The Bro family at Northland College spans more than a century. The Bros have a rich history of adventure, lifelong friendships, love, connections, philanthropy, service, and finding one’s true calling. It is a story worthy of a book.
Their Northland connection begins with Albin Carl Bro, the son of Swedish immigrants in Prentice, Wisconsin, whose high school pal was Kenneth Olson—Sigurd Olson’s brother. Kenneth set off to Northland College in 1912 and sent a letter to Albin, telling him he should do the same.
Albin relayed the story of his arrival to Northland College at the 1945 inauguration of President Manley E. MacDonald:
A very good friend, Kenneth Olson, had pulled me away from a year’s work in a grocery store, and his story of Northland was so persuasive that another boy in the same store decided to go with me. We arrived [by train] with little money and some new clothes on the front steps of Wheeler. President Fenenga was there to greet us, and then in the next breath, he blurted out, “Boys, it’s going to rain in a few minutes. Put down your suitcases and get out there in the field and help us get the hay in.”
The rain came, and we worked hard. My new raincoat got caught on the hay rack and was ripped clear up the back. That night the boy who had come with me took his trunk back to the station and returned to Prentice. He had had enough of college education. I swallowed my feelings and stayed. How often one such small event can change the course of a lifetime.
Kenneth, Albin, and Margueritte Harmon, sister of Harriet Harmon Dexter, were great friends. They sang in the choir, played sports, and were active with the Mission Study, a student organization that in 1916 focused on China. After graduation, Kenneth Olson went on to become an award-winning journalist (starting his career at the Ashland Daily Press); and Albin and Margueritte married.
In 1919, the newlyweds boarded a ship to China, where they worked as missionaries. Three of their four children were born there: Harmon, who later attended and taught at Northland College; Kenneth, named for their good friend Kenneth Olson; and Alice. In 1925, when the war lord who had encouraged their work was overthrown during a nationalist uprising, they escaped from the country.
Albin taught English at Northland College for a year. The family moved to Chicago, where Albin continued graduate school and worked for the University of Chicago Press before becoming president of Frances Shimer College. Margueritte was a writer (and published author) with a strong interest in social justice issues. In fact, Kenneth shared a story in an archived interview of sitting in a car at age six while his mother interviewed the famous social reformer Jane Addams.
Kenneth enjoyed a successful career in business, joined the board of trustees in 1957, and became the longest sitting member with forty-six years of service, including nine as emeritus.
Two of Kenneth’s sons—Peter and Kenneth (Kim) Bro—continued the connection.
Peter attended Northland College in 1970-71 and later sponsored Jamling Tenzing Norgay ’89, son of famous sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay, to study at Northland College.
“This was very much in the spirit of our grandparents’ work in China and Margueritte’s interests in social justice and in the world,” said Kim Bro, who lives near Washburn, Wisconsin.
Kim did not attend college at Northland but he received a call in 1973 from his Aunt Harriet Harmon Dexter, who worked at the College for more than forty years. She told him about an internship at the new Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute.
Kim said the experience shaped the rest of his life. “Each day at Northland, I sought advice from Sigurd Olson and Aunt Harriet,” Kim Bro said. “I think the research and experiences of Granny [Margueritte] and my Uncle Harmon helped shape my thinking.”
Kim returned to Northland College in 1996 as the director of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute. He continues to be a voice for conservation in the region, serving on the board of the Bayfield Regional Conservancy and as an enduring advocate for Northland College.
In celebration of the family’s three generations of involvement with the College, in April 2003, Kenneth and his wife, Patricia, gifted $1 million to establish the Bro Professorship of Sustainable Regional Development, a professorship that continues today.
“As my grandfather [Albin] said in 1945, seemingly small events at Northland changed the course of lifetimes: a letter from a student, a study group on China, and a call from a professor,” Kim concluded. “In just one family, this college effected positive changes in the Lake Superior region and around the world for three generations.”