Betty White had every reason to call it a night 30 years ago when she checked into the Governor's Suite at the Archer House hotel in Northfield, Minn.
The TV star then was 70 and winding up her seventh and final season on "The Golden Girls," a comedy in which she played lovably naive widow Rose Nylund from the fictional rural town of St. Olaf, Minn.
White's May 1992 trip from Hollywood to the real St. Olaf College in Northfield started with a Los Angeles airport takeoff amid smoke lingering from the riots ignited when four cops were cleared in the beating of Rodney King. White's hectic agenda for her two-day Minnesota visit included a lecture on her career with theater students, the St. Olaf Choir spring concert, a stop at a women's softball game, chapel service and the Northfield Historical Society's exhibit about another big-name celebrity who had once visited Northfield — Jesse James and his bank-robbing gang in 1876.
"Look at his eyes," she said, glancing at a photo of James. "Is it any wonder [Henry] Fonda played him?"
No one would have been surprised, then, if an exhausted White had simply said good night after arriving and speaking on campus. But at 10 p.m., Archer House proprietor Dallas Haas called his wife, Sandra, asking her to bring their dog Stanley to the hotel. White, a well-known dog lover and animal rights activist, wanted to meet their 13-year-old Shih Tzu.
"She had such boundless energy and we sat on the floor of the hotel lobby for an hour, laughing, playing with Stanley and forming a delightful kinship," said Sandra Haas, 78, who now lives in Faribault.
Haas had been big fan of White's since the Emmy Award winner's stint in the 1970s as Minneapolis TV homemaker Sue Ann Nivens on the "Mary Tyler Moore Show." White's role as a Golden Girl only deepened Haas' admiration; in fact, Haas' late mother, June Lee, was about the same age as White and often wore the same outfits as White's TV persona.
Haas, who ran a gift shop near the Archer House, filled White's suite with stuffed animals before her arrival. But she braced for disappointment.
"I was nervous to meet someone as famous as Betty White, whose life was so full of rich people in Hollywood," Haas recently recalled after White died Dec. 31 at 99, just two weeks shy of what would have been her 100th birthday on Monday.
"But she was everything I'd hoped for — and more," Haas said. "She had no pretense, and was so down-to-earth, sincere and humble. It was one of those moments when someone comes into your life and you have a special time."
White's bond with St. Olaf started in the mid-1980s, when a Hollywood producer called Dan Jorgensen out of the blue at his office at the college, where he worked in public relations.
The TV guy wanted to give the college a heads up: They were going to feature White as a character from made-up St. Olaf, Minn. Jorgensen checked with the college president, who agreed it couldn't hurt. White herself wasn't so sure.
"I was a little apprehensive as I was afraid they would resent the fact that Rose wasn't the brightest bulb in the chandelier," White wrote in a 2008 letter to Susan Hvistendahl, a Northfield history writer who chronicled White's visit in the Entertainment Guide (tinyurl.com/BettyWhitevisit). Hvistendahl wrote White for a photo to run with her story and was delighted when the actor quickly responded with an autographed picture and a sweet handwritten letter.
Jorgensen stayed in touch with "The Golden Girls" staff, arranging an 1989 meeting when the college choir visited Los Angeles and attended a show taping. Before the cameras rolled, White and co-star Rue McClanahan, who played Southern belle Blanche, greeted their Minnesota visitors with a rendition of "Um Yah Yah!" — St. Olaf's fight song.
That L.A. meeting led to White's 1992 visit to the St. Olaf campus and her stay at the Archer House, an 1877 landmark that was destroyed in a 2020 fire and is being razed this week.
Jorgensen picked up White and her assistant at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where "everyone was oohing and aahing," he said.
On the drive through Dakota County from the airport to Northfield, Jorgensen said White grew concerned about a dog wandering on a rural stretch of Cedar Avenue. She asked him to pull over so she could shoo the dog off the road, exclaiming how much better she felt after saving the pooch.
"I looked in my rear-view mirror and the dog had quickly returned to the middle of the road," recalled Jorgensen, now retired in Colorado. "I never said a word."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.