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Winter 2009 (March 6, 2009)

Common Room, Uncommon Experience

March 9, 2009

When Carolyn Nelson '63 and Robert Nelson '62 consider all the people who have had an impact on their lives, few can claim the kind of influence former Carleton English professor Owen Jenkins had. He helped them appreciate good writing, encouraged them to read fine literature, and, in a sense, introduced them to one another.

“I was sitting at one table [in the dining hall] and Bob was sitting at another,” Carolyn recalls. “I heard him talking about this great teacher he’d had, Owen Jenkins. I had just had him too, and I thought he was great, so I picked up my plate and moved over to Bob’s table. That was how we met.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise that when the Nelsons decided to lend their support to help create an English common room in the new Arts Union, they were eager to honor their professor. Jenkins will be the namesake for the new space, which will provide room for comfortable chairs, small work areas, and bookshelves. It also will include secured bookshelves that someday will house the Nelsons’ own collection of more than 100 first edition books, including Paradise Lost and The Great Gatsby. The Nelsons previously have supported other literary endeavors at Carleton, including a gift of Eighteenth Century Collections Online, a digital library of nearly 150,000 books published between 1701 and 1800.

Both Carolyn and Bob say they hope the common room will be a catalyst for the kinds of lengthy discussions they used to have with fellow students and professors about books and ideas. “After I graduated, I was invited to some of the Friday-afternoon sherry parties Owen Jenkins held in his office,” Carolyn recalls. “It was so nice to sit with others, talking about literature and other things. I like to think about the common room as an extension of—a successor to—Owen Jenkins’s office.”

The Nelsons have maintained a strong connection with Carleton. Two of their three children, Missy Nelson ’91 and Eric Nelson ’89, attended Carleton and took classes with Jenkins, who retired from Carleton in 1997 and died in 2002. Bob has served as an alumni trustee and now sits on the board as a full trustee. Carolyn returned to Carleton in 2004–05 as a visiting scholar in the English department and received an honorary degree in 2008.

The new space will be a welcome addition to the College and in particular to the English department, which currently has no departmental lounge and often seems to be bursting at the seams. “The English department has 76 junior and senior majors this year, and we’ve never had a suitable space for our social and intellectual gatherings,” says Susan Jaret McKinstry, the Helen F. Lewis Professor of English. “In the Arts Union, for the first time, we will have a space designed for and dedicated to the community of literary study.” The space will allow for readings by authors, small-group discussions, and quiet reflection.

Bob hopes the space will support interaction between students and faculty members that makes an impact well beyond grades, papers, and presentations. “Spaces where students and professors can get together on a casual basis are so important,” he says. “That time and those conversations are the ones you often remember more clearly than formal classroom training.”