New Rock Island library series inspired by local institution Roald Tweet

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The Rock Island Main Library Community Room, 401 19th St., is home to the annual Frieze Lecture Series, which begin Oct. 19 at 2 p.m.

Roald Tweet died last Nov. 4 at age 87, but his large legacy lives on in countless students and radio listeners he inspired; through his books and “Rock Island Lines” segments (which continue to be aired on WVIK), and the next series of Frieze Lectures.

In the 23-year history of the free lectures, a partnership between the Rock Island Public Library and faculty of Augustana College, no one has presented more frequently than did Tweet, an emeritus professor of English at Augustana. He presented six times, most recently in 2016. Part of celebrating the 150th anniversary of Rock Island, Tweet then spoke on “Rock Island in 1841: A City and Its Times.”

Dr. Roald Tweet speaking at a Frieze Lecture in 2009.

A favorite Tweet pastime, both within and beyond the Augustana faculty, was engendering debate over the greatest American novel. “True to his puckish nature, he could argue eloquently and stridently both for and against Moby Dick, among other classics,” said Kai Swanson, special assistant to the Augie president.

To honor Tweet and his spirit, which he richly shared with Frieze audiences over the years, this year’s series will represent such a collegial discourse, while also introducing audiences to lesser-known works that deserve closer attention, Swanson said. Each participant has chosen a work from the website thegreatestbooks.org (an amalgam of 129 “Best Books” lists), and will make the case that their selected work is the “Best. Book. Ever.”

Roald Tweet and Kai Swanson pictured in 2007.

Lecturers will also include in their presentations a book not on the list, but one that deserves wider awareness. This is also in tribute to Tweet, who was an inveterate recommender of lesser-known books.

The 2021 schedule (each presentation begins at 2 p.m. in the Community Room of the main Rock Island Public Library, 401 19th St.):

October 19: Ulysses by James Joyce, presented by Dr. Joseph McDowell, professor of English.

October 26: The Odyssey by Homer, presented by Dr. Kirsten Day, professor of Classics

November 2: Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon, presented by Brett Biebel, teaching fellow of English

November 9: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, presented by Lucas Street, director of the Reading/Writing Center

“Whether he was in the audience asking thought-provoking questions, or behind the podium, it’s impossible for us to think of the Frieze Lecture Series without remembering Roald,” Amy Sisul, Rock Island Public Library Reference and Adult Services director, said Tuesday of Tweet. “After each of his talks, he was always surrounded by people wanting to continue the discussion. He loved a spirited exchange of opposing views.”  

“This year’s theme reflects his love of thought-provoking books, and of sharing good books with others,” said Lisa Lockheart, the library’s publicity and outreach liaison. “I can think of several times where we discussed some of his favorite authors. It also recalls a favorite question of Professor Tweet, which was what makes a book or an author have lasting value? Back in 2007, Tweet made his case for which books should be part of anyone’s must-read list, and what makes an author last.”

“Professor Tweet was always an audience favorite at the Frieze Lecture Series, packing the house on topics ranging from notable women authors to the relationship between the town of Rock Island and Augustana College,” she added. “Whenever he spoke, we always knew we’d have a great presentation, and an even better discussion afterwards.”

The Frieze Lecture Series was created by the late Ruth Evelyn Katz, a library board member, to celebrate the library’s 125th anniversary. The name comes from the architectural feature around the top of the downtown library building. The authors carved into the sandstone are Homer, Longfellow, Emerson, Virgil, Hugo, Shakespeare, Goethe, Burns, Hawthorne, Tegner, and Bancroft. Though not well known today, the names of Tegner, a Swedish poet, and Bancroft, a naval historian, would have been familiar to 1903 residents.

Tweet — who spent most of his childhood in Mountain Lake, Minn. — graduated from St. Olaf College in that state in 1955 and received his doctorate in American literature from the University of Chicago in 1967. He married Margaret Knudson on June 16, 1957 in Hartland, Minn. Tweet became a member of the Augustana English Department in 1960, and remained there until his retirement in 1999; he chaired the department from 1967 until 1984.

Old Main on the Augustana College campus in Rock Island.

In 1998, he was appointed to the Conrad Bergendoff Chair in the Humanities. He taught with a mischievous sense of humor that he had inherited from his father, according to his obituary, which noted students called him “Doc.”

In 1999, in the second Frieze lecture series, Tweet’s talk was titled “Women Froze Out of the Frieze.” He was one of the featured speakers on women authors who could have been featured as one of the notable authors carved on the library frieze detail,  but who were passed over due to 19th-century bias. 

In addition to his work in the English department, Tweet served on the faculty for Augustana’s graduate program in regional studies. He also served as the faculty advisor for the Observer and the Writer’s Club. He taught travel writing on multiple terms abroad in South America, and he loved hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

Roald wrote and spoke extensively about local history, the Mississippi River, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Quad Cities, including the 1996 book “The Quad Cities: An American Mosaic.” Since October 1995, he had a short radio program called “Rock Island Lines” on WVIK (90.3 FM), Augustana’s National Public Radio station, which the station continues to air. Tweet was also a staff member of Mississippi Valley Writers Conference.

Tweet is perhaps most famous for his three-minute “Rock Island Lines” segments for WVIK 90.3 FM.

For more information on the Rock Island library, visit its website.

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