On a global semester in 1972 with 33 St. Olaf College students, Claire Joan Ericksen’s calm smarts and ingenuity avoided possible chaos and trouble in an Ethiopian town ravaged by smallpox and at the Indian border where the group was denied entry.
A bus driver abruptly halted the Ethiopian trip, forcing an unplanned overnight stay in a disease-riddled village with no place to stay. Ericksen “went with the flow and managed us and helped us sleep on the bus,” said Helene MacCallum, one of the students in the group.
Later, Indian border officials refused visas to some in the group out of concern they were spies, MacCallum said. Ericksen rerouted the entire group to Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, rebooking flights and wrangling visas for extended study there.
Ericksen, 88, who died Oct. 28 of natural causes in Northfield, traveled the world three times over with her husband Jerry, a retired St. Olaf psychology professor and current golf coach at Carleton College.
Jerry Ericksen said his wife, whom he met while she was studying art and English at the University of Minnesota, filled her life so much with people that he figured she’d watched no more than an hour of TV her entire life.
In 1969, Claire Ericksen founded what became the Northfield Day Care Center. She compiled two books from the collected observations of the children there, “A Monster is Bigger than 9” and “I have a Grandma Named Great,” and maintained decadeslong connections with the children and St. Olaf students.
“We feel like we’re losing our matriarch with Claire,” said MacCallum, who went on to lead St. Olaf’s international studies office after college. She said that about half the members from the global semester gathered in June for a final reunion with Ericksen.
During that five months of travel in 1972, she said, the students spoke to their families on the phone only once. She said Ericksen “was there for us if we needed it, but she and Jerry didn’t lead with a heavy hand.”
According to an obituary written by her children — Karl, of Northfield, and Joan, a U.S. District Court judge based in Minneapolis — Ericksen dedicated her “prodigious talent” to her family and the Northfield community.
“Passionate about social justice, Claire believed in people and ideas rather than things,” they wrote. “She cooked without a recipe and sewed without a pattern; she played the piano without music and traveled the world without a map. A clear-eyed romantic, she created a beautiful life of music, art, literature, friends, and gentle laughter.”
Ericksen, an accomplished pianist, played requests as a volunteer at Three Links Care Center in Northfield. She was an artist who favored watercolors, and her work, like everything she did, “sparkled with creativity,” her children wrote.
The Ericksens, who were married for 65 years, also had their quieter nightly traditions at home: a card game they learned in China, a round of Scrabble and a single Trivial Pursuit card before bedtime. Until a month ago, they kept a tradition of going out weekly to split a hot fudge sundae.
Besides her husband and two children, Ericksen is survived by her granddaughter Claire, whom she taught to ride a horse, and her grandson John, whom she taught to shoot a bow and arrow. A celebration of her life will be held from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Imminent Brewing, 519 Division St. S., Northfield.
“She would like people just to have a nice time, to get together and visit,” Jerry Ericksen said.