me to join his staff of workers and when I got to Seminary, I finally became Ivar’s “traveling companion.” You see, there was a pecking order among Ivar’s workers. Unlike the ordinary pecking order in which you vie for top position, Ivar choose his own order. It was not based on seniority; it was based on Ivar’s choice. Most of my time at North Park, Bobby Bach was Ivar’s chosen. Bobby was to Ivar what Esau was to Isaac. It didn’t matter that he was a year younger than some of us; it didn’t matter that he only worked part time; it didn’t even matter that he was shorter than some of us. When he walked on campus, Bobby was “the man” and Ivar was his chief advocate. Other football players worked for Ivar. They were honored for their brawn. Phil Johnson said, “You and I dug bushes, trimmed hedges, and mowed lawns. Bob was a traveling man.”

Ivar was a shy man. Though he seemed to be everywhere at once, he was not very visible. He only walked on the concrete paths when he was with someone who would do the talking or at night when the paths were empty. The year the college yearbook was dedicated to Ivar and he was honored before the assembly, he couldn’t wait to be excused to get back to the boiler room. When called to a public building to fix a broken stool, sink, or anything else, he walked in with his shy smile and a faint chortle, “Hi.” Extremely good at what he did, he shied away from compliments. To a “thanks” he’d simply smile and respond with a “Yup. Call if you need anything else.” Then he’d disappear, off to the next job!

Ivar was my hero. I learned a lot about life from him. This man of few words would often wax eloquent as we shared time in the boiler room. We felt at ease with one another. He said to me once, “I think I was the dumbest person to graduate from the Academy.” I asked him if it had taken him five years. “And two summer sessions,” he responded. The academic life was not his best but he could fix anything that broke. Once he told me to arrange things on his tool bench in perfect order. Later that day, he couldn’t find the tool he needed. I showed him the perfect place it was in. He said, “Don’t ever arrange my tool bench again even if I tell you to. I can’t find anything!” When we headed out on a job, Ivar sometimes asked, “What is the meaning of life.” Ivar taught me to: thread a pipe, fix a leaky facet, repair a bathroom stool, and a hundred other things. His roots and expertise were sunk in the everyday. On campus the academic by-word was “excellence.” Ivar’s excellence kept the buildings open and running so excellence of the mind could continue to be taught at North Park.

In 1959 I received my supreme compliment. Harriet was working in the new school bookstore in the basement room on the west side of the new gym. One evening, about dusk, I came walking diagonally across the back campus dressed in my bib overalls, Levi jacket and boots as Harriet emerged from the bookstore. “Ivar,” she called out, “Come here!” As I got closer Harriet realized it wasn’t Ivar. “Ralph Sturdy, stop walking like Ivar!” she said. At that time her comment was as important to me as if I’d been named, “best student.”

Some of us clergy measured our success in numbers. If you used that criteria and had many Ivar Wistroms in your church, you’d be in trouble. Ivar was not much of a “churchman.” You seldom saw him in a suit or in church. It wasn’t his style. “I believe,” he’d say to me. Then he’d trail off, not knowing what to say next.

I know what to say. I say, “Thank you, Ivar Wistrom. Thank you for a life well lived. Thank you for quiet examples of honesty and integrity. Thank you on behalf of all the guys who had the privilege of working with and for you. Thank you for your gentle support and quiet manner of teaching. From you, my friend, I learned as many valuable lessons of life as I did from my college or seminary professors. You taught in the trenches. You were not afraid to get your hands dirty. Your hands were the hands of a laborer for whom and with whom I had the honor to labor.”

So—for Bob Bach, Phil Johnson, Dennis Jones, Bill Pearson, Jim Sundholm, Squeaky Pete Peterson, Phil (Kane County) Carlson, Mike Young, myself, and many more, I say, “Grace and Peace to you Ivar, our friend. God be with you till we meet again.”