Posted on December 20, 2013 by Tia Lalani

On December 14, Augustana celebrated the 119th birthday of Chester Ronning in style!

Ronning_Chester“On Saturday we gathered at Augustana in Camrose to remember one of our own,” said David Goa, Director of the Chester Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion and Public Life. “We gathered to celebrate the eminent diplomat, farmer, member of the Alberta Legislature, and Principal of Camrose Lutheran College – now the Augustana campus of the University of Alberta.”

The Saturday event – by no coincidence taking place on what would have been Chester Ronning’s 119th birthday – was officially the book launch for Brian Evans’ The Remarkable Chester Ronning: Proud Son of China, co-published by the Chester Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion and Public Life and the University of Alberta Press. However, the day evolved into a series of opportunities for people to share their memories and the impact of this remarkable man.

Dean Allen Berger, David Goa, Tom Radford and author Brian Evans

Dean Allen Berger, David Goa, Tom Radford and author Brian Evans

The event began with greetings from Augustana Dean Dr. Allen Berger. “We celebrate Chester Ronning as one of this community’s “founders”, a person of extraordinary vision and influence,” he said. “Chester Ronning is also still celebrated today in China, where he is fondly remembered, and arguably along with Norman Bethune is one of the two most famous Canadians.” Allen spoke of the Ronning legacy at Augustana in a thriving music program, in a commitment to international education and in the preparation of young people as engaged citizens and thoughtful, competent leaders. And of course, in the work of the Chester Ronning Centre.

Dean Berger was followed by Tom Radford, creator of China Mission, the National Film Board documentary on Chester Ronning. Tom spoke about Chester Ronning and showed a clip from his documentary. The National Film Board has digitized Tom Radford’s film and it can be found here. “Ronning’s love of China, his spirit of hospitality and engagement, had touched his heart as well as his mind,” said David of Tom’s talk.

One of the highlights of the day was a conversation between David Goa and author Brian Evans at the front of the room while Chester Ronning’s daughter Audrey Ronning Topping joined them via Skype on the huge screen behind them. Audrey is an internationally renowned photojournalist and the author of China Mission: A Personal History from the Last Imperial Dynasty to the People’s Republic, which parallels China’s development with her family’s participation in the country.

Ronning BookFollowing the conversation, Brian Evans spoke about The Remarkable Chester Ronning. “To speak of Chester Ronning in Camrose is like carrying fish to Lofoten,” he began. “The citizens of this city and its surrounding area are well aware of the extraordinary qualities of the tall, slender, loquacious, gentle, man who lived for years in the little white house on the edge of this campus.”

“Ronning’s life is an extraordinary combination of talent and circumstances,” Brian continued. “As a child in China he learned first to speak Chinese, followed by English and Norwegian, linguistic skills that were basic to his later triumphs as a diplomat. Ronning’s childhood and early teens in China strongly influenced the rest of his life. He absorbed a mix of Confucian social values and revolutionary urges for reform, which informed his approach to Alberta politics in later years.”

Brian shared anecdotes from Ronning’s life and how they helped shape the man he became.

“Many of those who gathered remembered him,” said David. “They had many and varied stories to tell about him; all were affirmed by having known him, though each was surprised to hear the range of Ronning’s extraordinary contributions.”

Chester Alvin Ronning (1894–1984) was one of Canada’s distinguished diplomats of the past century, and principal of Camrose Lutheran College, predecessor of Augustana, from 1927 to 1942. Ronning’s rich, active life and hospitable disposition exemplifies the kind of public engagement central to the Centre’s work.

Ronning, the child of Norwegian Lutheran missionary parents, was born and received his early education in China before his family settled in Alberta. He graduated from the University of Alberta in 1916. After teaching in China, he took up his position at Camrose Lutheran College as principal, teacher, and choir conductor. He was also active in provincial politics, winning a 1932 by-election for the Farmers of Alberta and then serving as leader of the new Co-operative Commonwealth Federation from 1940 to 1942.

