Sam Johnson was an early supporter of environmental studies at Northland College. In 1970, he provided a grant through The Johnson Wax Fund to develop an environmental studies curriculum at the College, and two years later, an additional grant and personal gift from Johnson helped to launch the Sigurd Olson Institute of Environmental Studies with funding for its first year. As Bob Matteson observes, the Johnsons “set a shining example of generosity, concern for the environment, and support of private institutions.”
Appropriately, the Institute’s first lecture series was named in Johnson’s honor, and its inaugural lecture was delivered by Sigurd Olson. Titled “Challenge of the New Frontier,” Olson’s lecture coincided with the Institute’s first advisory board meeting and was delivered on the evening of October 20, 1972, in the College’s Alvord Theatre, where lectures and performances continue to be delivered today.
In many respects, the Johnson Lecture Olson delivered in 1972 was both sobering and prescient. Early in his speech, and in the context of lost frontiers, Olson said that “something seems lost, and we are like a people who have no sense of direction or purpose. We flounder and wonder where to turn.” Continuing, he observed, “we find we have polluted air, soil, and water to the point where scientists warn there can be no return if we continue, with the land . . . becoming unfit for life.”
Olson even noted, in 1972, that “great scientists the world over” understood that “if the level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere gets higher we may have a situation where the sun’s rays will be trapped, raising temperatures high enough to melt Artic ice caps, [and] bringing the height of oceans to the point where shorelines may be inundated all over the world.”
Given these significant challenges, Olson told his audience, it was both fitting and timely that the “Institute of Environmental Studies [had] come into being at Northland College,” reminding them that it “is wholeness we are seeking, the feel of the earth and natural rhythms forgotten in our busy lives” and asking them, “Are not the intangible values of a life closer to nature and its rewards what we are actually searching for and missing?”
The day following Olson’s lecture, the Ashland Daily Press reported that Olson had addressed an overflow crowd and that he received a double standing ovation—at the beginning of his talk and again at the end.
Five additional Johnson Lectures followed Olson’s in the Institute’s first year, and the Institute continued to offer Johnson Lectures for at least fifteen years. Well-known speakers in the lecture series included Gaylord Nelson, Tenzing Norkay, Eddie Benton-Banai, Miron “Bud” Heinselman, Roderick Nash, William R. Bechtel, and M. Rupert Cutler. Today, the Institute hosts an annual winter lecture series as well as individual talks throughout the year.