Skip to main content

'A real cultural loss': Augustana Professor Roald Tweet inspired students in and out of the classroom


If students wanted to skate through Freshman Rhetoric — a requirement at Augustana College — they better hope they weren’t in Roald Tweet’s class.

The longtime professor was known for giving out “legendary” assignments, former Rock Island Mayor Mark Schwiebert told the Quad-City Times.

An essay in which only three multi-syllabic words were used. A paper in which the letter “E” only appeared a select number of times. A poem about a single word.

They were the sort of exercises that made one consider the craft of writing, the kind that inspired a lifelong love of language.

“It was almost like putting a quill in your hands,” Mark said. “You had to think before you put pen to paper.”

A Quad Cities historian, a radio personality, an English professor, an award-winning writer and an Eastern Iowa icon, Roald died of COVID-19 at the age of 87.

Born in 1933 in Wisconsin, Roald earned degrees from St. Olaf College and the University of Chicago before becoming a member of Augustana’s English department in 1960. Making a home in the Quad Cities with his beloved wife Margaret, Roald spent the rest of his days — even after his retirement in 1999 — never far from the banks of the Mississippi River.

The Big Muddy ran through most of Roald’s life and work, becoming the heart of his radio show, “Rock Island Lines,” on which he delivered vignettes about local history.

More: 'I couldn't be pulled away': Young nurses hold phones and hands on an Iowa COVID-19 floor

“He was a historian-expert on the region,” his son Jonathan said. “What Rock Island was like; what Bettendorf was like…He wrote a book about the history of the Quad Cities, a really interesting history of the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi.”

Later, Roald also hosted "Scribble," a radio show with former Illinois state Sen. Don Wooten that featured interviews with local writers and conversations about literature and poetry.

A mainstay at WVIK, Augustana's National Public Radio affiliate, Roald would spend mornings at the station and pal around with anyone who’d stop for a quick chat.

More: COVID-19 vaccine demand surges again as Iowa opens eligibility to all 16 and over

“He’d go over there and have a cup of coffee and sit and talk to the people,” Don said.

Off the airways, Roald embodied the word “teacher,” former students said in the wake of his death.  

When Ann Boaden came to Augustana's campus in the late 1960s, so many of the professors seemed stuck in the stodgy 50s, she wrote in an essay after Roald’s death. Male professors wore suits, and female professors donned dresses and hose.

Not Roald.

“He’d hove lightly into a classroom, dressed in gray wash pants, open-necked shirt and a blue sweater that served him for at least three decades, and hop onto the table in front of the room,” Ann wrote. “Give a preliminary dry cough, flip open his book to the day’s assigned reading and begin with: ‘So, Boaden, what’d you think of this poem?’”

“The discussions didn’t end when the class period did,” she continued. “They carried over into the old College Union. There, ensconced at a round table beside floor-to-ceiling windows, nursing his blue plastic Union coffee cup, he’d sit reading the latest book that had captured him.”

More: 'Just keep fighting': How COVID-19 tore through one Iowa family

Randy, Roald’s other son, remembered his dad "always had this weird group of students hanging around."

"People that sort of hung around him also were interesting," Randy said, adding that sometimes students would live with them in the summer. "He was a guru."

Roald had a distinct mischievous streak, inherited from his own father, family said.

More: Tracking COVID-19 cases in schools across Iowa, from kindergarten to high school

Once, Roald had a weight-loss challenge with a student. He secretly wore a lead belt for most of the weigh-ins, but didn't for the final judgment. He appeared to lose a lot of weight even, as legend has it, he lost very little and made little effort to even try.

Since retiring, Roald and Margaret maintained their family home of 60 years, a house just off campus built in 1889.

But as much as he enjoyed his beloved Quad Cities, he liked getting on a plane and traveling, too. He taught travel writing in South America and loved hiking the Inca Trail. A small ship tour of Antarctica later in life was a favorite memory as well, the family wrote in Roald’s obituary.

In whatever extra time Roald had, he liked woodcarving, whittling model airplanes, rocking horses, grandfather clocks and at least one clavichord, a stringed instrument popular from the 15th through the 19th centuries.

More: 'We're not giving up': An Iowa hospital staff finds the best way to battle COVID-19 lies within themselves

And he often took care of the family’s pets, a menagerie that grew to include a racoon, a South American racoon, a spotted and a striped skunk, a fox pup and a coyote pup, flying squirrels, a tortoise, cats and dogs, various birds, a salamander and an iguana. 

“There was never anything practical about him, or his house,” his student Kai Swanson wrote in a remembrance. “It was the most magical house. You never knew what to expect when you stopped by.”

Roald ingrained himself in the Quad Cities so deeply that separating him from the riverbanks seems impossible, Mark said.

“It’s going to be hard to think of going forward without him, but he leaves a wonderful legacy behind,” Mark said. “His is a real cultural loss to the area.”

This story is part of the Iowa Mourns series, a collection of remembrances about Iowans who lost their lives to COVID-19. If you've lost a loved one to COVID-19 in Iowa, let us know by filling out this form or emailing Iowa Columnist Courtney Crowder at ccrowder@dmreg.com.

Iowans lost to COVID-19

The following deaths from COVID-19 were added in the past week to our list of more than 600 Iowans who have died from the disease, found at DesMoinesRegister.com/IowaMourns.

Brenda Brewer, 60, Chariton. Remembered for her uniquely painted fingernails and delicious desserts.

John Galles, 83, Kingsley. Voice of the Kingsley Panthers baseball and softball teams. 

Donna Harman, 94, Waterloo. Established veterinary scholarships at Iowa State University. 

Roy Allen Hassman, 77, Parkersburg. Enjoyed drinking coffee at Willie’s Feed Store, Sinclair Elevator and in Darwin’s shed.

Claudie McLain, 83, Marshalltown. Could be seen walking every day, often on his way to his daily visit to the YMCA. 

Garold McMeins Jr., 67, Urbandale. Volunteered with the Midwest Old Settlers and Threshers Association.

Craig Morris, 55, Shenandoah. Defeated Hodgkin's Lymphoma twice in 2013 and 2015.

Tim Perez, 52, Cedar Rapids. Received a kidney transplant in 2020. 

Vicki Perez, 66, Cedar Rapids. Enjoyed going to casinos and spending time with "the girls."

Sandra Sue Phillips, 84, Cedar Rapids. Spent her childhood traveling across the United States and Canada with her father, an entertainer and acrobat.

Michael Sharer, 78, Marshalltown. A tender caretaker of Angus calves and cows who always enjoyed attending the Iowa Winter Beef Expo.

Luciano Soloman, 57, Des Moines. Graduated from Colegio Mixto Cotzumalguapa in Saint Lucia, where he earned a degree in accounting.

Ila Mae Storm, 98, Pisgah. Well-known for her yodeling skills.