In his diplomatic career, he worked as the de facto ambassador to China, ambassador to Norway, high commissioner to India, and head of the delegation to the Geneva conference on Korea and Laos. He served as special envoy to Hanoi and Saigon in 1966 in what proved an unsuccessful attempt to negotiate an end to the Vietnam War. During the Cold War he strove to build bridges of understanding between the West and China. He was designated a Companion of the Order of Canada and was inducted into the Alberta Order of Excellence.

DSC_0010 (2)This event was co-sponsored by the Chester Ronning Centre, the University of Alberta Press, and the Augustana Dean’s Office.

The Chester Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion and Public Life exists to cultivate a deep understanding of issues at the inter-section of religion, faith, and public life and to do so in both the public sphere and religious spheres. Hearkening back to Chester Ronning’s own legacy of hospitality, the mission of the Centre is to nurture a hospitable context that brings forward the finest thinking of women and men of faith in conversation with public intellectuals.

The University of Alberta Press publishes in the areas of biography, history, language, literature, natural history, regional interest, travel narratives and reference books. The Press contributes to the intellectual and cultural life of Alberta and Canada by publishing culturally significant works of scholarship and creative thought.

Posted in Alumni, Augustana Campus, Ronning Centre. | Permalink

5 responses to Chester Ronning celebrated in film and print

  • Ellen [Sjerdal] Coates said:
    Jan 1, 2014 at 1:31 PM

    My sister Edna had the good fortune to attend CLC during Mr. Ronning’s teaching. She went on to be Secretary.
    Unfortunately, I arrived at CLC the fall after he left, and always wished I could have sung in the choir under him.
    One experience I will never forget was hearing him sing ‘Den store hvide flok vi se’ [Behold a Host] in the old church in Camrose. I am still awed by the memory.

  • Professor Robert Lynn Ogden said:
    Dec 29, 2013 at 2:03 AM

    What a wonderful tribute to not only Dr Ronning but all the friends and family who were influenced by this bigger than life character and genius. As a child and neighbor, I got to know Dr Ronning when he came home on leave from China, Norway, India etc. The department head of the History department at the U of A was Brian Evans when I arrived in 1965 at the University of Alberta. I look forward to reading both Ms Topping’s book and Brian’s book as I am certain that together I will have a more complete picture of Dr Ronning.

    My memories include: asking if I could come into Sylvia (Ronning) Cassidy’s home to listen to her father play the piano (which he played passionately and beautifully); to watch as he sculpted a bust of Ronnine Cassidy, his granddaughter; or, as he painted while he told us stories of Bengal Tigers in India, of Chairman Mao or Zhou Enlai in China, or some of his exciting projects to take Camrose Lutheran College from downtown Camrose to its new home close to his own home where he and his wife shared their experiences generously even to kids who loved hearing his stories and encouraging us to visit China and see the world and how it worked.

    Well, Dr Ronning, I kept my promise to you — I am home on leave with my Chinese wife for Christmas and Chinese New Year 2014; I have been in China for 14 years now and I live and teach there and love the people and the country as well as my own place in Canada. Your legacy has been one of the most powerful motivators of my own life and interests in China.

    Finally, you are getting credit for what is long over due for all you did for Camrose, Alberta, Canada, America and China !!
    Thank you Brian, thank you Ms Topping — for giving us back the life and times of Dr Ronning.

  • Trina said:
    Dec 24, 2013 at 8:19 AM

    This is wonderful gentlemen, thank you for sharing your stories with us. -trina

  • Rev. Don ALLAN said:
    Dec 23, 2013 at 8:07 PM

    I was a student at CLC in 1964-65 and became aware of who Dr. Ronning was and gained an appreciation for his contribution to the college and the world as far away as China. What an example of a dedicated Christian leader.

  • Sig B. Peterson said:
    Dec 23, 2013 at 5:57 PM

    Many of us who were fortunate enough to have been students during his tenure as Principal cannot forget the stature and personality of an extra ordinary man. In addition to being a student ’41/’43 I was also the College’s night watchman and priviledged to have had close conversations with him when he returned late from the Provincial Legislature, or Commitee meetings in Edmonton. He hugely influenced my life and career for which I remain grateful.