Roald Tweet figured Augustana College in Rock Island was just another stop on his career path when he joined the English Department in 1960.
He decided he liked the Quad-Cities. He wanted to explore what he thought was a rich mosaic of history, geography and cultures. Soon he was writing articles and books on the region.
Along the way, he found adventure in his own backyard, like the time he and a friend stalked alleys in Rock Island neighborhoods to capture seeds from rare single hollyhocks. He encouraged others to find excitement in the ordinary, often by urging them to take walks.
He helped people discover their world by sharing his unusual hobbies that include flying home-made, rubber band-powered model airplanes.
After 39 years, he plans to retire this year as professor of English and Conrad Bergendoff Chair in the Humanities, Augustana's oldest and most prestigious endowed faculty position.
Don't expect him to disappear from the campus or the community, though. "I'll be teaching part-time. I just won't have to attend committee meetings," he says.
The community will remain his classroom. He has a reputation for making our heritage come alive, not only through his own writings and lectures but by leading student-written research projects. His students have raised public awareness about a neglected pioneer cemetery in Rock Island, written about a little known Quad-City visit by evangelist Billy Sunday and are publishing the works of local writers through their own publishing house on campus, East Hall Press.
Tweet's latest project is writing and producing his popular "Rock Island Lines" essays broadcast on WVIK-FM public radio. He has released a compact disc of 25 of the 2 1/2-minute spots on subjects ranging from Ma's Studio Diner in Davenport and the Quad-City Times ` Bill Wundram to Iowa's first capital. The discs are selling briskly at the Runestone Bookstore at Augustana's College Center.
In three years, Tweet has written and recorded 765 "Rock Island Lines" essays, and he will hit 800 by the end of the year . He says he isn't sure whether he will continue the series, which is broadcast at 11 a.m. and 5:28 p.m. Monday through Friday on WVIK, 90.3 on the FM dial.
Of his many talents, colleagues say, Tweet first and foremost is a gifted teacher. They describe him as brilliant, an agent for change and a prankster who once fooled a student into thinking she was beating him in a weight-loss contest by hiding heavy objects under his clothing.
Thomas Tredway, Augustana's president, said Tweet has a knack for drawing the best out of his students by questioning and challenging them. "He is a model of what a really great teacher ought to be," Tredway said.
Kai Swanson, Augustana's director of public relations and a former student of Tweet, recalls how Tweet once made members of his freshman rhetoric class use words of only one syllable in a writing exercise.
"He realizes what a palette language is, and he makes you use all your brushes," Swanson said.
Don Wooten, general manager of WVIK-FM, said Tweet's quick mind and his ability to assimilate his vast readings on the community made him the logical choice to do the station's "Rock Island Lines" series.
"He is a great student, and he is an original thinker," he said.
Tweet leaves an indelible imprint on students. Peter Lardner, chairman of Bituminous Insurance Companies, Rock Island, had Tweet as an instructor when he was working toward his master's degree in regional studies in the early 1980s, when the college offered the program.
"He is absolutely an invigorating teacher. He has connections with the upper Mississippi Valley literature, history and a delightfully developed sense as to why the history is the way it is,"
Tweet, 65, was born to Norwegian Lutheran parents in the Mississippi River town of Fountain City, Wis. He was named after Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer who discovered the South Pole in 1911. His surname is an anglicized version of the Norwegian name, Tvedt.
His parents, both high school teachers, encouraged reading and learning after the family moved when he was 3 to Mountain Lake, Minn., a small Mennonite community in the southwestern part of the state. He developed his life-long love of woodcarving and making model airplanes as a child. "We had no television. Every kid made models or whittled," he said.
He enrolled at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn., planning to become an aeronautical engineer. He changed his plans after an instructor gave him a C plus on a paper. Out to prove that he was worth more than a C plus, he majored in English, graduating with honors and distinction in 1955.
"I over-compensated," he said.
While in graduate school at the University of Chicago, he was encouraged to join the Augustana faculty by one of his instructors, whose first student to earn a doctorate was teaching at the Rock Island college at the time. The student was Henriette C.K. Naeseth, whom Tweet eventually succeeded as chairman of the English Department in 1968.
Once on campus, he became fascinated with the area's rich heritage. He got his start as a local historian in 1975 when he published a 200th anniversary of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, an assignment in which he got to spend two weeks aboard a Corps towboat.
He finds history in his own neighborhood, Rock Island's Keystone district, where he and his wife, Margaret, live in a century-old Victorian home a block away from campus. Margaret founded the Keystone-Floreciente Neighborhood Fair as a way to strengthening the neighborhood.
They are the parents of sons Randall, of Chicago, a retired Navy helicopter pilot, and Jonathan, a games designer for Wizard of Coasts in Seattle. Their daughter, Gretchen O'Brien, of Rock Island, is an accomplished woodworker and crafter. They have five grandchildren.
Tweet says he is never bored and for good reason. His model airplane exploits include flying a replica of the "rotopter," a helicopter-like model powered by rubber bands which Augustana's
first geology professor, Dr. J. A. Udden, first demonstrated in 1908. Tweet also is an accomplished wood carver and once built a clavichord, a 17th-century forerunner of the piano.
A birth defect, which necessitated that he be in a cast for three months to allow the pelvic bone form a socket for his left hip, has not hampered his rigorous lifestyle. His adventures have included hiking 44 miles and navigating two 13,000-foot passes along Peru's Inca Trail, which he has visited during three teaching trips to South America.
Despite occasional urges to go West, Tweet has kept his roots planted at Augustana, where he enjoys teaching a variety of courses to a variety of students. At a large university, he says, he would be pigeonholed into a specialty. He has another reason to stay in the Quad-Cities.
"Much of our history is untapped. Maybe it's because we in the Midwest think every place else is more exotic."