Between music, math and memories, a gift for Oles – St. Olaf College


Richard Steen ’69 credits his liberal arts education with providing him with the skills he needed throughout his career. An endowment he created and will support through an estate gift will help Oles creatively explore connections between music and other disciplines through faculty-led research.

It’s kind of the perfect liberal arts story. A music lover turned mathematician major, double major turned technologist. A life and an experience to share. Ask Richard Steen ’69.

Margery Mayer, Richard’s mother, was a widely acclaimed leading contralto with New York City Opera. His father, Sigvart Steen ’31, was a first-generation Ole and also a Luther College graduate who founded Luther’s Nordic Choir. The Steen family moved to New York for Margery to pursue her career; the family frequently visited New York’s vibrant cultural scene. Both taught music at Wagner College in Staten Island where Sigvart also led his choir.

“From early childhood, I was immersed in a rich and beautiful world of my mother’s songs,” Steen explains. “I couldn’t help but absorb a lot of his innate ability by listening to and imitating him and his voice students. In high school, I had also caught my father’s passion for a cappella sacred music.

Yet mathematics was also an integral part of their family. Lynn Steen, Richard’s older brother, studied mathematics at Luther College,

“Mathematics was such a dominant creative endeavor for Lynn that I think he considered it a brotherly favor to constantly tease me with math and verbal puzzles,” Steen says.

Much to their father’s delight, the two brothers landed at St. Olaf College in the fall of 1965. Richard arrived on campus as a freshman. Lynn had just completed her doctorate. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was hired in the math department at St. Olaf’s along with his wife, Mary Steen, who began teaching in the English department.

Like Lynn, Richard first majored in math, adding physics and chemistry for good measure. He also sang as a baritone in the Chapel Choir and then in the St. Olaf Choir. He struggled at first with a heavy load of introductory science and math classes.

Music teacher Kenneth Jennings, the choir director with whom Steen studied singing, noticed his joy in singing and encouraged him to audit a music theory class.

“I quickly found my calling in music and continued to take math classes until I was on my way to a double major in both,” Steen says.

The critical reasoning, research, communication, and personal relationship skills I developed at St. Olaf, and honed with life experience, have been essential for me during each of my career transitions.Richard Steen ’69

Jennings taught Richard about stage presence and building his confidence as a performer while helping him prepare for graduate school. Steen also connected with Associate Professor of Natural Sciences and Paracollege, Paul Fjelstad ’51, who helped Steen study the interconnected relationship between music and mathematics. Steen considered both Jennings and Fjelstad his mentors.

“We delved into all kinds of questions about music, philosophy, science and more,” Steen says. “The engaging debate of ideas coupled with the personal attention I experienced at St. Olaf was fundamental to me.”

This ability to pivot and interconnect learning across disparate fields was for Steen one of the key benefits of his upbringing, allowing him to pursue a distinguished career in both music and technology. After graduating, Richard earned a doctorate in music from Yale University School of Music, conducted collegiate choral and vocal music as a music teacher, and even operated a professional voice studio in New York City. He has been a professional soloist in oratorios, operas, vocal recitals and music festivals.

Then, mid-career, Steen turned to technology. After earning a master’s degree in computer science, he led computer services at Harvard University and the City University of New York, Queens. These experiences led to 20 years as a healthcare information technologist as an associate partner at Ernst & Young and IBM. Now retired, Steen enjoys applying technology to music from the home he shares with his wife, Robin, near Lincoln Center in New York City.

I hope the integration opportunities supported by this new fund will help students develop the critical thinking skills and curiosity needed to explore music from multiple angles.Richard Steen ’69

To honor his mentors and the ten Steen family relatives who preceded him as St. Olaf graduates and musicians, Steen recently included a gift in his estate to establish the Richard S. Steen Endowment Fund for Music. as an interdisciplinary art. Thanks to charitable distributions from his individual retirement account, he was able to fund part of the gift now. Its income will support research by students supervised by professors who creatively explore the connections between music and other arts and sciences.

“The critical reasoning, research, communication, and personal relationship skills I developed at St. Olaf, and honed with life experience, have been essential for me during each of my career transitions” , says Steen.

His donation also honors Lynn and Mary’s work to advance research opportunities for students during each of their 44-year terms at St. Olaf.

“Both are committed to helping Oles conduct independent research, providing flexible pathways in their liberal arts experiences,” Steen said. “I hope the integration opportunities supported by this new fund will help students develop the critical thinking skills and curiosity needed to explore music from multiple angles.”

Following his passion wherever it may lead, being open and flexible, and making experiences possible for Oles is a great gift.

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