UW News

December 4, 2003

From Wobegon to the Emerald City: Three staffers follow yellow brick road

What are the chances that three people who grew up together in a small town in northern Minnesota would all end up working at the same university 40 years later? Whatever the odds, Jay Johnson, Dorothy Van Soest and Keith Ritala have beaten them. All are from Biwabik, Minnesota (pronounced By WAH bik), a town of about 1,800 when they were growing up and now down to 900.

Johnson is a professor in the College of Forest Resources. Van Soest is the dean of the School of Social Work and Ritala is the manager of laboratories and new technology for the Washington Technology Center. Not only are they all from Biwabik, but they all lived on the same street, Van Soest and Ritala just two doors apart. The interconnections among them are many.

Johnson, the oldest of the three, graduated from high school in 1959. Van Soest’s sister Judy was in his class and was the friend of a girl Johnson was dating. Johnson’s youngest brother played in the band with Ritala, who was the paperboy for both the Johnson and Van Soest households. He graduated in 1964, the year before Van Soest’s brother; both were on the track team. Van Soest, who graduated in 1960, was a high school cheerleader. Her father was well known in town because he owned the only grocery store there.

All three described Biwabik as a small mining town where everyone knew everyone. “Besides my father’s grocery store, there was a small bank and a post office and several bars,” Van Soest recalled. “Life revolved around school and church activities. High school sports were a big part of the town’s social life.”

Johnson explained that the town was settled by a succession of immigrants who arrived to work in the area’s iron mines, leaving it with a diversity of nationalities, from Finns and Swedes to Italians and Greeks. But the town’s name is in the Ojibway language. It means red earth.

Although most of the town’s inhabitants did not have college degrees, they aspired to education for their children. Ritala pointed out that well over half of the 46 students in his graduating class went on to at least a bachelor’s degree.

All three of the UW Biwabik natives ultimately left town to go to college and never went back. Van Soest and Ritala said they always knew they would leave. Ritala said he wanted better professional opportunities, but added that he also wanted “somewhere warmer than northern Minnesota and somewhere where there were no mosquitoes.”

As for Johnson, he never thought about it until he became a standout swimmer in high school and landed an athletic scholarship to the University of Minnesota. He’s been in academia almost ever since.

The trio’s roads to the UW are varied. Johnson first came to Seattle for swimming competitions when he was an undergraduate and liked the area. He earned his doctorate here and returned after teaching elsewhere for a while, first to work for Weyerhaueser and then to a UW position. Ritala went to graduate school in Oregon, then worked in California and in Spokane. It was through his service on a WTC advisory committee that he found his job here.

Van Soest is the most recent arrival. She came to the UW largely because she had been an associate dean for several years and was looking for a dean’s position. But she says she has “always been strongly attracted to Seattle and the Pacific Northwest with its water, mountains and temperate climate. I find the culture to be akin to Minnesota culture in many ways, which I didn’t expect.”

How did the three find each other on a campus with a larger population than their hometown? No problem, according to Johnson.

“There is a network of Biwabik people that you can plug into by going back there on the Fourth of July,” he explains. “You mingle with folks in the taverns during a two or three-day celebration and you find out where everybody is through random meetings with people you haven’t seen in years.”

Garrison Keillor would be proud. Three children of Lake Wobegon country, and they all turned out to be “above average.”