Dr. Curtis B. Solberg, PhD. November 9, 1939 – December 18, 2013
by Lana Rose
I’ve always thought the world should stop and something cosmic and monumental should take place to mark a Good Person’s passing. Curtis Solberg was – above all else – one of those Good Persons. It is hard to put such a large man into such a small space, but I will try.
Born in North Dakota and living in Vallejo, CA, Curt grew up with two brothers who with their devoted father – cared for their mother through 27 years of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Extended family members gathered to help care for his mother, so Curt was surrounded by caretakers but that upbringing made him sensitive and empathetic to those who were elderly or afflicted. Curtis cared deeply about the unfortunate, and his liberal politics ran rampant when he felt the commonweal was being neglected. He was passionate about the deterioration of the American dream, for he was a product of that dream.
Descended from immigrant grandparents, Curtis cherished his Norwegian heritage, including being accomplished in the language. His connections to the homeland ran deep. We spent our honeymoon there in 1991 and I was quickly folded into the clan. Many Norse relatives and dear friends mourn his passing, as do thousands of students who passed through his classrooms at Santa Barbara City College. He began his tenure at the college in 1965 and, after 44 years of teaching more than 350 students each semester, retired in 2008. He continued to teach one night class each semester for five more years, almost making it to his goal of 50 years of teaching. In 1990 – 91 he was chosen by students and faculty for the prestigious Faculty Lecturer of the Year, delivering a dazzling presentation of “The Divided Heart”: what it meant to be an American based on immigrant letters from American back to Norway.
His inimitable style will never be matched: he was exquisitely dressed, a traditional guy in all respects, so he chose socks which wildly coordinated with his shirt; the pants had to have cuffs, the jacket pocket a handkerchief. His ensemble was punctuated by his signature bow tie and a fedora, and off he would speed in his red 1965 mustang convertible – top down all year long – which he had owned since 1966. He loved the whistles and thumbs-up he attracted when driving the vintage car and would proudly call out: “I’ve had it 48 years, man.”
Teaching was the soul of Curtis Solberg. The classroom was his stage and he made history come alive. He was well known for his ability to engage students and command their attention in the classroom through his unique delivery style and without the use of the technology used today. Unsatisfied with the typical dates-and-battles approach of most conventional textbooks, he wrote several editions of his own text, which emphasized the social context of events with a more holistic view. His standards of excellence were legendary. He emphasized writing in his curriculum – no multiple choice – making sure students did the reading by requiring ten 3-page papers over the semester, in addition to two mid-terms and a final. When students left his tutelage, they were ready for university-level work. A devoted mentor to students and faculty alike, many of his students entered the fields of history and education under his encouragement. We would meet his former students everywhere – car washes, restaurants, airports, grocery stores and gas stations.
They would all say the EXACT same thing: “You were the best teacher I ever had.” And he remembered them as well – where they sat, their high school, their dreams and shortcomings. He remembered their handwriting.
In 2007, Curtis was diagnosed with prostate cancer. By 2012 the cancer had metastasized to his bones. He endured many treatment protocols and refused to see his life with cancer as a “battle”. He shared his journey through the illness by sending out periodic “Tom-Toms” to scores of his friends. His last Tom-Tom demonstrated his characteristic acceptance of his disease:
“Since my diagnosis 6 years ago, I’ve learned about the uniqueness of my cancer, how individual it is …not quite like anybody else’s. While in Norway a book entitled DODEN, SKAL VI DANSE? by Per Fugelli was recommended. This Norsk doctor my age encountered cancer and has written his Death, Shall We Dance” not yet in English translation, becoming a favorite in Scandinavian TV as he explores his own experience with the disease. Fugelli rejects the classic war rhetoric of cancer sufferers characteristic of newspaper obituaries: “he has lost his battle with cancer” or “her struggle with the dreaded cancer is over”, and instead has adopted another paradigm, suggesting that “the demon” will actually be one’s partner for life’s duration. After all, many of us will live with cancer 2 – 5 – 8 perhaps 20 more years, so it’s wise to befriend their nemesis; instead of cancer The Great Satan, “can cancer be a rose, albeit with thorns?” In an imaginary conversation with his “partner”, he says:
“Listen my live-in partner, perhaps we can have some useful years together, if we don’t become too rash and engage in fear and war, but instead take it easy, and respect each other’s existence.
Cancer: “But I like to kill.
Fugelli: “But do you like to die?
Cancer: “No one has asked me that before. I’ll think about it.
Fugelli: “Exactly. If you kill me, you die also.
Cancer: “Are you trying to entrap me?
Fugelli: “No, but it t is I who have the power. I can live without you, but you cannot live without me. So you should conduct yourself wisely.”
Curt conducted himself wisely …and bravely. He modeled an extremely ethical and warm attitude. He was a gentleman and a diplomat, kind and brilliant and humble; he connected with others and reached into their minds to learn what made others tick. He cherished his Norwegian-barn-red house, loved his two cats and took pride in the accomplishments of his daughters Kaaren and Christina, his grandchildren Trevor, Matthew, Isabel and Julian. And he was utterly devoted to me. To close, I quote Brian Andreas: “I carry you with me into the world, into the smell of the rain and the words that dance between people and for me it will always be this way: walking in the light remembering being alive together.”
Peace at last, my cherished mate.