This article was featured in the 2019 Donor Edition of the Bridge Magazine.
A light blue house on Quincy St., just past Finlandia University’s Old Main building, bears the name “Servant Leadership House.” The house has been known by other names and had other purposes in the history of the university, but since 2014 it has been a residence for female students who desire to grow as servant leaders. Put simply, servant leaders focus primarily on influencing their communities with positive change by being acutely aware of the needs around them and by responding with generosity and humility in any way they can.
On October 12, 2019 the Servant Leadership House recognized its fifth anniversary by celebrating the servant leaders who built the Servant Leadership House. Substantial financial support came from Judy Juntunen, Edith Niederer, and Philip and René Johnson to get the renovations underway in 2014. Several individuals donated furnishings, kitchenware, window treatments, artwork, or rugs. 56 individuals volunteered more than 1,350 hours repairing windows, knocking down walls, painting, or cleaning.
In recent years several individuals made financial contributions to replace the old windows in the house, and in the summer of 2019 Norma Nominelli spearheaded a campaign to replace all 28 remaining old windows and support the vision for remodeling the attic space of the house.
“I’m so grateful for all the individuals who’ve been a part of the development of the Servant Leadership House,” said Dr. René Johnson, Director of Servant Leadership at Finlandia. “And it’s especially meaningful to me to rename the house the Koskela Servant Leadership House after my great-grandparents, Matt and Alina Koskela.”
Mathies (Matt) Koskela, a Finnish immigrant who came to America in 1891 at the age of 18, came with some carpentry skills, an industrious spirit, and a kind and generous heart. He started working for farmers near Westbrook, Minnesota, where he learned the farming trade and eventually owned three successful farms. He was married to Alina Koskela (neé Nerva) for 20 years when in 1896 she died from complications in her ninth pregnancy. Matt was left to raise the five surviving children. Two of the Koskela grandchildren decided to honor this family legacy of caring generosity with a gift to Finlandia University.
“Grandpa Koskela was a quiet and reserved man,” said Rev. Myron Grams, grandson of Matt and Alina. “He didn’t talk about the death of his wife. In fact, I don’t know that we talked a lot, but I always knew that he cared for me. That caring foundation really shaped the family, you know, and it’s an honor to have the Koskela name attached to a house that promotes caring for others and is connected with a Koskela descendant, René Johnson.”
Matt Koskela’s care for family left a lasting impression on another grandson, Jim Norton, who remembers his grandfather’s generosity in his boyhood.
“I walked about ¾ mile to country school, and when I was probably in seventh grade Grandpa Koskela came to visit us at our farm when winter was setting in. He saw how poorly dressed I was for the cold walk to school and took me straight down to the J.C. Penney where he bought me rubber boots lined with sheep fleece, new jeans, new gloves, a cap and a lined overcoat. Our family wasn’t rich so the next day when I went to school dressed in all these new clothes all the kids asked if my dad had robbed a bank! I remember it like it was yesterday.”
Norton was often compared to his grandfather when he was a boy.
“That’s okay with me,” he said, “that’s why I give a lot of my money away. I learned generosity from him. You know when people ask, ‘Who would you like to talk to again, if you could?’ I’d pick Grandpa Koskela. He was just a good guy willing to give a helping hand to others.”
“I certainly learned hard work and the importance of making a contribution from my parents. I learned that one’s earning power is greater when it benefits more than yourself,” said René Johnson. “My parents were offering financial support and friendship to old bachelors in town, and young people trying to get a start in life. They’ve certainly been generous with me and my sisters, and now with this major gift to the university and a project that is dear to me. I didn’t know that I was being schooled in servant leadership as a kid, but now I see it as part of my family legacy.”
Robert K. Greenleaf, the founder of the modern servant leadership movement said that servant leadership “begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.”
And if you look at the Koskela Servant Leadership House, you can see that it ends with community.
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