Gustavus Confers Honorary Degree on Bethany Hartung

Posted on May 29th, 2007 by

Bethany Hartung received her honorary degree on Saturday, May 26. (Photo by John Cross - Mankato Free Press)

Bethany Hartung received her honorary degree on Saturday, May 26. (Photo by John Cross - Mankato Free Press)

By Robb Murray
Mankato Free Press

If everything had gone the way it was supposed to go, Bethany Hartung would have awakened this morning ready to graduate with the other 600 Gustavus Adolphus College seniors at 2 p.m.

If everything had gone the way it was supposed to go, she would have completed four years of college instead of two, and she’d be attacking the next great adventure of her life instead of waiting for cancer to end it.

Hartung, who came to Gustavus as a freshman four years ago but found out she had cancer just days before she was to return for her sophomore year, doesn’t care about what was supposed to be.

She battled cancer — acute lymphocytic leukemia — for three years. And now, with all signs showing that the battle for her life is winless, she has abandoned all treatment and tries to make the most of what time she has left.

That’s what brought her to campus Saturday. In a small, emotional ceremony in Gustavus’ Linner Lounge, Gustavus President Jim Peterson and Dean of Students Hank Toutain conferred upon Hartung an honorary degree.

She received it sitting in a wheelchair, dressed in a cap and gown, and with a roomful of tearful friends, family and college officials gathered around her.

“It’s a great school, a great community,” she said. “I feel fortunate I got the opportunity to come here, even if it was for only two years.”

The familial feel to the celebration was a fitting end to a Gustavus experience that began with a life-changing visit to the campus.

Hartung says that, when she was choosing a college, Gustavus was on the list — the bottom of the list. What changed her mind was a visit. Many a Gustie became a Gustie during the campus visit, when a tour of the grounds, academic buildings and residence halls produced in them a feeling that, in the words of many, “felt like the right fit.”

She came here knowing no one, but she made friends quickly. Freshman year went well, and she was looking forward to sophomore year.

Just days before she was to leave her home in Oregon for St. Peter, she became ill and had blood work done. The results showed she had leukemia. A girl excited to return to college was now in a fight for her life against cancer.

She did the typical cancer treatment, and returned to Gustavus the next year. But during the following summer, the cancer returned, and she said farewell to Gustavus for good.

Again she fought it. But nothing seemed to work. Her last option was an experimental medication method that amounted to putting near-toxic amounts of medication in her body. She opted instead to stop all treatment, submit to the consequences and try to live life to the fullest during the time she had left.

She says it wasn’t hard to quit.

“I couldn’t remember what it felt like to not feel sick,” she said.

During the last few weeks she’s tried to squeeze in as much life as possible, attending sporting events, movies and enjoying the company of her family.

She also got the chance this week to meet Ellen DeGeneres, whose show she watched regularly during long chemotherapy stays at the hospital. She used the time to tell DeGeneres about the plight of adolescent cancer victims, whose stories are often forgotten.

And, of course, the honorary degree.

Hartung says it was suggested to her by a Gustavus instructor she worked with at the Swanson Tennis Center. And she was thrilled to be able to return to Gustavus one last time.

She’d kept in contact with many friends, she said, although it was hard at times to hear of all the life they were living in college while she spent her days battling cancer.

Just about all those friends came to Saturday’s ceremony. It was short, but emotional. Both Peterson and Toutain read prepared statements before giving her the degree, then all the students placed a hand on Hartung while Chaplain Brian Johnson recited a prayer.

When it was over, they cheered for her. Eventually the cheering evolved into a spontaneous rendition of the Gustavus rouser.

“Come on you Gusties, Fight on, Fight on,

Shout out the battle cry of victory,

Come on you Gusties, Fight to the end,

Fight on for dear ol’ G.A.C.

Gusties will shine tonight, Gusties will shine!

Gusties will shine tonight, Gusties will shine!

Gusties will shine tonight, Gusties will shine!

Beat ’em, Bust ’em, That’s our custom,

Gusties will shine!”

“Thank you all for coming, so much,” she said before pausing, her face wet with tears. “… That’s all I can say right now.”


Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin


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