“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.
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.
Following 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.
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.