Roald Tweet, beloved Augustana College English professor, Quad-City cultural icon and longtime radio personality whose love and use of the English language inspired generations of Quad-City residents and students, died Wednesday at the age of 87.
Former Rock Island Mayor Mark Schwiebert attended Augustana College for his undergraduate degree and recalled having Tweet as his professor in a class on Mark Twain.
“It was a delightful class,” Schwiebert said. “Roald had an impish sense of humor, and in this class it was not only interesting studying the lighter side of Twain but the darker side of Samuel Clemens, and it was very illuminating because Roald caused you to look at things you thought were familiar in a new way.
Schwiebert remembered visiting Augustana English Professor Dorothy Parkander once and she had a clavichord, a stringed keyboard instrument popular from the 15th through the 19th centuries. That instrument was built by Tweet.
And the time Schwiebert was out at Holden Village, a church retreat center in Washington state. Tweet was on staff at the retreat that summer teaching literature, “and he would intrigue the children with his handcrafts, kites and airplanes that he would fly.”
Tweet enjoyed whittling and wood-carving and has built model airplanes, grandfather clocks, as well as the clavichord for Parkander.
“He had a wide range of interests,” Schiwebert said of Tweet. “His Rock Island Lines (begun in 1995 on WVIK radio station) captured the magic and history of the Quad-City area.
“He had a real love of literature and what words could do,” Schwiebert added. “We in the States used language as a tool. The English use it as a musical instrument. Whether it was poetry or yarns or Rock Island Lines or tales of Twain, Roald could put words together in such a way as to fire the imagination and inspire people to something better.
“He’s one of those people you think is always going to be there,” Schwiebert said. “It’s going to be hard to think of going forward without him, but he leaves a wonderful legacy behind. His is a real cultural loss to the area.”
In a memoriam issued Wednesday by Kai Swanson, special assistant to the president of Augustana College, Tweet was born Sept. 1, 1933, and grew up in Mountain Lake, Minnesota. He lived most of his life along the Mississippi River, “a richly alluvial thread that meanders through much of his creative work.”
Several of his writing projects were undertaken on behalf of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Beginning in 1995, he produced a radio capsule called Rock Island Lines on WVIK, Augustana's National Public Radio station. In 2006 Tweet was presented the Studs Terkel Humanities Service award from the Illinois Humanities Council.
Since retirement, Tweet and his wife, Margaret, have maintained their family home of 60 years, a house just off campus built in 1889 and long associated with Professor Ernest W. Olson, who translated the beloved Swedish hymn Tryggare kan ingen vara into Children of the Heavenly Father.
“I think his broadest swath of influence would be teaching a class that was called freshman rhetoric,” Swanson said. “It was a requirement. Now it’s called college writing or creative expression, but in the old days it was freshman rhetoric.
“His assignments were legendary,” Swanson said. “He’d assign a 10-page paper in which only three multi-syllabic words could be used and everything else had to be one syllable.”
In another assignment Swanson had to do for Tweet, the paper had to be at least six pages “and you could write about anything you wanted but you could only use the letter E a finite number of times, maybe 10 times. I don’t’ remember the exact number. I wrote mine about how to tell when a thunderstorm was coming.
“The point is he came up with these exercises that made you think carefully and intentionally about the words you were going to use, and if you’re thinking about them you’re going to be broadening the field. He made you really think about the craft of writing.
“It was almost like putting a quill in your hands,” Swanson said. “You had to think before you put pen to paper.”
Aside from his time at the University of Chicago, Tweet was never far from the Mississippi River, Swanson said.
“He made his home in one of the most illustrious river towns in American history, and I think he saw some poetry in that,” Swanson said.
Tweet’s name is tied to some of the most epic pranks ever pulled in the history of Augustana College, Swanson added.
“And I’m going to really miss that," he said. "The Swedes and Norwegians have gnomes. That's what he was for Augustana. He brought that magical mischief to his career at Augustana, and there are just so many little instances of that that cause you to smile and tear up at the same time.”
Tweet stayed active after his retirement in 1999. Recently he had been working with longtime friend and colleague Don Wooten on their program “Scribble,” where the men would talk about writing and poetry and the craft of writing. The program airs at noon Saturdays on WVIK.
Wooten described being with Tweet the past five years on the program as “a treat.”
“Everyone who had a class with Roald remember him with affection,” Wooten said. “You’re never going to run out of stories about Roald.”
Wooten said he had wanted to do Rock Island Lines, but when Roald was chosen, “I knew Roald was the right guy and it became a hit right away.”
Tweet was a constant presence, Wooten said.
“He would come in in the mornings and head to the APRIS room. (Augustana Public Radio Information Service that provides free readings of local and regional newspapers for the visually and physically impaired.) He’d go over there and have a cup of coffee and sit and talk to the people.
“Roald was a good source of information,” Wooten said. “He encouraged everyone to be an author. He encouraged everyone to write. People would go to him to have him critique their writings. He was a font of great wisdom and information.”
On Feb. 25, 2017, Tweet sported a tuxedo for the first time in his life to attend the Junior Board of Rock Island's 78th Mardi Gras Charity Ball where his grandson, Jackson, served as a page. “Everybody was anxious to get a picture of that,” Wooten said.
Tweet graduated from St. Olaf College in 1955, and earned his doctorate in American Literature from the University of Chicago in 1967. He became a member of the Augustana College faculty in 1960. He married Margaret Knudson in 1957, whom he met in college.