My Gustavus: John Biewen ’83

Posted on July 21st, 2017 by

John Biewen at the Duke Center for Documentary Studies in Durham, NC. Photo by John Noltner.


(My Gustavus profiles showcase an alum telling their Gustavus story.)


“I feel I’ve been doing something akin to philosophy all these years, that there’s direct continuity from my liberal arts education to my life’s work.”


My brother, Paul ’80, played basketball for Whitey Skoog, and I was a basketball player, too. I visited and spent a night in the dorms with Paul and his friends and that did it. I just got a sense this would be a good place for me. I was fresh-faced and quite an unformed person, not unusual for an 18-year-old.

I came in to be a doctor. Until organic chemistry and physiology. I decided I belonged in the humanities. I had that experience of one special professor: Deane Curtin in philosophy. I had five courses with him, a “Curtin major.” He, along with a couple of English profs (especially Claude Brew), played a huge role in helping me see that I cared about the life of the mind.

I’m more of an introvert and not a joiner, so my social life tended toward pizza with a friend or two. Never saw The Barn until graduation week. School and basketball took most of my time. I remember naps in the library, in those big soft chairs. Occasionally I would go into the Chapel and play Billy Joel or Bruce Springsteen on the organ.

I was still unformed to some extent when I left Gustavus, but I had gone a long way toward focusing who I was. Doc Curtin said, “Why don’t you go to work for MPR?” I said, “What’s MPR?” I did an internship at the Duluth station the summer of 1983. I rode my bike up and down the hills to cover the city council and school board, cutting audio tape with a razor blade, falling in love with telling stories on the radio. I made my first one-hour radio documentary when I was 23. I worked for Minnesota Public Radio for 20 years, including eight at American RadioWorks and a stint with NPR. Today I’m the audio program director at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, where I teach and produce a podcast. I’m also the documentarian behind “Little War on the Prairie,” an hour-long episode about the U.S. Dakota War in Minnesota that can be heard on This American Life.

Gustavus is the place where I figured out that I would spend my life asking questions, trying to understand who we are as human beings and as a society, and communicating about it. It was at Gustavus that I became that person. It’s hitting me emotionally when I say that. It’s a big deal. Yeah. It’s a big deal.



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