Professor Alice Hanson was a stickler for precision, whose students saw her as brilliant — and terrifying, too.
She relished being a tough music history professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, where she was loud, legendary and now, deeply missed.
Hanson, of Northfield, died suddenly at home on Oct. 11. She was 64.
Dedicated, she enjoyed teaching and demanded her students’ precise analyses, with no fluff, lest she mark up their papers with her red pen.
“She was one of those rare people who can be extremely rigorous and demanding of her students — let’s say her expectations were very high — and at the same time have their respect and affection,” said St. Olaf President David Anderson.
Students such as Cara Ong Wilson were at first unnerved but came to appreciate her.
“Her standards were high and rigid,” writes Wilson, a blogger from St. Paul. “She goaded us toward them, nipping our heels and exclaiming at our ineptitude, but never giving up or letting us settle for less than the summit.”
Hanson was an internationally published expert on Vienna’s music from the 18th to 20th centuries. She had interests in opera, American music and history. Last summer, she toured World War I battlefields in France.
Outside of work, Hanson was private. She loved the State Fair and taking walks, said sister Bonnie Boedecker.
Hanson had degrees from Wells College in New York and the University of Illinois. She attended the University of Vienna on a Fulbright grant, documenting the life and works of Franz Schubert — and the politics and economics of his era — in her book, “Musical Life in Biedermeier Vienna.”
She taught at Rice University in Houston before arriving at St. Olaf in 1982.
Hanson published scholarly articles and lectured from Minnesota to Philadelphia on many topics, including the American Civil War and Schubert, said her music-history colleague of 30 years, Prof. Gerald Hoekstra.
“She was a teacher even outside of the classroom, and that was her real passion — even more than the scholarly area of music history,” he said.
Often exclaiming how busy she was, she’d bustle to her office with loud footsteps and her commanding presence. She was always prepared, prompt and reliable, usually arriving by 7 a.m., even on her days off, Hoekstra said.
She’d be scribbling notes and diagrams of musical compositions on the board when students arrived later. Then she’d crank up Beethoven so loud that Hoekstra would shut not only his door but hers, as she shouted to students above the music.
She’d let them know, and not gently nor quietly, that they had to study hard. An “A” from “Alice,” as students secretly called her, really meant a lot, Wilson said.
On that last Friday morning, Hoekstra arrived and thought it odd that Hanson’s office light wasn’t on. Stranger yet, that by 10 a.m., she wasn’t writing on her board. Students waited in her empty classroom before some went to Hoekstra, asking if he knew where the professor was. Someone from the Music Department went to Hanson’s home, where they found she had died.
While packing her belongings, said sister Dori Schlins, her siblings found what Hanson planned to use in her final year before retiring: pack upon pack of red pens.
Hanson was preceded in death by her father, Carleton Hanson, and sisters Betty Rossing and Carolyn Schildgen. In addition to sisters, she’s survived by her mother, Amy Hanson, and brothers David, Paul and Roy Hanson.
A memorial will be held at 6:30 p.m. Friday at St. Olaf’s Boe Memorial Chapel. Services will be held at 11 a.m. Nov. 8 at St. John’s Lutheran Church, Northfield.
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